3 Reasons why your option period needs to be longer.

If you’re a Producer, or want to be a Producer, then you’re going to need to find material to produce.  And if you’re not creating your own stuff, that means sooner or later you’re going to have to option someone else’s.

Whether you’re optioning a new play that is already written, a movie to turn into a musical, or a classic drama that is due for a revival, one of the key elements of the deal for that material will be the option period, or the length of time you have the rights.

Industry-standard option periods usually start at 12-18 months, with extension periods for another year or two built in.  Often, those additional periods are only granted to the producer if certain benchmarks are hit (the more valuable the property, the more the Producer has to prove that he or she is moving the project forward – hiring a director, finding a star, getting a theater, etc.).  So, all in, that period of time that a Producer has to play with initially usually totals about two to three years.

And I’m here to tell you that the industry standard needs to change.

We’re living in massively different times for Producers than when those option periods were originally determined, and in today’s producing climate, the length of these periods is making it more expensive and more difficult to produce.

Here are three reasons why.

  1.  The Theater Crunch

There are more shows looking for theaters now than ever before.  Just look at this past season.  Playing weeks were up 8.7%!  Broadway producing has become a fashionable thing to do for both individuals as well as the movie studios who are marching into town.  And because there are only 40 Broadway theaters (and a dozen of those 40 aren’t even available because shows like Wicked, The Lion King, etc. aren’t going anywhere anytime soon – read this blog for more on that subject), the chances of you getting a theater for your show just went down.  And most likely, it’s just going to take you longer to get a house.  It’s not uncommon for shows to wait two years, three years, or more.  Just look at a couple shows coming up this season . . . Tuck Everlasting was after a theater in 2013 and will debut in 2016.  Allegiance debuted on the West Coast in 2012.  If you only have a three year option, well, shoot, you just ran it out simply waiting for a theater, never mind writing it, reading it, workshopping it, re-reading it, and so on.  And that means more advances have to be paid, which means higher production costs.

(If we could figure out how/when shows will get theaters it might be easier to determine more appropriate option periods.  But you-know-who only knows how the theater owners dole them out.  You know how Google has an algorithm for search that they keep super secret and change constantly?  I feel like the theater owners have their own algorithm for what shows get on the boards.  The Theater Owner Algorithm.  It’s something like . . . Stars + Relationships to the 2nd power of Theater Size divided by how many sippy cups you’ll sell and so on . . . )

  1.  Finding a Cast

There’s no question that who is in a show can help with #1 above.  And if you’ve ever shopped for an A-lister, or even a B-lister, you know that it can take forever, much longer than it used to.  It’s not uncommon to wait weeks for a star to respond . . . just to say no.  Sometimes months!  And I know what you’re thinking, “Ken, don’t wait!”  We often don’t.  But at the same time, for certain projects (revivals), stars are almost a necessity, and when agents are telling you to “just wait a bit longer,” it’s hard to cut bait . . . especially when the star is someone you really want, who will be really good.

So if it can easily take, oh, let’s say an average of four weeks to get an answer on a principal cast member (even if they are interested, they have to read it, then meet with the director, etc. sometimes still to say no), and since it’s super rare that your first offer takes the gig, it can take 6-9 months just to get a handful of offers out.   (Little known fact – agents will not allow an offer to be made to their client if an offer is out to another actor simultaneously – that’s right, one offer at a time or get blacklisted for sure.)

Because of this logjam, I’ve been in casting on several projects for a year or more!  So who’s to blame?  Is it agents not returning phone calls?  Is it stars being complacent?  Maybe, maybe.  But I think the real problem is that in 2015 a star has an agent, a manager, a lawyer, a press rep . . . a whole team of people that all have to chime in.  So it’s not one agent’s fault (especially the theater agent in NYC, who usually wants the actor to work on Broadway), but it’s the barricade of people “protecting” the star.  It would be super helpful to Producers for agents to say, “Ken, there’s no chance this person is going to do it.  Move on,” rather than have me spin my wheels, burn my option, and further advance monies.

  1.  Scheduling the Team

I often say that Producing a Broadway show in the modern era is like trying to land the space shuttle . . . there’s a sliver of a window when you can touch down.  Miss it, and you circle the globe again.  For example, let’s say you get a cast that wants to do it.  Great.  Now when is that cast available?  And even if they are, what’s worse than that is the Director’s schedule.  I’ve had agents tell me that Directors are booked for 3-5 years.  So now, you have to line up a cast, and a director, and a theater . . . never mind all the other designers, managers, advertising agencies, etc.  You could get a theater and have to push things back because the Director is busy.  Or you could get a Director and have to push things back because of the star’s schedule, because the theater owner won’t give you a theater until you have that star.

Why is this different now than before?  Directors, choreographers, designers, even ad agencies have more and more opportunities in all sorts of mediums that they just didn’t have before.  There is television, movies, commercials, cruise ships, etc.  Not to mention more readings, workshops, global productions, etc.  You can easily find yourself forced to wait another six months to a year just to line up everyone’s schedule.

All of the above can easily add 1-2 years to a project’s development . . . and that’s after it’s completed!  I haven’t even gotten into how the above (especially #3) elongates the writing period on shows (you know how hard it is to get a show written when you can’t get everyone in the same room – and no, I don’t think collaborative art forms like musicals are best written over Skype).

And with all these factors, and shorter option periods, raising money for development gets even harder . . . because if the rights lapse for reasons beyond the Producer’s control, and the Authors or Underlying Rights Holder decides to go elsewhere, that investor money can disappear.  Who wants to take that risk?

What’s the answer?  Give up?  Stop developing new works?  Stop trying to get great actors to do your shows?

Of course not.

But it’s time for all of us to realize that things take longer in today’s jam-overloaded business world, and standard option periods should be expanded to five years with extensions to ten, for musicals especially.

To protect the Artists, and to prevent Producers from holding onto material forever, Agents should ask for (and get) more benchmarks, higher advances in later years, and maybe even the ability to solicit other offers for the material in later years, forcing the Producer to match any offer that they get or let the rights lapse.

There are many ways to skin the kitty, but in order to do so, we’ve just got to have the time to figure it out.  So when you’re asking for an option, ask for more time than you think you need.

You will need it.

 

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Comments
  • Rich Mc says:

    Ken – a great post! This is the kind of Theater “Inside Baseball” I relish from Producer’s Perspective, though I can’t help but think it’s largely directed to a plethora of ‘kevetchers’ – interested parties that do not fully understand the process and the obstacles.
    No easy answers to the problems you’ve cited, but let Occam’s Razor be your guide; with so many levels of highly desirable targets (stars, directors, etc.) failing to voice timely availability & willingness to commit, why not send invitations to all with response deadlines? If they fail to respond, screw ‘em and go on to the next. While it’s tempting to envision an ‘ideal’ cast & crew for any show, the reality is that a quality show can be staged & performed wonderfully with other ‘stars’ and key contributors. As we used to say in the ‘80’s, first car service that shows up on time takes me to the airport!

  • Barry McNabb says:

    The whole theory of having to wait for a director’s or actor’s availability speaks to the lack of creativity in the business. So many producers have to wait for the “Hot” director or choreographer to do their show when in reality the talent pool is so deep in NYC for doing new musicals that the holdup is YOU. There are more than 3 directors that can do new musicals, but producers are so nearsighted that they can’t see that. They only look at bottom line numbers as opposed to what the directors or choreographers contribute. And though they pretend to be artists they often can’t tell the difference because they don’t watch theatre with their hearts, only their wallets. The sad state of the theatre is really a reflection of producers not the artists involved. But their is always hope. . . . .

    • Jared says:

      I think this is a little harsh and one sided. I think a large reason directors seek out “name” directors/choreographers is because that is what the investors expect. I imagine if they are going to invest $50,000+ of their own money in a risky business, they are more willing to do so when they have some assurance the show will turn out well. A proven director is probably more appealing than an unknown.

      It is the same catch-22 that applies to most leadership positions in any industry. Everyone is looking for someone with experience, but you can’t get experience without someone first taking a chance on you. And its very easy for those of us who don’t have a stake in things to wish people would take more chances, but I’m sure there are a different sense of concerns at work when you are risking your own money.

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