Scribe trio keeps copyrights to toon tuners

NEW YORK — DreamWorks and Disney are ready to sign contracts with David Lindsay-Abaire, Doug Wright and David Henry Hwang, allowing the playwrights to retain copyright to their books for the stage musicals “Shrek,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Tarzan,” respectively.

Copyright ownership has long separated writing for the theater from writing for TV and movies. Contracts for the latter are work-for-hire and allow studios to, among other things, replace scribes on a project. The Dramatists Guild has long forbidden its members to sign work-for-hire contracts.

“Everyone at DreamWorks Animation, as well as the Disney representatives, deserves credit for approaching these theater deals as theater deals,” said guild prexy John Weidman. Lindsay-Abaire (“Fuddy Meers”), Wright (“I Am My Own Wife”) and Hwang (“M. Butterfly”) are members of the guild.

Under the microscope

Legit agents and lawyers have been scrutinizing the negotiations for “Shrek,” “Mermaid” and “Tarzan,” since the stage projects are being adapted from animated movies released by two powerhouse studios.

Historically, not even the Writers Guild of America, West has had jurisdiction over Hollywood’s animated features, which are covered by an IATSE-affiliated cartoonists union. “It goes back to the days when animated features were storyboarded, and instead of a script, the studios brought in a few gag men,” said Patrick Verrone, secretary-treasurer of WGA West.

Adding to the complications with “Mermaid” and “Tarzan” were Disney’s previous film-to-stage projects “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King,” which did use work-for-hire contracts for respective book writers Linda Woolverton and Roger Allers & Irene Mecchi, none of whom belongs to the Dramatists Guild.

Playing by the book

“It wasn’t surprising that movie studios would want to bring the Hollywood work-for-hire model with them when they started producing in the theater,” said Weidman, who credited Lindsay-Abaire, Wright and Hwang for their efforts to retain copyright. “It helps when you have prominent playwrights who are eager to do the work but who are finally unwilling to do it as work-for-hire.”

In addition to the previous Disney tuners, a few other books for stage musicals have been written under work-for-hire contracts. Six years ago, Nan Knighton left the Dramatists Guild when she signed such a contract to write the book for Robert Stigwood’s stage production of “Saturday Night Fever.”

Reps for DreamWorks and Disney confirmed reports on the aforementioned writers’ contracts but did not offer comment.

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