Podcast Episode 67 Transcript – Bruce Lazarus
Ken: Hey, everybody. Ken Davenport here. Just wanted to let you know that this podcast takes requests. If you have an idea for a great guest on the podcast, e-mail it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll try to get them on the show. Okay, on with today’s guest!
Ken: Hello, everybody. Thank you for tuning in to The Producer’s Perspective Podcast. So today I’m thrilled to be sitting down with someone who is the head of one of the oldest companies in the theatre business. Please welcome to the podcast the executive director of Samuel French, Mr. Bruce Lazarus. Welcome, Bruce!
Bruce: Hi! Hey, Ken, how are ya?
Ken: So Bruce has done a ton of things in the biz – he’s an entertainment attorney, he’s been a producer and now he’s the head of this incredibly important machine in our industry. We sometimes forget that, while a lot of stuff goes on here, so much of the theatre business actually happens outside the gates of New York City. So, Bruce, most people know Samuel French from having done a community theatre production or a high school production, but in your own words tell us what Samuel French is and what it does.
Bruce: Well, Samuel French is the oldest and largest publisher and licensor of stage plays and musicals. It was founded in 1830 by a man named Samuel French who came up with this idea that not only could he publish the plays that had theretofore been scattered around – there were other publishers – but the idea that he could actually provide them to people outside of the metropolitan areas who had no access to the theatre other than a tour coming by with Edwin Booth or somebody, and that was usually Shakespeare, and so he not only published them but licensed them and collected money on behalf of the authors which, before then, the copyright law was a little bit unclear in the United States and the UK and he was an advocate for the rights of authors to actually be able to license their play and maintain their copyright and make a living out of it.
Ken: So how did you land up at the big desk?
Bruce: Oh, wow, that’s an interesting question. I started out as an actor and I became an agent and then I became a manager – I used to manage Ray Liotta and David Caruso and Troy Byer and Scatman Crothers and Philip Baker Hall, dangerous men and beautiful women. I was going to law school at night and I couldn’t find an agency job that would let me leave at five o’clock to make class so I opened a management firm and, as ordinarily as I was as an agent, I was pretty good as a manager. Actually, I went to Los Angeles to be an actor – when I first decided to become an actor I figured “I am not going to wait for someone to discover me, I am going to find a play and produce a play,” and I hate to tell you that I learned everything I needed to from From Option to Opening by Donald Farber.
Ken: It’s a great book.
Bruce: It’s a great book.
Ken: I read that book – most people that are producers now read that Farber book at one point or another.
Bruce: And I went right out of the book and I produced my first play, really for me to star in but I had so much fun, I guess, really, I was so into producing it that I let someone else be in the play and then I got into producing and I abandoned my acting career – although I must tell you that I was once on The Gong Show.
Ken: Did you get gonged?
Bruce: I did not get gonged but I did not win. I did several things as an actor but I made more money off The Gong Show than anything else because it repeated and repeated and repeated. Anyway, I decided to produce this play that came across my desk called Only Kidding. I was in LA and I was managing David Caruso, I had a part for him, and I did an enhanced production at the American Jewish Theatre in New York. He didn’t come out for that but then he came out to see it and he went “Oh, this is funny. I thought you were going to do it much darker,” and he decided that he didn’t want to do it but it got a rave review by Frank Rich, we moved it uptown to the Westside Arts where it ran for almost a year and my lawyer on that show was Albert DeSilver who was one of the grandmasters of theatrical law – he represented Neil Simon and Cy Coleman and Lloyd Richards and he took me under his wing – by that time I had passed the bar – and taught me the business and I sat in his office for a year and one day he said to me “You know, you’ve got to find some of your own clients because you can’t make a living off of my clients.” My assistant at the time was Amy Stoller, who is Mike Stoller’s daughter, and she came to me and she said “I know these guys, they have this weird show, but they’re looking for a lawyer,” and I was looking for a client so I said “Great, I’ll see them,” and they came in and they described this show to me and I had no idea what they were talking about, none, but they paid me a nice legal retainer and I said “Okay, I’m your lawyer,” and then I went to the Soho Rep and I saw a little piece of something that I had no idea what it was and then I went to La MaMa and they did another little piece and then they invited me to Serious Fun at Lincoln Center when they did the whole show together and I went “Oh, I get it.” It was a little show called Blue Man Group and that was my first show as an attorney and I worked that show for a long time and, interestingly enough, at some point Disney had called and wanted to make a movie out of Blue Man, which never happened, but I started to negotiate the deal with a film lawyer at Disney and, a few years later, Disney had produced Beauty and the Beast, all with outside counsel, and decided that they were going to get into the theatrical business with The Lion King and decided to start a theatrical department and she remembered me, she called me, there were a series of interviews – you know how that goes – and I eventually became the director of business affairs for Disney Theatrical and I worked on The Lion King and the international tours of Beauty and the Beast and Aida and development on some of the other projects that have now come to Broadway. I did that for a couple of years and then went into private practice, opened a few businesses, tried a few different things and I got friendly with a gentleman at – oh, this is your story, I forgot about this part. So I was interested in doing something, I was living in Florida and I was interested in looking at a couple of plays and I was at Samuel French and they suggested I look at this play called My First Time.
Ken: That’s an amazing show, I’ve heard.
Bruce: It’s unbelievable – and I licensed it from Samuel French and produced it in Florida and did fairly well with it. I also went to see The Awesome ’80s Prom of yours – which, by the way, I just have to say, I tell this story all the time because the model you had for that, I thought was genius, how you got the club to basically give you the club for free because you left them with a hundred girls drinking when you closed the show and you started their disco. That was just, I thought, a brilliant way to mount a show – and in fact now, at Samuel French, I tell people that story all the time because I want them to do The Awesome ’80s Prom in a bar just the way you did. But nevertheless, in the course of doing that, the head of Samuel French was let go and I had sort of gotten a little friendly with up and where did he go, what happened? I got no answers and I was always fascinated with the Samuel French model because I always loved music publishing and it was like music publishing expect it was theatre, which was my true love. So here was music publishing for theatre – great copyrights, just my thing – and I interviewed a few times with their search committee and I didn’t get the job. A fellow named Nate Collins, who is part of one of the three families that own Samuel French, took the position of CEO and then invited me, a year later, to come in and work with him and that was the best thing that ever happened because he is our corporate president and he has a great head for business, he’s developed this love for the theatre and he’s great at building teams – and that’s what Samuel French has really become, it’s all about teamwork and a passion for theatre – and so I came in and started to run the licensing department and the marketing department and the acquisitions department, basically the forward facing front of Samuel French and I’ve been there now for over three years. I tell people it’s my dream job because it is – it’s the culmination of all of my talents and interests and experience and whatever little wisdom I’ve picked up along the way. I get to tell all of my stories, it’s great.
Ken: It’s funny, I was just thinking about a quote. You’re perfectly suited for this – you’ve an administrative and a law degree and you can deal with all of the copyrights but then you start telling me about pitching The Awesome ’80s Prom – thank you very much, by the way – but there seems to be a combination of both the legal aspect and the marketing aspect in what you do. What’s a typical day for you? What’s it most spent on, as the head of a company like Samuel French? What do you find yourself doing the most?
Bruce: Well, you know, I also do all of our business affairs and one of the things I was able to do when I got to Samuel French was that the business affairs of the company had not been in good shape – we were using a contract from I don’t know when, the 1950s, and through much resistance with the big agents in town I was able to dump our little four page contract and basically now we operate with a 23 page contract that really covers all of the bases and makes it clear and there’s a lot less room for ambiguity. But, having done that, I think we were able to go from being the old, dusty and musty Samuel French to being a real player in the business, which is what we are today. So you ask me what I spend my day on, I spend my day on acquisitions and the contracts that go around those acquisitions, I oversee our marketing department, I oversee, as I mentioned before, our editorial department. The thing that has really, I think, changed at Samuel French is that we’ve really become artist focused. It’s really about the playwright; everything we do centers around the playwright and, at the end of the day, does it all end up in increased licenses, which also is about the playwright? Yes. But all of our marketing initiatives, the pieces we choose to represent, all of our licensing efforts – we have a very proactive licensing team – by the way, we have 50 people who work in New York, I believe we’re the largest of any of the people in our business, we have 50 people in New York, we have another 18 in London and another almost ten in Los Angeles and our licensing team is double what it was when I got there. We’ve put people into pots, so someone that used to represent amateur rights in five states now handles high schools – I have two people who just handle high schools anywhere in the world. People that do theatres for a young audience, people that are focused on the college market, people that are focused on professional – we have the largest professional team of anybody, we have six people and they are focused on professional licensing. So we’ve drilled down so that we have an expertise in those areas, as opposed to just being a geographical thing.
Ken: You mentioned acquisitions being a key part of what you do every day. Is this statement true when it comes to licensing and you deciding whether or not you’re going to acquire something – “the more success the show has on Broadway the more successful the licensing will be.” Is that statement true?
Bruce: For the most part it’s true. There’s more awareness of it, there’s more interest in it, it takes less effort to get people to know what the show is about. Of course there are lot of things about a show that make it more licensable or less licensable. If it’s a show with a cast of 28 men it’s a little harder to license in the amateur market where you have lots of schools with predominantly women cast. But for the most part, from a marketing standpoint, sure, if it’s had some heat on Broadway, off-Broadway, in the regional market, certainly if it’s won the Pulitzer or the Tony award, it makes it a lot easier.
Ken: So what are some of those other factors that, when you’re looking at a show, are on your checklist to decide “Yes, this is something we should acquire,” or “No, this is something we should pass on.”?
Bruce: Well, let me first say that we are committed to our writers. If we’re already publishing a writer we’re more likely to pick up their other work, whether it’s commercial or not. But now that I say that, “Whether it’s commercial or not,” we’re really focused on the art of theatre. Do we have a calculation as to what will pay us in advance based on what we think the show will do? Sure we do, but we’re really interested in fostering the great American play so we’re picking up artists like Will Eno or Suzan-Lori Parks or Jennifer Haley, who’s got this great play, The Nether, or Bathsheba Doran with The History of Love and Sex. These are not necessarily the most commercial plays but they’re the plays that interest us and that our team is passionate about – you know, we have a really deep team, everyone on our team is a theatre professional, everyone has come out of the theatre school, before they get a job they have to do a PowerPoint presentation for us on how they would sell several of our shows into various different markets. We drill them pretty hard; we take the crème de la crème of available people out there and then we train them, they’re reading all the time, they’re reading everything new that we’re picking up, they’re reading the classics, so that they can articulate what we do. We want to make sure that our playwrights – you’re a playwright, you know – playwrights are an amazing group of people, they stare at a blank page and they create something out of nothing. Everybody else in the theatre – I mean I love actors, I love directors, I love designers – they’re creating derivative works of the play. Without the play, there’s nothing, and so we want to make sure that this play that’s maybe taken a year or two to right, you know, this is this playwright’s baby, we want to make sure that we give it a nice, long, healthy life after it has a run in New York or regionally or on Broadway, knock wood. So I think therein lies the difference.
Ken: How often do you pick up shows that don’t have a New York life?
Bruce: Again, it depends. If it’s a writer that we’re working with we’ll pick up a show whether it’s come to New York or not. If it’s a new writer I think we have to look long and hard and see if we can do it justice. We don’t want to pick it up just to pick it up. Three years ago, when I got there, we were picking up 140 or 160 plays a year. Now we’re picking up more like 40, maybe another 20 that are Obie winners, we do the off-off-Broadway fest, there are another 20 in there that we also pick up, but a much smaller group of players because we want to pay attention to it, we want to really give it its best shot.
Ken: That’s something I can actually tell you from the outside, that I even noticed. It used to be, back in the day, when I was looking to produce something I would just pick up the Samuel French catalogue and I would flip through and it was the fattest, biggest catalogue you could imagine, over all your competitors. It seemed to be that that was the goal, “We just want everything,” but I’ve noticed, and I think it’s a very smart approach that you’re taking, to just cater to those people that you have, and acquire new, of course, but being a little more selective, and, of course, being a writer that’s in your catalogue, I appreciate that very much.
Bruce: It’s also big and fat because we’ve been around since 1830. Now, not all of those plays are still in copyright but we have a lot of material.
Ken: So if you’ve heard of Pareto’s principle or the 80/20 rule, which says that 80% of your effects come from 20% of your causes, or 80% or your sales come from 20% of your clients.
Bruce: It works on everything.
Ken: Where are all of your sales coming from? Where are the 80% of your sales coming from? Does it apply to Samuel French? Is it Broadway that delivers the most, is it regional, is it community theatre, is it high schools?
Bruce: Are you talking about licensing or where the plays are coming from?
Bruce: Licensing. Actually it’s pretty much a 50/50 split between professional and amateur, so not so much the 80/20 but there are probably 10% of the plays generating 80% of the income.
Ken: If, all of a sudden, the families that own Samuel French – it sounds very mafia, Godfather-like, by the way, which I love – if they came to you and said “Bruce, you have a choice. We’re changing our business model. You can only serve one market – regional, Summer stock, community theatre, high school,” which market would you serve to make the families the most money?
Bruce: So you’re asking me a financial question, not necessarily an artistic one?
Bruce: I would say probably the amateur market because the amateur market takes less effort in the licensing, you would need less staff to run a complete amateur department.
Ken: When you say amateur do you mean community theatre, high school, both?
Ken: What it was community theatre or high school? Which one?
Bruce: I don’t know, I’d have to think about that. I’d have to actually look at the numbers. They would be pretty close.
Ken: We’ll get back to you on that. We’ll let everybody know. Bruce will do some research on that one. So Broadway is obviously exploding, we’re seeing higher grosses than we’ve ever seen before, we’ve seen attendance go up, go down a little, go up, we’ve got telecast shows going on.
Bruce: I thought Broadway is booming, right? Every year we’re doing a higher gross, but a lower attendance.
Ken: You know, it goes up, it goes down, it’s kind of flat.
Bruce: I just want to say, I read your blog, I know these things.
Ken: And we’re seeing these great telecasts – are you seeing this trickle down? Is the subsidiary market, the amateur market, are you getting more licenses now than you did ten years ago as a result? Has it trickled down to licensing, if you will?
Bruce: What is trickling down? Because there’s more?
Ken: Because Broadway is booming so much, are you seeing a boom in the subsidiary market as well?
Bruce: I think so. I think there’s a boom because Broadway has done an amazing job at branding. Broadway is now in every town that has a performing arts center – it’s Broadway. So yeah, I think so, but that also, in some ways, narrows the market because people want to do the hits from Broadway and maybe shows that didn’t get to Broadway have a harder time – off-Broadway shows in our market have a harder time than a Broadway show. It doesn’t make them a better show, just sometimes the economics for Broadway and off-Broadway are different. But I must tell you that – and I don’t know that it’s related to the interest in the theatre or Broadway but I think that we’ve got better at marketing shows and licensing shows. We’ve seen an over 20% increase year over year for the last three years in professional licensing and a high single digit year over year for the last three years in amateur licenses so we’re certainly doing something right. I’d like to think that it’s our efforts and not just the business. But I’ll tell you something – it’s a little off-topic but I’m reminded of it – I have two teenage sons and when they young I asked them would they rather play a video game or would they rather see the movie that the video game is based on and they said they would rather play the video game and I said “Why?” and they didn’t say this exactly but basically the message was in the video game they get to be the hero and in the movie they just get to watch the hero and when I got to Samuel French I thought “Ah, all of these videos games are building a vast audience of people that want to participate, they want to be in the game,” and so that’s what we do, we allow people to put on a show and be the character – they’re in the game, they’re playing the role – and so I think all of this video game, coupled with Glee and coupled with this interest in performing and High School Musical, all of that, I think, has helped garner even more interest in being onstage, being in the theatre and inviting your friends to watch you do it. Anyway, a little off topic.
Ken: No, I’m a big believer that video games are actually going to revolutionize the way theatre is presented. That generation is going to demand a different type of entertainment when they go to the theatre, for sure. Speaking of video games, let’s talk technology for a bit. When I was licensing or performing in shows repped by Samuel French back in the day I would get the script, I’d have a piece of paper and an eraser, make sure you erase everything before you send it back, that’s just all you got. Tell me about how technology is changing the business of licensing.
Bruce: Well, Ken, let me tell you, we are in the technology business in a big way and really in a way that no one else in our industry is doing. Let me tell you about a number of things we have – one is we just started our digital subscription reader called Abbott that allows you to access basically all of the plays in the Samuel French catalogue on your phone, your iPad, your computer, it’s a web app and it is brilliant – you can buy a play, you can rent a play. As an initiative, we make that available to artistic directors to peruse and we also make it available to all Dramatists’ Guild members because we are a firm believer that playwrights need to stand on the shoulders of those that came before them in order to learn their craft and, you know, you can’t exactly go to the library and get plays – you can get the classics but you can’t get plays – and it’s very expensive to buy plays, even to rent plays, so we make the Abbott reader available for free, at no charge to Dramatists’ Guild members, and we still pay the royalty on the read to the authors, so we’re not asking the authors to finance other people to read their shows, we cover the royalty every time someone reads it, even if they haven’t paid for it. So we have the Abbott reader. I was just showing you before, we have this new thing called an enhanced ePlay which is a multimedia ePlay that has video and audio, sound effects, a dialogue coach, a director who’s giving you notes, descriptions of the world of the play and what’s going on it, and at the end – this is Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None– the toy soldiers that all break, there’s ten of them that break in every performance, we give you a link to print 3D soldiers at any Home Depot or Lowes.
Ken: It’s like a play in a box you’re giving them. A play on an iPad, it pops up!
Bruce: It does. Also we’re doing a lot of other things digitally. We’ve just started going into the vocal selection and sheet music business. Our first few that are out are Hands on a Hardbody vocal selection, we have Natasha, Pierre which is coming to Broadway this year, the vocal selections, we have Fun Home which is about to open about to be delivered, the final on that, we’re also delivering sheet music for Fun Home and Heathers, we also have a vocal selection on Heathers and the sheet music we’re delivering by a digital distribution method which is different to basically anybody else that’s out there. To some extent it’s similar to Music Notes but we actually bury a code in it so that if people were to somehow download a copy – let me take that back because we actually don’t allow them to download it – it’s a viewable sheet music and we control the number of prints they have, they can print one copy from it, but should they take that copy and scan it or try to sell it or make it available on the internet, we know who’s done it. We’re very conscious of protecting our playwrights, we’re very big on anti-piracy, we have a white paper we put out called Owning Their Words which basically talks about how playwrights and composers and lyricists make their living at it. I think people feel like they can download a song or a movie and who are they hurting? They’re Warner Brothers, they’re hurting Universal, eh, they can afford it, they’re a big company. But Samuel French is just the agent for the authors, we take a 10% commission on a professional license and a 20% commission on an amateur license, which is standard across the industry, but the 80% or 90% goes into the pocket of the playwright who’s using it to buy groceries and to send their kids to college so when they’re stealing a playwright’s sheet music or they’re bootlegging their play or they’re doing a performance of it without paying for it they’re taking the bread out of the mouth of playwright so we’re very big on playwrights rights on enforcement and compliance. We’ve had a few issues this year where people are taking our authors’ plays and changing them.
Ken: You guys have been in the news a few times.
Bruce: We have. You can’t change their work. It’s not right. They’ve worked for years to get it just the way they want it. Don’t change it. If you don’t want to do it the way it’s written, don’t produce it.
Ken: Do you think that’s happening more frequently now than it used to because of the way the world is?
Bruce: No, I think it’s actually happening less now. What’s happening more is it’s easier to find them because everyone’s got a Facebook page and we have Google alerts. It’s much easier to find rogue productions and illegal copies of the script and the like.
Ken: If you can get all of the Broadway producers in a room what would you say to them about licensing that they don’t know or understand? Is there one thing that you would say, like “Hey, guys, you need to think about this because it’s going to help you down the road.”? What a lot of people forget is that a lot of shows can get to recoupment based on licensing. We all talk about recouping and what recoups here and that a show will announce if it did or not. Interestingly, in this industry we don’t announce five years after a show has closed. If it has recouped in licensing that doesn’t pop up on Playbill.com but it happens.
Bruce: Or even on the tours, usually. I’m not hearing about it. It’s only whether it’s recouped on Broadway.
Ken: So is there any lesson on licensing that you can teach the producers that they should know? Things that I should know that I don’t?
Bruce: Well, you know, every show is different. School of Rock has now released high school productions while it’s running on Broadway. I think that’s a very brave move and very smart. Some shows benefit from it, some shows maybe don’t. The old fashioned producer wants to keep all those things close, they don’t want any competition, when they go to Milwaukee they want to make sure that no one’s ever seen this play before. Sometimes that might be a good strategy but there are other times where all those kids that have just done that show are going to get themselves and their parents and go and see the real show, see how it’s really done, and I’m sure that’s going to happen with School of Rock. You see a little bit of that happen with Chicago, which is our show, where people will go to the tour because they’ve done the show themselves. It’s interesting – we were talking about this before – I heard someone talk about baseball, why baseball lasts year after year, generation after generation. It’s because when you’re a kid you throw and you catch the ball, whether it’s with your dad or with your friends, you have that experience of throwing the ball and catching the ball and throwing the ball and catching the ball and hitting the ball, so when you go to a game you can put yourself in the shoes of the batter or the fielder, you have that experience, you know what that feels like to do that, so the more we have kids in shows, seeing shows, being in shows, whatever, when they go to the theatre as an adult they get it, they understand it, they’re part of it, and so I think it’s very important to foster that.
Ken: I just saw a student production of Les Mis in New Jersey a week or so ago and blogged about how in the old days that probably wouldn’t have been allowed to happen while the Broadway production is still running right now and I found that seeing it made me want to go and see the show again, never mind all the kids that, as you so smartly put, will probably want to run across the river to see that show, so I do think that’s something that’s changing in terms of us producers having to loosen those licenses up a little bit earlier. What about logos and materials? Is this something that you guys are getting into now? If I think, and I often do, of my shows as like a franchise when I do them across the country, I like them to all look the same way, but we also know that high schools like to design their own things – do you give people opportunities? What do you provide?
Bruce: We provide the logos when we have them and most of the time we can get the Broadway or off-Broadway artwork. Sometimes we can’t, sometimes we’ll create our own logo if we can, with the approval of the authors. Sometimes the Broadway producer doesn’t want us to use their logo, they want us to use some other logo, and sometimes the theatre just wants to create their own. We don’t demand that they use the logo but, actually, if an author insisted on it, we would make it part of the deal. The authors own the copyright on their work and because they own the copyright on their work they get to make decisions about it – they get to decide who they want to do it and who they don’t want to do it, whether they want to issue a license or not issue a license, and if they do issue a license, if they want to put restrictions on that license as to “You have to use the logo,” or “You can’t change the race of the character,” whatever those restrictions are, that’s their right to do, so we back up our playwrights on that.
Ken: What do you think is next for the licensing world? What do you see in the future? In ten years?
Bruce: I think the fact that – this is not really answering your question – but the fact that it is a primitive art form that does not rely on technology, that basically comes from people sitting around the campfire telling stories, there’s something about telling stories in the dark with other people that transcends that, so I think there’s a place for movies. I’m not sure – I know you’re interested in presenting stage plays live on film or video – I’m not sure if that would help or hurt our business, I’m not sure how well it translates. There used to be this whole thing in the theatre, which is “Show me a video tape of your show,” and you go “Oh, you know, theatre doesn’t look good on video,” or whatever. “No, no, no – I’m a professional, I can tell, just send me the video,” and then you get the video and you go “This is terrible! This looks terrible!” because it’s hard to translate it. If you’re shooting it live, I guess three cameras, like a TV show, okay, I can see that. Also it’s a longer form, it’s not like a sitcom, and so to hold an audience’s attention there’s something about it being live in the space that you’ve bought into it, you’re there. If I go to a class and I’m the classroom I get so much more out of it than if I’m trying to take a class on my computer or whatever because suddenly the phone rings, something happens over there, “Oh, look what’s happening outside,” I’m distracted. When I’m in the classroom with other students, I’m focused. I think there’s something about being in the theatre that makes that happen. Even in the movies you’re with other people in the dark. When you’re doing Daddy Long Legs, is that delivered to the homes or is that delivered to theatres?
Ken: We delivered it to wherever they could access the web.
Bruce: And what was your feedback on it?
Ken: 150,000 people in 135 countries tuned in.
Bruce: Did they watch the whole play?
Ken: Did all of them? No, I think you’re absolutely right. I think when you’re experiencing something online – I mean we live in a world now where people watch two or three screens sometimes. I’ve got my laptop in front of me and my phone next to me.
Bruce: People walk out of the theatre too.
Ken: Sure, or fall asleep, God knows. Never happened to me, though.
Bruce: No, not me either.
Ken: Okay, so my last question, my genie question. I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes to see you and thanks you for being the advocate of the playwright and says “Because of all the work that you’ve done I want to grant you one wish.” What’s the one thing that drives you so crazy about Broadway, that makes you stay up at night, that gets you angry, that you wish this genie would change with the snap of a finger?
Bruce: Well, you know, my wish is that playwrights could make more money. That playwrights could make a living in the theatre. We all read Todd London’s book, Outrageous Fortune, and the average playwright makes, I think, between $29,000 and $39,000 a year and only half of that from playwriting, actually only half of that from writing, because some of them are writing other things, and of that half I think only 15% of that is from playwriting. So playwrights have a really hard goal and I think unless we find a way for them to make more money and protect their rights you’re going to have less people writing for the theatre and the less people writing for the theatre the less chance of having that next great American play. One of the things we’re working on is a thing called Playwrights Welcome where we’re asking theatres all over the country to allow playwrights to come into the theatre when they have unsold tickets. Right before the show, if there are unsold tickets, let a playwright, a Dramatists’ Guild member, show their card, come in, see a play, learn from other playwrights, learn from the director and the designers, “Oh, that’s possible, I didn’t know I could do that in the theatre,” because we need to grow this environment and we need to keep playwrights involved. I think it’s incumbent on producers and regional theatres to respect the fact that playwrights have spent a really long time writing this, a lot of times going out to that regional theatre on their own dime to attend rehearsals or to go to openings. We need to make sure they’re making a living. I think it’s on both sides of the issue – one is making sure they’re getting paid a decent royalty. A director can go and direct three plays a year and make a salary and get health benefits, actors can do the same. A playwright owns his work, yes, but is not getting health benefits, is not getting a salary, is dependent on a royalty and everyone wants a piece of that royalty – the director says “I want a piece of it,” and there’s a royalty pool, the producer wants to say “Hey, we should all share in this royalty,” and then, on the back end, subsidiary rights. The authors made this deal, I don’t know, a hundred years ago, that said “We’ll own our work,” instead of like a screenwriter, who sold it to the producer, “We’ll own our work,” and the producers said “Yeah, you can own it but we’re going to take 40% of all of the future income from it,” and it’s not all the future income and it’s not always 40% but it’s a large piece. The playwrights that are the multi-million dollar earning playwrights – I know you did Godspell, Stephen Schwartz, God bless him, he’s making a very nice living and so is everybody else involved with him, but you know the average playwright is not making that living and now 40% of his play or her play is going somewhere else and so I think we need to pay attention to that. I know it may not be popular with producers and I know you are the producer’s perspective.
Ken: I’m biting my tongue over here Bruce.
Bruce: I understand that and I’ve been a producer, I know the producer is adding value to the production, “But for the producer’s play would this play even be earning that money?” I know all the logic about it and yet I still feel that I’m compelled to say it needs to be looked at again.
Ken: I love your passion for the playwright, and actually I would not disagree with you, I would actually say that I could agree to give up that 40% faster – because we don’t get it forever, we get it for a period of time that we negotiate, or sometimes 30% or whatever. I would give that up faster as long as my show had recouped or gotten its money back with some profit to the investors. So I would be happy to shorten the life if I got more of it faster because all that I care about, and I think most producers, we’re not in this to get rich, playwrights aren’t even in it to get rich, but in order for them to keep writing they’ve got to get paid more, in order for me to keep producing I have to earn a living but more importantly than me, frankly, the investors have to keep getting their money back or they’ll just stop doing it, so there’s a balance there and, hopefully, somewhere that someone will figure out all of these archaic rules.
Bruce: You know when you’re raising money – and we’ve both raised money – and you want to tell the investor that “Not only are you going to make money from Broadway but maybe there’ll be a movie and maybe there’ll be a TV series! And, you know what? We’ll money from stock and amateur for the next 20 years!” and whatever. It’s all a good part of the sale but I wonder if that investor would still invest if all they were getting was Broadway and the tours and maybe a smaller share of that piece. I don’t know that that’s really the hook that’s getting them. I know that’s what we say but I don’t know if that’s really it.
Ken: Well, investors, if you’re listening out there, chime in in the comments, let us know what you think. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today, Bruce.
Bruce: Thank you, Ken. This was great.
Ken: I had a lot of fun. Next up on the podcast – speaking of one of those successful writers out there – we’re going to have Stephen Flaherty joining us, the composer of Ragtime, Seussical, and a whole lot more. Thanks, everyone, for listening. We’ll see you next time!
Ken: Don’t forget – if you’ve got ideas on who you think would be a great guest on the podcast, e-mail them to me at email@example.com. I’d love to hear from you!