The Playgoer: Letting Playwrights Earn

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Letting Playwrights Earn

Two of the big NYC nonprofits have finally acknowledged they are not Hollywood studios and ceded ground on the "subsidiary rights" issue.  Both the Roundabout (who had been the biggest offender) and the Public this week announced they would mostly waive the usual percentage they used to demand of any future income resulting from a play they premiered.

Leaders of the Public said in interviews that they were immediately altering their policy on so-called subsidiary rights to help provide “a living wage” to playwrights, who often turn to writing for film and television for their livelihood. While the Public previously took an average of 10 percent of royalties for productions mounted over a 10-year period, it will now forgo that percentage until playwrights earn $75,000 in royalties from runs elsewhere. The policy change will mean a loss of at least $100,000 in annual income for the Public, which has an operating budget of $19 million. “The playwright needs the money more than the Public does,” said Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director.


Roundabout had previously taken as much as 40 percent of future royalties but now will negotiate a percentage only for works that are major hits at Roundabout and [or?] run for more than 18 weeks at its Off Broadway theater, the Laura Pels, and will not seek a percentage from plays done in its Black Box theater
Just curious: can the Public really maintain they are sacrificing a hundred grand a year over this?  I wonder if they're factoring into that the money they take in from past megahits like Hair and Chorus Line--which they would certainly not be giving up, it seems.  Is it really fair to assume that x number of new plays they premiere every year go on to make boffo subsidiary rights?  If only playwrights were that reliably lucrative!

But look, let's not quibble.  This is good news for playwrights, at least a good step--a step in the (apparently radical) direction of theatre companies assuming responsibility for the livelihoods of playwrights.  (As opposed to seeing the theatre-playwright transaction primarily as the acquiring of a property. See Tuesday's post.)  Christopher Shinn, a playwright interviewed for the Times article, makes the revealing claim that, "a lot of theaters assume you’re writing for film or television, and don’t realize how important this money is."  Obviously they don't assume this of the totally unknown writers--then again, they don't really produce those sorts much.  What I assume Shinn means is they treat playwrights like lead actors; they assume you're making you're "real" money in Hollywood, so when you "come back" to the stage you're working just for the love of it, right?

And this is basically a self-fulling prophecy, is it not: pay theatre artists (or take a percentage of their pay) as if it were their "second" career and guess what--it won't be their first career.  And the American theatre will be the poorer for it.

So, yes, good to see the big boys coming around to that. Now let's see if Manhattan Theatre Club does, too--Times says they're now "reviewing" their policy of taking "different percentages from playwrights’ royalties depending on the length of a production’s run."


Jeffrey Eric Jenkins said...

In partial defense of the nonprofit theaters, it must be noted that the subsidiary-rights issues of the recent past have their roots in the 1968 transfer of Great White Hope from the Arena Stage to Broadway. Zelda Fichandler at Arena spent years working with Howard Sackler on the script, only to see her resident company left with $50K debt and no actors.

While it is true that things have been out-of-hand for years where subsidiary rights are concerned, were it not for subsidiary rights, the possible recoupment of investment in commercial theater might be severely hampered.

Angels in America, for instance, closed on Broadway at a loss, but eventually earned a profit for investors on the road.

Playgoer said...

Thanks for that background, Jeffrey. I didn't realize "Great White Hope" had that central a role.

I wonder if the fortunes of theatre companies and individual writers have reversed since then? Maybe then the theatres needed the boost more while writers could get their plays on more easily in general.

Then again, that was still the height of gov't and charitable funding for the nonprofits, so I don't know.

Jeffrey Eric Jenkins said...

I spoke to Zelda about this a few years ago--as I think about it more than a few (2001?). And it was clearly still a painful memory. There eventually was a settlement of sorts, but the White Hope contretemps led to contracts requiring 5 and 10 percent pieces of, I believe, the playwright's portion of rights.

By "playwright's portion," I mean that portion of subsidiary rights retained by the playwright should the work go into a commercial run where a significant portion of future rights are assigned to the producers for, say, 20 years.

Since I wrote about this in my Master's thesis years ago, I'm sure some of the terms have changed but not many.

One of the reasons for the increase in demands from n.p. companies was the decline, beginning in the early 1970s and continuing throughout the 1980s, of foundation and gov't support for theaters.

BTW, I don't think any play after White Hope enjoyed similar financial success on B'way after regional development. Certainly, it never happened again for the Arena.

I'm not including Chorus Line, which was another kind of story--also covered in my thesis, which maybe I should post somewhere.