Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Movable Props

May 4th, 2010 · 5 Comments

Contrary to our expectations, the Haim Saban profile in this week’s New Yorker is a killer read. We had no idea that the man’s empire began with a spectacular insight about cartoon music royalties, or that kiddie-show billionaires have such awesome pull with world leaders. And there is at least one classic reporting detail, in which the author describes Saban crediting his palatial Beverly Hills pad’s existence to “five retards in spandex.”

That uncouth remark refers, of course, to Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the cheesy show that Saban developed in the early 1990s, and which eventually helped land him in the billionaires club. The profile sort of glosses over the show’s birth and early success, choosing instead to focus on the behind-the-scenes maneuvers that led to Saban’s brief alliance with Rupert Murdoch. That’s understandable, but a shame, because there’s a forgotten Power Rangers anecdote that reveals a lot about Saban’s ruthlessness. It’s behind a paywall, so we’ll just quote the essence:

There’s always a happy ending to each episode of the top-rated kids show “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.” But several cast members who hired a manager to boost their low wages are in danger of becoming orphaned morphins.

While the Fox show has morphed into the most popular and profitable kids show on TV and become a merchandising juggernaut worth an estimated $ 1 billion, the six stars are upset they’re not sharing in the riches. Each is pulling down an estimated $60,000 or so a year — not a lot for actors involved in a runaway hit series that can’t produce enough toys to keep shelves stocked. (Cast members make no money from the massive merchandising blitz.)

Three of the kids hired a manager, Ingrid Wang, who pressed for more bucks. Now the show’s producer, Haim Saban, has set up a large-scale casting call for new rangers.

Some felt the message was clear that the cast would be replaced if they didn’t play ball.

The six rangers — Austin St. John, Walter Jones, Thuy Trang, Amy Jo Johnson, David Yost and Jason Frank — all are around 20 years old and were unknowns when cast for the series. They also won’t make a huge payday if they appear in a feature Fox will distribute theatrically in early 1995.

Elie Dekel, vice president of marketing, acknowledged that casting calls would be taking place shortly in New York, Los Angeles, Orlando and Dallas to scout fresh talent. He also noted that the storyline requires that each kid lose morphing power upon graduation from high school.

As you might expect, Saban did end up replacing Power Rangers who refused to play ball, to no ill effect. The real genius of the show was that the heroes did their do-gooding behind masks, so it was easy to swap in cheaper unknowns when a star got too big for his or her britches. And the built-in expiration date that Dekel mentions ensured that Saban would always be negotiating with teenagers desperate for their Hollywood breaks, rather than seasoned acting veterans who were in positions to make demands.

On the plus side, the ousted Power Rangers will always be able to make a pretty penny at Power Morphicon.


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5 Comments so far ↓

  • Gramsci

    I had a hard time making it through the whole article. How can you ignore the sound of Chagall rolling over in his grave?

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Gramsci: Understandable. That Chagall quote pegged Saban as pretty jerky right off the bat, and nothing that followed convinced me otherwise. But I have a keen interest in self-made billionaires, so the piece worked for me overall.

    From a technical standpoint, I also admire the tightrope act the writer did with the legal aspects. One of her main sources was obv. someone with an axe to grind–Saban’s former tax attorney, now in serious legal trouble himself. But she presented his info in a very elegant way, and one that was damning toward Saban without being sensational.

  • minderbender

    I guess I’m a little cold-hearted, but I don’t see why the actors should have gotten paid more. The nature of the show was that they were replaceable, so they didn’t really bring anything unique to the table. This is why unskilled labor is poorly compensated across the board. No one is arguing that the crew of the show should have gotten more than the standard wages, and if the actors were equally replaceable, then why should they get a windfall? There are television shows that do depend on talented acting, and those shows often pay their stars impressive salaries. If you create a show that is frugal in terms of drawing on society’s acting talent, then why should you have to pay more than the market will bear?

    Or to put it another way, if the plight of the Power Rangers actors bothers you, it seems like more of an indictment of the entire US labor market than of Haim Saban.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @minderbender: Don’t disagree with your argument at all. I just thought the hardball nature of Saban’s negotiating dovetailed perfectly with the NYer profile’s take. He was making untold millions off the show, and could have easily shelled out an extra $10k per actor to make them happier. But no–his first move was to issue a nationwide casting call.

    I actually think this was considered a somewhat risky move at the time, since the conventional wisdom was that you couldn’t swap in new actors without suffering some backlash. But Saban obv. disproved that–8-year-old boys just didn’t care.

  • Gramsci

    Yeah, the Krane narrative was interesting– she must have gleaned a great deal from him. Saban is an interesting subject– he is clearly not just a T2000 money-maker like Carlos Slim. He has some Fat Tony “You are right, I will go” sentimentalism to him. The best image was that beleaguered Rolls Royce salesman being brought to his knees. And I’m shocked that David Plouffe and the Obama team basically gave the guy the Heisman.