Playwrights are hardly financially exploited

The prevailing impression of a new book from the Theater Development Fund, “Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play,” is that playwrights find themselves financially “exploited,” especially when compared to their counterparts in the lucrative worlds of TV and film.

While I tried to ignore the book and its premise, when I worked on my 2009 taxes, I had this epiphany.

I realized that the money I made as a book writer very much correlated to the “dire economy of the playwright,” as “Outrageous Fortune” reports on. Sometime between recording my 2009 royalty check ($205 cume for the Henry Willson bio, “The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson”) and my final advance check ($4,250 for the Allan Carr bio, “Party Animals”), I realized that maybe it’s time for theater folk to stop looking with envy at film and TV and instead consider how analogous the theater is to book publishing.

After all, while hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, watch a movie or TV show, most books sell as many copies as plays sell tix. It’s really apples and apples — and so, for that matter, is the pay.

First of all, it’s not as if there is scant opportunity. On Feb. 3, Lincoln Center Theater announced that it was building a 131-seat theater atop its flagship Vivian Beaumont for the production of new plays. To open in late 2011, the LCT’s $41 million Claire Tow Theater will follow this autumn’s opening of Arena Stage’s 200-seat Kogod Cradle, part of a $120 million renovation and construction project at the legit complex. Similar new venues, all for the production of new works, have over the past decade graced such nonprofit heavyweights as the Music Center Group (Kirk Douglas), the Geffen Playhouse (Skirball), the Atlantic Theater (Stage 2) and the Roundabout (Black Box). And while revivals of “South Pacific” (LCT), “Dreamgirls” (Ahmanson) and “Hair” (the Public on Broadway) currently occupy three of the nation’s biggest nonprofit orgs, other venues under their increasing expanding umbrellas remain committed to new plays. For example, LCT stages seven new works this season, the Public has 10-12 and Chi’s Goodman and L.A.’s Geffen have six each. Here in Los Angeles, never renowned for being a top-tier theater town, it is possible any month of the year to see at least a dozen world premieres, and if those don’t interest you, there are at least another dozen U.S. or West Coast premieres each month.

It adds up to a lot of play production, perhaps more than even Broadway saw in its so-called golden age of O’Neill, Williams and Miller; it was a period, as Goodman artistic director Robert Falls points out, that “most new plays produced were thrillers, light comedies or courtroom dramas” — and not the intellectual stuff that interests most contempo playwrights.

Regarding books, most authors are lucky to sell 10,000 copies — in other words, about the number of bodies that sit through most play productions. The $10,000-$20,000 advances I received for my books, published by commercial houses, is actually very high end for a university press, most of which pay in the $1,000-$5,000 range, although there are legendary reports of $30,000 if you’re talking Yale or Oxford. These sums haven’t really budged in years, while play commissions, says the Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, “have gotten higher, although royalties paid are static or gone down.”

At the Goodman, for example, plays are commissioned in the $15,000-$20,000 range, and the average royalty paid for a limited run is $40,000, according to Falls. His counterpart at Lincoln Center Theater, Andre Bishop, says that some commissions there have recently been hiked to $35,000. Royalties for a limited run (generally 12 weeks) at one of the nonprofits Broadway theaters can bring a playwright $100,000. More successful playwrights eschew the commission game all together, finding it more lucrative to shop their spec plays around, according to some agents.

Playwrights are clear winners over book writers, however, when it comes to the very different ways in which book advances and play commissions are administered.

Unlike book publishing, writers in the theater keep their commissions even if their work is never produced. Not so in the book world. Advances are against royalties, which is not the case with legit commissions.

In doling out their advances, book publishing sets up a number of payment milestones that don’t exist in the nonprofit theater: payment is upon 1) signing of contract, 2) delivery of manuscript, 3) acceptance and 4) publication.

Payment of play commissions is simpler — not to mention more secure. For example, at Arena Stage, the NEA’s new play development program pays a $10,000 “selection” commission, wherein payment is $8,000 up front, with the final $2,000 paid upon delivery of the script.

“The money is not paid only if the play never gets turned in,” says David Dower, Arena’s associate artistic director. “That final payment has nothing to do with whether someone likes it or not.”

In the Kogod Cradle, Dower estimates royalties will be about $25,000 for the run of a new work, which is based on 5%-8% of the gross (“depending on your agent”) with an average price ticket of $40 for a six-week run.

Under the NEA program, a playwright could walk away from a run at the Cradle with $35,000, and then take the play to another nonprofit theater for another run.

In the tiny 99-seater world that produces the bulk of L.A.’s new plays, commissions are rare, although some companies have been known to pay a fee as high as $1,500 to secure a particular new work. If the play is a smash hit for 12 weeks, the scribe could make $7,000, although the vast majority of these works run a mere four weeks, and you’re lucky to walk away with $1,000 from 6%-8% of the gross. Most work is produced for a flat fee.

On the East Coast, at the Public’s 99-seater, scribes make royalties of $3,000-$4,000 per run, and some new authors are paid a yearly stipend of $5,000.

The TDF study could have been writing about university presses when it says, “Commission money, which average between $3,000 and $4,999 … exceeds $12,000 only 4% of the time.”

Bad, indeed. But again, it’s useful to look at the book publishing model. Most tomes written today, as with plays, are done without any kind of advance money, making any talk of an “average” completely useless. If there is one truly startling set of figures in “Outrageous Fortune,” it’s one that has been roundly misinterpreted by many journos who’ve written about the book: “The average playwright earns between $25,000 and $39,000 annually, with approximately 62% of playwrights earning under $40,000 and nearly a third making less than $25,000.”

These sums are not what playwrights make from writing plays. Rather, it’s the income they make for playwrighting plus teaching, TV writing, etc.

My advice: get a better day job.

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