The Playgoer: Subsidiary Rights Fight Goes Public

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Subsidiary Rights Fight Goes Public

Talk about bubbling up from the blogosphere...

Here's an issue I first noted here back in March: the increasing rebellions by playwrights against theatres (like The Roundabout) who take more than their usual share of "subsidiary rights" to future productions of plays they premiere. Thanks to intrepid theatre critic/reporter Joy Goodwin, it's in today's Times.

Craig Lucas brought visibility to the issue at the time by withdrawing his play from the Roundabout and crossing the street to Playwrights Horizons--thus increasing his own share of subsidiaries from 60% at the former company to 90% at the latter.

When you think about it, you gotta ask: what percentage of plays premiered at NYC nonprofits really do go on to have prolific future lives. Not too many, unfortunately. Which probably increases the pressure to milk the most out of those that do. Which of course takes more out of the income of the single playwright for whom such success is even rarer.

No case brings the consequences of this factor home more than Lynn Nottage's. As Goodwin notes, Nottage's "Intimate Apparel" (as you may have noticed) seems to be done everywhere these days. Wow, what a windfall for her you'd think, right? Well, remember who "preemed" it:

[Nottage] was thrilled when the Roundabout produced her play “Intimate Apparel” to acclaim and awards in 2004; it became the most produced new play in the country for a few years.

“I thought that given the play’s popularity, I’d be able to live off it for a year or two,” Ms. Nottage said. But by the time the play reached New York, she had relinquished all but “about 30 percent” of her own royalties. At the time, she had to take other work to make ends meet.

Was it worth it in the long run, though, for the exposure the Roundabout provided?
Ms. Nottage said that she believed that the Roundabout’s production “brought people into the theater to see the play.” Yet to her a high-caliber New York premiere is only one part of the equation. “I got exposure, but a lot of plays get that same exposure, and they haven’t made the same journey that ‘Intimate Apparel’ has,” she said. “At the end of the day, it has to have something to do with the piece itself.”

Something to do with the play? Where'd ya get that idea!


Abigail Katz said...

Interesting that Ms. Nottage's next play will preem at MTC (a co-production with the Goodman) after rave reviews in Chicago. Hmmm...

Anonymous said...

This art form makes it more difficult for playwrights to make a living than for any of the actors or directors or designers I know -- which is saying a lot, because I know how hard it is for them.

(Don't get me started on union help who, when I was in DC, would typically get paid far better than the playwright for shows.)

Playwrights often have to PAY to send a script in to theatre. Actors and directors don't have to pay to submit their head shots. Now we're expected to give up a percentage of the little money we make from a play we've spent ten years writing??

How about if the actor has a breakout role in a play of mine --with that way of thinking, I should get 10% of whatever he makes for the next ten years. This is utter craziness.

Directors have been piling on as well, demanding a cut from the playwright's already meager cut by saying that without them there wouldn't be a production at all.

(Sure there would be a production. Just with a different director. It would have been my script that got him that gig in the first place.)

I would support paying a theatre a percentage over a specified dollar amount -- maybe $200,000 -- so that if the play happens to turn into the once in a generation hit, then the theatre will get more of a cut.

At this rate, the only people writing plays will be the ones who haven't yet been successful enough to be taken advantage of. It is only because the art form holds playwrights in such little regard that they can endure one more pile-on.

Joshua James said...

Even more terrible, the Fringe Festival collects a small percentage of subsidiary rights (it was two percent last I checked) for essentially letting you produce your play in their festival, so that if it hits big after the festival (at any time) they collect for basically scheduling you in at ten o'clock on a weeknight at a small theatre seating thirty ... and they ask up to put the production costs up front yourself.

I still think it's a scam, myself.

Theater of Ideas said...

I don't really think the theaters should take any cut, but a compromise would be to at least let the playwright have the first $50,000 - $100,000 free and clear. Really, that $20,000 -$40,000 is a minor amount for an institution like the Roundabout, but a major amount for any playwright trying to earn a living wage.

Susan said...

I am appalled at the 40% that MTC and the Roundabout take, but please remember that it's only two of the largest theaters in the country (Lincoln Center and Center Stage) that are mentioned in the article as being able to afford to give up subsidiary rights. The theater that produces the play brings to it:
* expertise in hiring a director, designers, actors, and having the connections to get the best people as well as the structure in place to do things like hold auditions

* development, often in the form of readings and workshops, so the writer can work on the play and see it on its feet *before* rehearsals begin, all at the expense of the theater

* visibility, in the form of audiences, the theater industry (nonprofits and commercial producers), and critics, many of whose reviews will have a national impact and a great effect on whether regional theaters choose to produce the play.

* a marketing staff who knows how to publicize the play and bring in audiences. Built-in subscriber audiences. And a development staff that raises the funds to produce the play. Together, these income streams pay for everything, from actor's salaries to costumes to the playwright's fee.

The playwright doesn't need to pay a thing, and gets paid for his or her work, while any money the theater makes go right back into the future work of the theater, to help other productions and playwrights.

All of this is often spent/done on a world premiere production that is untested, a playwright who is unknown, a play with no name actors - the theater takes a chance, and often takes a big loss.

If the show does well and has a future life, the theater that premiered it certainly had *something* to do with it. But 40% worth? No, I don't believe so. 10%? Yes, I can get behind that.

At the theater where I work, we're lucky if we get one of those hits once every five or six years. We tend to have a moderate success - a play that goes on to several regional productions - once a season, or once every other season, maybe. We're certainly not hitting it big on royalties. Very few theaters (except maybe NYTW with "Rent") do.

Anonymous said...

A non for profit theatre is NOT entitled to ANY PROFIT. PERIOD. It is unfortunate that the government subsidy is all but nonexistent, but it is not the playwright's job to subsidize theatres. Without plays there would be no theatres! Theatres exist to PUT ON PLAYS. Plays do not exist to subsidize theatres! This double standard where playwrights strive to be artists, and theatres, instead of supporting artists, strive to be in BUSINESS, has got to stop. Yes, Susan, we know what it means to produce a play -- that is the theatre's JOB, it is not a favor to the playwright. Your job is to get your salaries every week and figure out how to produce our work, and our job is to sit in our roach infested, ramen noodle stocked apartments killing ourselves for years and years to get a fucking play on, while we temp, teach and wait tables. Should actors have to give commissions to the theatres they work at if they get nice reviews for a show? What about anyone whose stock goes up on any production they work at at ANY theatre? What about directors? Why on earth should playwrights write for theatre anymore, except as a cute hobby?

Susan said...


Yes, without plays to put on, there would be no theaters. And without theaters, there would be no place for playwrights to have their plays produced. (Unless they like the idea of gathering the neighborhood kids and putting on a play in the backyard.)

Yes, it is the theater's job to produce plays. And it is the playwright's job to write them. Both should get paid for their work.

And my job has nothing to do with "figuring out how to produce your work." I'm a fundraiser. So yes, I raise my salary. And I raise funds for the actors, playwrights, set designers. I raise funds so we can pay for everything, while the playwright pays for nothing.

Think of all the theaters dedicated to new work that could easily just decide to produce classics and revivals and ignore new playwrights all together. Hell, half the time theaters with missions dedicated to new work (I'm looking at you, MTC) are filling half their seasons with revivals. So no, the theater isn't doing the playwright a favor by producing his or her play; but the playwright certainly should appreciate it.

No one is saying that playwriting is a hobby. Playwrights should be compensated for their work, and compensated well. Which is why I stand by playwrights receiving 90% of residuals, which is nearly all and if the play is a hit, will provide a good payout. I'm just suggesting that the theater that produces the world premiere receive 10% for all of its own hard work, efforts, and costs.

Anonymous said...

Listen Susan, I am a playwright, and no I don't pay for productions, but I do pay to support myself writing plays with no health insurance, and no support from theatres and no guarantees that my work will be produced -- even produced BADLY.

It is a two way street: plays benefit from good productions, and theatres benefit from good plays. If you want 10 percent of me, then I want 10 percent of you. If that sounds ludicrous to you, you will have a good idea of what the 10 percent idea sounds like to me. And don't give me this psychological "appreciation" nonsense - this is a business arangement, ok? This is not about whether I appreciate you. I can can take you out to Remi if I apreciate you. If the only way I can "appreciate" a theatre is by giving them part of my royalty -- after they pay me a profoundly substandard wage for my work -- then I guess, no, I am not appreciative. Ooops. Guess I lack that gene.

To controvert your logic: I am not saying the playwright is doing the theatre a favor by letting them produce my work, but the theatre should certainly appreciate it."

"Think of all the playwrights dedidated to writing for the stage that could just as easily write for hollywood and be paid a decent living wage"

I think it is pretty obvious with your remarks that you DO believe that theatres are doing playwrights a "favor" by producing our dreaded new plays.

Susan: Let me reach out to you and your theatre: PLEASE: DO NOT DO US THE FAVOR. If you feel that new work is so paltry and middling BY ALL MEANS do your revivals, so we don't need to "appreciate" your theatres anymore.

Ad by the way, this is not about 10 or 20 or 50 percent, it is the prinicple, and the underlying attitude that bugs me that the theatre is the powerful and important one because it has MONEY and the artist is the weak servile one because he/she/it is POOR. This paradigm IS ANTI-ART.