Fringe work picked up for film and TV can prove lucrative for the writer, but what about everyone else? Theatremaker Steven Atkinson explores the battle lines being drawn around intellectual property
When you’re sat in a dank archway that has been hastily converted into a fringe theatre, Hollywood feels like a galaxy far, far away. But for an increasing number of playwrights, that low-budget start is the ignition to a very lucrative future.
We all know the Edinburgh Fringe to James Bond success story that is Phoebe Waller-Bridge. But there are others coming up in her wake.
For an increasing number of writers, one theatre production is all it takes to unlock TV and film projects at a vastly different scale and financial stakes. At this year’s fringe, there’s a monologue being performed – the writer’s first play – that has been optioned for TV in a six-figure deal.
But is there an imbalance? During many shows on the Edinburgh or London fringe, the production team will gather in a pub to discuss the first preview of a show they’ve all begged, borrowed and stolen to make happen. They will include a writer, an actor or two (unless the writer is performing it themselves), a director, a stage manager, perhaps designers in lighting, sound and set (if they’re lucky) and a producer.
For now, they’re all in this together. And they hope for good reviews that will lead to their next theatre job. Except for the writer. For the writer, this theatre production could just be the start of their relationship to this story, because repackaging it for TV and film could be the first screen project of many, resulting in a life-changing amount of wealth.
Welcome to the battleground that is Intellectual Property, which, in our business, usually refers to copyright. Who is the owner of all the ideas encompassed in the script who therefore has the right to sell them to others?
In the theatre bars of Edinburgh, London and everywhere in between, conversations about IP are gathering pace. It’s not a case of directors, actors, producers and theatres begrudging any writer financial success. Rather they are asking why there isn’t greater recognition and compensation to collaborators who help make a hit show.
There are notable exceptions to this position. Vicky Jones, the director and co-producer of Fleabag on stage, was employed on the TV adaptation and on Waller-Bridge’s next series Killing Eve. These jobs were more likely the result of Waller-Bridge and Jones’ long-standing friendship than anything contractual.
The producers of The Audience on stage went on to be executive producers on The Crown, though this link was probably contractual, because producers as established as those have the finances to invest heavily at the inception of an idea and secure their future rights should the idea prove successful.
Much more common than the above are the standard deals struck to commission and produce new plays at London’s Royal Court, Bush, Soho, regional theatres, producing companies and the fringe, where money is tight.
From the National Theatre to a new producer on the fringe, the licence to stage a work is based largely on a contract template created by the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. As their name suggests, the Guild and their contracts approach contracting from the perspective that the writer is the central and originating artist from which the production stems. The copyright of the text will always be owned by the writer and a licence to present the play is granted to the producer for a fixed period under specific terms.
These standardised contacts do have a clause concerning royalties for producers. Provided the writer earns more than £36,000 net from the specific play, the producer is entitled to a small percentage of the writer’s additional earnings. There’s a subclause that specifies that this includes “the sale of screen and audiotape rights throughout the world”.
This is where agents come in. These contracts are but templates, with each clause and subclause up for negotiation. In my experience, the clause related to a writer’s income from the sale of screen rights is the first an agent removes. I’ve known one agency to describe removing this clause as standard. This can be fought, but a producer runs a real risk of not getting the licence. And because negotiations are slow, often productions need to go on sale, or other producers who are willing to forgo this clause are found, and in either instance the producer’s hand is forced to accept the agent’s terms.
‘Repackaging a theatre production for TV and film can result in a life-changing amount of wealth for a writer’
So in effect, no matter how much or little the producer has contributed towards the final script by bringing together a writer, director, actors and creative team, their financial compensation from screen success is entirely dependent on this original contract.
The earlier allusion to a galaxy far, far away was intentional. As George Lucas demonstrated with Star Wars, memorable characters and worlds can be spun in to countless stories, or Cinematic Universes, as Marvel and Lucasfilm now call their multi-film franchises. All this IP and potential money tracks back to authorship and contracting.
So, what about stage directors, who often have a significant hand in shaping the new plays they direct? With most shows, the producer contracts the play in the manner previously described. The producer has a separate contract with the director, and provided the director has enough clout to insist on this, they will have points from the production’s profits. But directors do not have contracts with writers, and this partly explains why so few screen projects involve the original stage director. Their contracts relate to the production, not the creation of the script.
Actors also shape new scripts, as do designers. But it seems to me that directors are in a slightly different category, given their seniority in the creative team and the prolonged relationship they have with a writer.
Let’s take a hypothetical play being produced somewhere like London’s Bush Theatre. The writer’s commission will be around £9,000, and if it sells well, they will likely make a few thousand more in royalties. The director’s fee is more of a moveable feast, but thanks to Equity and Stage Directors UK, there’s now a rate card that monetises preparation weeks, rehearsals, previews and maintaining the show. They could earn around £6,000, though in many instances this pay is less because the contractual framework created by Equity/Stage Directors UK is far less enforced than that created by the Writers’ Guild.
At this stage, the renumeration of a writer and director are comparable. But this changes for writers if a TV or film production company wants to create their own version of the play, or if the play is revived in a new production.
No one wants to see a writer’s pay or livelihood diminished in any way. But in an industry where even new writers’ first plays can be optioned for six-figure sums, if there was a contractual obligation in the screen option to pay a nominal sum to the originating theatre teams, it wouldn’t be financially prohibitive. And this could be the kind of new investment in theatre that would mean people could afford to continue working in it.
There’s a free market economic argument here that says there will always be new directors, producers and actors to stage plays. But, as those of us in development often say, what some producers bring to improving a script is grossly misunderstood.
I agree that writers are the primary creators of a story, and ultimately the IP is theirs. But if a play is a hit, it’s fair to assume the writer is not solely responsible for this success.
If Equity, Stage Directors UK and the Writers’ Guild were to agree more clauses around payments from screen options to the makers of the stage productions, and if the writer’s agents were to then accommodate these, it would help to ameliorate the growing payment gap between stage writers and their collaborators.
Steven Atkinson is a producer and outgoing artistic director of HighTide