The Playgoer: Playwrights in TV land

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Monday, September 18, 2006

Playwrights in TV land

"'Playwrights have always written for film and TV,' says [Diana] Son. 'Bertolt Brecht and others would function at movie studios as staff writers, when movie studios had staff writers. It was steady, salaried work. And these days, only TV writing is steady, salaried work.'
"For a long time, the odds have been against making a living solely as a playwright. 'There's a touching naiveté on the part of the theatergoers about the possibility of making a living as a playwright, as though you write for TV as the icing on the cake,' Son says. 'People think it's the difference between making, say, $60,000 and $80,000 a year, when really it's the difference between making, say, $8,000 a year and $400,000 a year.' "

Just one of the thought provoking insights quoted in Jan Breslauer's interesting LA Times piece on playwrights in Hollywood. Not in the movies, but on the writing staffs of our better television shows.

It's no accident that TV drama is in something of a renassance. (Isaac, for instance, is not alone in considering "The Wire" some of the best American contemporary drama in any medium.) I would argue that the smart recruitment of good playwrights has had a lot to do with this. Theatre-nurtured writers have been the genesis behind "Six Feet Under" and "Weeds," and dominate the staffs of "Sopranos," "CSI," and, of course, "Law and Order." (All the "Law and Orders.")

A case is made by some in the piece that some of this phenomenon is thanks to Aaron Sorkin, whose cult hit "Sports Night" and, then, bona fide hit, "West Wing," convinced TV execs that-- gee--writing mattered.

(Of course, Sorkin gets a lot less gratitude from those West Wing writers he allegedly mooched credit from, and, in one case, an Emmy.)

At a time when the fate of "the new American play" is in question on New York stages, it's Hollywood, ironically, that has come to the rescue--for some of the lucky ones, that is.

Aside from the financial subsistence, another benefit, according to Son, is a relatively writer-centric power structure.

"...the head writer is the boss, which is incomparable to the screenwriter, unless the screenwriter is also the director," says Son. "The head writer/showrunner has their hand in casting, scheduling, salaries, everything. The head writer is also executive producer. It's an extremely powerful position."

Of course, there are still plenty of notes from the suits, plenty of compromise and forced collaboration, as Breslauer's article makes clear. But playwrights are benefitting from an ascendancy of The Writer over the producer--resulting in the new figure of the Writer-Producer.

Here's some testimony from Warren Leight. The Warren Leight, remember, who once won a Tony for "Side Man":

Playwrights are not salaried, do not receive benefits and do not have a strong union, as do screenwriters. And even if a playwright does land one of the few and far between most coveted opportunities for production and has a hit, their pay isn't what you'd expect."If you get Manhattan Theatre Club or the Roundabout, they take 40% off all your future income, plus 10% for the agent, and sometimes the director gets a percentage too," says Leight, referring to two prominent nonprofits operating on Broadway.

"One or two episodes of 'Law & Order' is about what I made off 'Side Man,' " he continues, referring to his Tony Award-winning drama, which was widely produced, including at the Pasadena Playhouse.So for the generation of writers now in their late 30s, 40s and 50s, there were pioneers who brought in other playwrights. "To me it's like the dark ages for playwriting, and it's a little bit like getting playwrights to safe ground," says Leight. "I view this as a monastery during the Dark Ages."

The Dark Ages, eh. Let's hope there's light at the end of it.


Malachy Walsh said...

And I just moved to LA, too.

Well, I don't know if I'll have Warren or Diana's career in TV, but I'm sure going to try.

Thanks for the article.

Though I'm sure we'll get to the end of this dark age in theatre, too.

Alison Croggon said...

40 per cent off your future income? What does that mean? That they get 40 per cent of everything the play subsequently makes? Absolutely appalling!

Anonymous said...

Warren Leight is lying.

Joshua James said...

He's not lying, anon - he's talking about subsidary rights - once a play gets produced Off- or on Broadway and reaches a certain number of performances (I forget, but it's a low number, like 20 or so) then the producer gets 40 percent of any income that play generates for the next ten years.

This is on top of the gross percentage the producer gets during the original run of the show.

And anon, why would Warren lie, what would that serve?

Sign your name, you're going make an accusation like that.

Anonymous said...

"If you get Manhattan Theatre Club or the Roundabout, they take 40% off all your future income, plus 10% for the agent, and sometimes the director gets a percentage too," says Leight, referring to two prominent nonprofits operating on Broadway.

This is not true, Joshua James. I don't know where you get your information. Perhaps Playgoer can clear this up by asking the Roundabout or Manhattan Theatre Club for their standard contract.

Warren Leight would lie to justify writing for TV instead of the theatre.

Malachy Walsh said...

How much do you think an uber-successful playwright like Leight makes from theatre productions? Even in his award winning year?

How many playwrights in this country make more than $25,000 a year from theatre alone?

Love is wonderful, but it's hard to eat.

Still, very interested to know the answer to this contract disupte.

Anonymous said...

40% of all future income" is the operative phrase. I don't believe that is true. Can this be checked? I have never heard of that high a percentage.

Also, what directors take a percentage from the playwright? I have never heard of this. For what Leight is saying to be true, it would mean that somehow directors had successfully negotiated to take a percentage of money that the play generates in future productions and manifestations that previously belonged to the playwright. I know he says "sometimes" but that implies that it is something that happens occasionally, consistently.

I have simply never heard of this. The most I have heard is that some directors copywright their staging and get a percentage of productions which use their staging.

Sometimes playrights choose to give a percentage of their take to dramaturgs or directors who gave a strong dramaturgical hand. But it sounds mightly unlikely to me that Agent 1 who reps the director ever called Agent 2 who reps the playwright and said, "My client will not direct this play unless he takes a percentage of your client's income!"

Joshua James said...

Umm, well, call the dramatist's guild if you want to check, but last time I did, the subsidary rights for a successful Bway run of a play is 40% - maybe it's changed in the last few years, but that's certainly what it was when SIDE MAN ran -

As a producer, if you get a play running long enough on Bway, you get 40% of the subsidary rights, which translates into a piece of every royalty for the next ten years, not to mention the book rights, film rights, etc. Forty percent for ten years of anything the play generates. That's subsidary rights, but Warren called them income, same thing.

It's negotiable, of course, but not very flexible unless you're already famous. Playwrights have no union, as noted in the post, and therefore have to work the cards we're dealt with.

It's not even professional productions - nyc fringe requires that the creators give up 2% of the subsidary rights of their show in order to be a part of the festival - so the fringe is still getting money from URINETOWN.

Anon, just telling me that I'm wrong ain't enough, show me - give me the link to show me I'm wrong. And have some guts and sign your name, for crying out loud.

And I don't think Warren needs to lie about subsidary rights to promote television over theatre - that's ridiculous, please.

Maybe it's changed, but that's what subsidary rights were when I was toiling in a producer's office years ago.

Garrett, you familiar with it?

Joshua James said...

Anon (or anyone)

I should emphasize, what Warren is speaking about is subsidiary rights - so when you call the Dramatists Guild to check, that's what you're asking about -

Anonymous said...

This is what the Dramatists Guild website says:

"SUBSIDIARY RIGHTS. In the first instance, you own not only your script, but also the rights to all exploitations of your script. If you agree to grant your Producer a monetary share of subsidiary rights (motion pictures, television, stock, amateur, etc.) from future exploitation of your script, you should grant it only after the aforementioned Producer has presented your script for an agreed upon number of performances. Any grant of subsidiary rights should only be for a limited period of time, and should generally be limited to income received by you from a well-defined geographic area (e.g. the United States and Canada)."

40 percent may be the agreed upon number. However, Warren Leight did not use the phrase subsidiary rights. He was also not talking about Broadway. If indeed those two non-profits take a non-negotiable 40 percent for a decade, then he's halfway correct (not quite "all future income").

No need to be hyperbolic to prove one's point. I guess Warren Leight feels the need to be wealthy, since even half of ten percent of, say, $300,000 a week on Broadway for a play that runs three months would put you in the upper 2% of income earners in the wealthiest country in the world. Not to mention all the screenwriting gigs and other income one gets because of one's success that is entirely one's own.

No one is arguing that playwrights have it easy. There's no need to exaggerate to make the point.

Playgoer said...

I would like to propose a truce in this debate until one of us can get some hard information. I myself am clueless. I will try to contact Dramatists Guild this week. But feel free, anyone else, too.

Obviously this is an important question so we should resolve it clearly, since it might be of great interest to folks. It's one of the valuable things about this article just to raise such crucial professional info that people are generally unaware of.

Anonymous said...

I should add that I was just guessing as to a weekly gross for Side Man. Doing quick research, I see Side Man made less per week but ran longer (6/25/1998 - 9/13/1998) and (10/20/1998 - 10/31/1999). (It appears it usually grossed between 75k and 150k per week.)

Over a year. I'd be curious if anyone could learn the yearly gross and then determine what Leight took home, factoring in 10% agent, 40% subsidiary, and taxes. I am still guessing that he'd be in the upper upper income bracket in the wealthiest nation on earth.

The larger point is that in America, it seems certain artists feel not only should they be lauded, but they should be rich. This is not a universal assumption and says something interesting about America.

Warren Leight used the word "dark ages." So I don't think it's inappropriate to ask these questions.


Joshua James said...

Okay, truce it is, anon, but it sounds like (and don't take this the wrong way, please) that you're simply angry at Warren for the money he's making in television.

40% was the standard for subsidary at that time, add to that, ten percent for agent (and again, not just on the run but on anything the play makes) if he had a manager, another ten to fifteen percent - if he had a lawyer, another five percent. And also, a third of the gross goes to Uncle Sam.

You can negotiate your percentage, but you can also do that with an agent. Will they go for it and take less than 10 percent? Unlikely, why should they?

You're right, Warren should have specified subsidiary rights when he said income, but he's not technically incorrect, that's what it is. Income.

Not to say that having a successful run on broadway isn't going to put money in your pocket, it sure it, you bet. - but it's not the same as television, not by a long shot. In fact, big money is made once the film and television rights are sold and the producer gets a piece of those, too.

In theatre it's a small pie, and it gets cut in many pieces.

If I recall, Diana Son was still working her day job when STOP KISS opened (which was Off-Bway, but still the Public is as good as it can get) and at work the next day when the reviews came out.

Compare that to what you would make writing one episode of television, as a freelance, even minus the agent and manager and lawyer fee, it's doesn't compare. Not even close.

Bottom line. Playwright's need a union (dramatists guild is not a union) and we need it badly.

Anonymous said...

Well argued, JJ.

My objection was more too the hyperbolic language Warren Leight was using. Dark ages etc.

Diana Son says she was establishing herself as a TV and screenwriter. But 8 years is a long time, and a lot of money, between plays. She was writing for West Wing relatively soon after Stop Kiss. For a lot of people, $400,000 goes a long way.

Everyone has the right to make money and be rich etc etc. My only point is, the writers in this article talk a lot about money, and I think this is very culturally specific. Most artists I know in other countries are willing to accept smaller income, alternative methods of making income (teaching, side careers, etc). But it seems in America the need to turn one's artistic success into financial success is very pressing.

Side Man ran a year on Broadway and got regional productions all over the United States. Stop Kiss was similarly produced all across the country. Golden Age? Maybe not. Dark ages? Sorry, I have to change THAT channel too.

Joshua James said...

My objection was more too the hyperbolic language Warren Leight was using. Dark ages etc.

Hyperbolic language? From a playwright? Goodness gracious, what's the world coming to!

Certainly it's easy to think less of someone because they're making money, but really this is about the fairness of exploitation - television exploits the writer's work, too - Warren's argument is that he gets compensated far better than those who exploit his work in theatre - credit mainly going to the union in place looking out for television writers.

Malachy Walsh said...

As Joshua says, the real point here is that playwrights are unlikely to have a good living from theatre. (To parapharase the saying, You can't make a living, but you can make a killing.)

I'd say the exceptions point out the rule: 99% of all playwrights are unlikely to make any living in theatre, particularly if they are not part of the handful that is favored by the major not for profit theatres or win a Tony or win a Pulitzer.

Combine that with some of the other discussions that have been happening elsewhere about where the audience is, and, "dark ages" doesn't seem so hyperbolic.

Of course, it's been dark a long time and maybe it's just a nostalgic dream that there ever was an easier time for making work.

One thing's fer sure. If yer a writer in theatre, fat times it ain't.

The other point of the article was, this has all been good for TV and TV audiences.

Anonymous said...

Wanna know how much you get for a first novel, unless you're super duper lucky?

Wanna know how much contemporary composers get?


Thousands and thousands and thousands of fiction writers, composers, painters, poets, etc, create work throughout their lives and find a way to live decently by either teaching or having another job.

They do not abandon their art form because their art forms cannot inherently provide them with enough money to live.

They do not whine, complain, cry, and lament this fact.

They do good work. Consistently.

Not everyone needs to make $400,000 a year by pleasing corporate advertisers and attracting lucrative 18-34 demographic. Let the pro-TV people now allow their voices to blaze through cyberspace, claiming how brilliant TV is and how bad the theatre is etc etc.

I'm tired of this. Artists care about art more than wealth. Sometimes you can't have both. The world is burning. Make your choice about how much you need but don't go denigrating what you left behind for not providing you with it.

What a bunch of crybabies.

Maybe if Warren Leight (who has likely made hundred upon hundreds of thousands of dollars in television) had set up a "Warren Leight Fund For Young Playwrights" I'd sing a different tune. Till then I'm sticking to this one.

Anonymous said...

This quote of Leight's also seems flatly ridiculous: ""One or two episodes of 'Law & Order' is about what I made off 'Side Man."

Malachy Walsh said...

I've heard plenty of complaining from poets, composers and writers working in other forms. Some have day jobs, some have family money, some just complain.

I don't think it's a bad thing. Laying down and just taking it would be.

Your purism is admirable, however.

Joshua James said...


Jonathan Larson didn't get his first big check until after he died.

During workshop of RENT (one of the many workshops) he complained to Jim Nicola that it didn't seem fair that the actors, musicians, SM's and everyone was getting paid except for him - Nicola said, hey, that's how these things work. You get paid after everyone else, or something to that effect.

This story was in the big RENT book.

So composers ain't that different.

And so what if Leight made a lot of money off of television, so has Tom Fontana, an excellent writer (and self-described failed playwright) - it doesn't make them less as a person. Is Diana Son a terrible person because she's had success as a writer and made some money off of it? She's managed to make the best of her craft.

If theatre paid as well as TV, we'd see a lot more writers devoting their lives to theatre, bet on it. Because the work is worth it, many people love it. It's just not equitable, how writers are treated. That's what I've heard from countless people how nice it is to have a union so they don't get screwed over. Plenty playwrights have been.

Sure, it's true money can't buy happiness, but it helps when the rent is due. All I'm concerned about, beyond doing good work, is paying the bills. What the playwrights in the article are saying, and what I am saying, is that theatre isn't allowing its writers to do that, within reason.

If anything, it shines a light upon theatre industry, a billion dollar industry who isn't treating it's writers well.

Lastly, again - post your name, it's silly to keep being anonymous and I don't like debating with someone who doesn't wish to sign their name. So I won't, after this.

Alison Croggon said...

I'm a poet/novelist, married to a playwright. Neither of us have day jobs and we have three children.

Do we complain? We sure do. It's a regular caterwaul of complain in this house, I can tell you.

And when I think about it, re subsidiary rights: for the first novel of my trilogy, Penguin, the first publisher here in Australia, takes 50 per cent of everything I make overseas from it. Yes, that's half. Except maybe ig someone made a movie (they do vary according to publication form). It feels like daylight robbery. So the 40 per cent over ten years, as opposed to 50 per cent for the life of the book, seems almost restrained. I resent this mightily, but I signed that bloody contract. For later books, I had an agent and it's 25 per cent, which isn't so bloodsucking.

Poor authors, over a barrel, always, and always making less than everybody else does from their work.