Contractually Obligated to Suck

Actors, musicians, and companies sometimes make creative decisions for the worst possible reason: Because they legally have to. The result is usually awful.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: The TV network ABC Family is a family network in the loosest of senses. For years, it's mostly focused on one particular element of that family—the older teens and young adults that make up the massive wave of millennials that appeal so much to advertisers. In fact, the term "Family" barely made sense—which is why the network decided recently to change its name to Freeform, a change that takes effect early next year. What took them so long? You can specifically blame televangelist Pat Robertson, who (in a brilliant bit of foresight) required whomever owned the network to keep the word "Family" in the channel name, as well as ensure Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network always had a place on that channel, no matter what. That got us to wondering: What other contracts are out there that led to the creation of terrible content? Let's talk about it. — Ernie @ Tedium

"Fox Family was doomed from the start because it's very hard to be [programmed for] kids all day and have The 700 Club in the middle of your daytime lineup, and then in prime time at 11 p.m."

— A former executive for Fox Family, the direct predecessor to ABC Family, discussing the issues the network had programming around Pat Robertson's genius contract, which required The 700 Club to air during two prime hours of the day. Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network had initially sold to 20th Century Fox in 1997 after rebuffing a deal from Disney, who Robertson was boycotting at the time. Disney eventually agreed to buy the network for $5.3 billion in 2001, despite the fact that the contract continued to require both the use of the name "Family" in the name and the airings of The 700 Club—a requirement that first became controversial among the broader public in 2005, when Robertson called for the assassination of Hugo Chavez on his show.

Keanu Reeves

That time Keanu Reeves was tricked into making a terrible movie

As we've covered in the past on Tedium, Keanu Reeves knows a thing or two about not-so-great career decisions in the name of broader creativity. His band Dogstar was pretty much nothing but that.

But occasionally, Reeves has been stuck making not-so-great career decisions basically because he had no other choice. And the reason for this can also be tracked back to Dogstar. See, during his time playing with the band, he made friends with a guy named Joe Charbanic, a budding director who was creating a tour documentary.

Charbanic saw his opportunity to create a feature film with one of the world's biggest movie stars at a time when his stock was rising. And it seemed like Reeves was open to hooking up his buddy, working at scale on The Watcher despite the fact the flick had a $30 million budget.

But when The Watcher came out in September 2000, he didn't do any promotion for the film at all, which received very negative reviews when it first came out—with the primary criticism being the poor casting of Reeves as a serial killer. Reeves received a Razzie Award nomination for the role, which wasn't really a surprise at the time because he already had received a number of those.

What was a surprise was the bit of news he had to share with the press about a year after the film was released: He had apparently been conned into taking the role. He wasn't doing a favor for a pal, but attempting to avoid a lawsuit.

“I never found the script interesting, but a friend of mine forged my signature on the agreement,” Reeves said at the time. “I could not prove he did and I didn’t want to get sued for not honoring my contract so I had no other choice but to do the film.”

The timing of the quote was key—see, he could only tell the press he had been screwed into making a bad film a year after the movie's release due to the contract he "signed." Unfortunately for him, the date of the film's release was September 8, 2000. Which meant that Reeves' comments were made around September 11, 2001—ensuring that they would get buried in the press, only to show up as fascinating bits of trivia in articles like this one. (Don't believe me? This Guardian piece was published online almost exactly three hours before the attacks took place.)

Now, whether it was Charbanic or another friend who screwed over Reeves is unclear, but one thing that is clear is that you can only use the "my buddy forged my signature on a contract" excuse once in your career.

Five Other Examples of Terrible Art Created Because of Contracts

  1. At the height of her fame in 1992, Whoopi Goldberg verbally agreed to make a buddy comedy featuring an anthropomorphic dinosaur. A couple years later, she was suddenly held up to her end of the bargain to make Theodore Rex. Goldberg, who apparently realized this was a terrible idea for a film in the meantime, wasn't able to get out of the contract, but they did raise her salary, helping the film become the first big-budget direct to video film in history.
  2. Stuck with the remnants of a terrible contract—but with a much better deal already worked out—Van Morrison went into the studio for a single day in 1967 and recorded 31 gibberish songs in an effort to get out of his Bang Records contract as soon as possible. The New York Sessions '67, as they came to be called, may perhaps be the greatest example of passive-aggressive behavior ever put to wax.
  3. Thanks to a botched deal to create a CD-ROM drive for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, the electronics firm Philips was given a consolation prize from Nintendo in the form of a license for the company's two most popular properties—Mario and The Legend of Zelda—for the obscure Philips CD-i console. Nintendo played little to no part in making these games, and it shows, particularly in the case of the three Zelda games produced, though Hotel Mario is no spring chicken.
  4. Back in the mid-'90s, the only notable art Prince was making largely had everything to do with his Warner Bros. contract. The Artist was writing the word SLAVE on his face and changing his name into an unpronounceable symbol. During this period, he created not one, but two albums that were clearly designed to get him out of his contract. They worked, but Prince signed with Warner Bros. again nearly two decades later after the label gave him what he wanted—his masters.
  5. And American Idol, which is a show designed to create a whole mess of art due to contractual obligations, basically forced Kelly Clarkson to do From Justin to Kelly, which is widely considered one of the worst films of the 21st century. "I knew when I read the script it was going to be real, real bad, but when I won, I signed that piece of paper, and I could not get out of it," she said in 2006. We're sure Justin Guarini was totally on board the whole time, though.

Now it's gotta be said: Not every piece of contractually obligated art is necessarily a bad idea. Sometimes, it can turn out to be the best thing for everyone involved.

A key example of this comes from one of the greatest rock bands of the past 30 years: R.E.M. While Prince was going insane trying to get out of his contractual obligations with Warner Bros., Michael Stipe and company were casually doing the same thing. While on the road promoting their album Monster, they started recording their next record, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, in an effort to get out of their contract a little quicker. That album, which features the underrated single "E-Bow the Letter," is considered one of their best.

It did well enough that Warner Bros. signed the band to a new $80 million contract. Granted, the band's success began to falter by that point, but they kept with it. Mike Mills probably bought a bunch of Nudie suits thanks to all the extra money.

When the band finally broke up in 2011, they made it clear that they had been thinking about the decision for a while—only to have contractual obligation force them to stick together.

"We'd say things like, 'We have X number of records in the contract. By the time we finish, we'll be X number of years old. Do we still want to be out there flogging it?'" Mills revealed of the band's mindset in during the later years of that $80 million contract.

The funny part about all that is that, if the band had said nothing, folks wouldn't have been able to tell. The 2008 album Accelerate, which came out as the band was considering the breakup, was widely considered a late-career recovery. It was no Automatic for the People, but it helped the band stay relevant into its third decade.

When it comes to contractual obligations, sometimes you get New Adventures in Hi-Fi, and other times you get Van Morrison making shit up into a microphone.

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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