Could someone commission a Producer?

I was pleased to see that Andrew Lippa, the composer of Addams Family, Wild Party, and a closet favorite of mine, John and Jen, was awarded a commission by Texas State University, as a result of a gift to the University’s musical theater program from Patti Strickel Harrison.

Andrew is a fantastic talent and deserves the kudos and the cash to create new work (when I was at NYU, and when Andrew was doing the cabaret circuit, I sang an early tune of his called, “Make It Fly”, and I still remember the music and the message).

And a special thanks to Ms. Harrison for creating such a commission.

It did make me wonder . . .

Why doesn’t anyone commission Producers?

There is no better education than doing. I worked in the Broadway arena for 10 years before I produced my first Off-Broadway show, and still, I never learned more than when I actually had my hands in the mud and was doing it on my own.

And since I believe the future of the theater is dependent on both the people that build the ship (writers) as well as those who sail the ship (producers), wouldn’t we all be served if we were able to get up-and-coming Producers’ hands dirty?

So commission the writers, because they are the future.

But there have got to be some institutions and some individuals (including some of my peers that have hit it huge with a show . . . you know who you are) that could afford to commission a young Producer or two.

If we don’t support these sailors, we could end up with a lot of boats that sink before they even leave the harbor.

– – – –

Oh . . . Andrew’s bridge went something like this . . .

Make it fly
Make it so that you can touch the sky.
Show the world that you can make the most of what you have.
If you take the ride . . .

It was a good message.

– – – –

CORRECTION:  The lyrics to “Make It Fly” were written by current Broadway Copy Guru and Spotco Exec. Tom Greenwald (who also co-wrote John & Jen).

I found a great writer. Now what do I do?

Yesterday we talked about where you can go to find writers who will put your idea for a Broadway or Off-Broadway (or Off-Off Broadway) show on paper.

But once you find that writer (or writers), then what do you do?  Here are four tips on what to do with that writer once you find him or her.

1.  Think twice.

The first thing you should do before jumping into bed with a writer is to give it a second thought and get a third opinion.  You’re marrying this writer.  Sure, you can always get divorced (see below), but that’s just going to make things more difficult later on (and more expensive), and more importantly, it’ll slow down the development of the piece.  You want to make sure that this writer is exactly what you are looking for. Don’t compromise, especially if the idea for the show came from your head.  It’ll drive you crazy to sign somebody up only to find out that he/she is not as passionate about the idea as you, or if they want to take it in a different direction than you do.

2.  What’s the deal?

Are you commissioning the writer?  In other words, are you paying him or her a fee to write your idea?  Upfront commission fees can range from a few hundred bucks to several thousand, depending on the reputation of your writer, and how badly they want to work on your project.  Commissions are especially common in the non-profit world, but creative commercial producers can and should use this tool as well.

When you do commission a writer, make sure you protect your creative contributions as well.  Most playwrights are going to ask that they own the final product (unless you can pay a significant upfront fee), but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get a piece of future income due to the writer(s) (and perhaps a credit as well) for being the creative impetus for the project.

Maybe you don’t want to commission, but instead you want to collaborate, which will put you more into the creative mix.

(Red Flag Alert:  When negotiating, be wary of writers who are only after high up-front advances or fees.  Sometimes this is a sign that they are not as interested in the project, and that they don’t believe that they will see a lot of long-term royalties (which is why they want guaranteed income up front)).

There are a thousand different ways to get a writer on board, and I strongly recommend you speak to a lawyer or someone who has hired writers before to get an idea of what will work best for your unique situation.  At  the end of the day, you want a deal that works well for both parties.

And don’t just try and get the writer to sign on board for nothing.  Giving people a little money makes them feel better about working on a project, and also makes them more beholden to their boss (that’s you!).

3.  Set deadlines.

Establish clear deadlines from day one for the development of the piece.  When is the first scene due?  When is the first Act due?  Completed script?  First reading?  Map out a developmental course, have the writer agree to it, and then make ’em stick to it.  Sure, you may have to adjust deadlines along the way, but having a mutually agreed upon plan will guarantee that more work gets done, and faster.

4.  If it’s not working out, make a change.

If the script isn’t coming together the way that you had envisioned it in that theater in your mind, then fire the writer, and move on.  Yes, it may cost you some bucks . . . but how much will it cost you in the long run if the idea that gets on stage isn’t the one you wanted written?  Now add in the mental anguish and more you’ll experience by working with someone for years when you don’t see eye to eye.  Now that’s expensive!  This is where theater producers need to be more like movie producers.  If the writer isn’t working, then find another one.  Period.  You owe it to your idea.  If you don’t make that change, you’ll always wonder what if . . .

Finding and hiring a writer is hard.  It’s one of the hardest things that a creative producer will ever have to do.  But it should be.  Because it’s the most important thing a creative producer will ever have to do.

It’s like building your dream house.

You can find the lot, and you can list all the features that you want . . . a big porch, a 3 car garage, a jacuzzi tub.  But it’s up to someone else to build that house, make sure it’s aesthetically pleasing, and make sure it doesn’t fall down after a few months.

How to find a great writer for your great idea.

If you’re reading my blog, then I’ll bet a union health payment that you don’t have one single idea for a show.

I’d bet that you’ve got a “shit ton” of ideas for shows.

(Sorry for the language, but I heard a guy use that expression at a Shell Station in Austin, and I just can’t stop saying it).

So what do you do with your ST of ideas?

If you don’t consider yourself a writer, then you gotta find one, because leaving all those great ideas idle on a shelf is a sin.

But how do you find a writer for your play or musical (or television show or novel or whatever)?

Here are three fishing holes I visit when I’ve got an idea that I want executed:

1.  Agents

Almost all established writers are repped by one of just a few agencies.  And a lot of the younger, more promising writers get sucked up by the same agents very early in their career, regardless of whether they’ve had any success. Reach out to the literary agents in town, forge a relationship, and ask who they would recommend for a job.  If you do reach out to an agency, don’t be surprised if you can’t get a top agent on the phone.  Work the assistant.  Find out if they have writers that are looking for ideas, commissions, etc.  Take the assistant to lunch.  Come on, you can do it.  You’re a producer.  Act like one.

2.  Festivals

Festivals are like Whole Foods for Writers.  They’ve got everything.  Whether there are 10 plays, 100 plays, or 1000 plays in a festival, you can bet there are writers of all shapes, styles and interests.  Sample as many shows as you can, looking for someone who has the talent and the sensibility that you are looking for.  And hey, if they’re working in a festival, I’d go double or nothing on that health payment that they are passionate and a hard worker.  And that’s the kind of writer you want and need.

3.  Friends

Put yourself in a circle of artists that have similar sensibilities, and ask them for recommendations.  Not only will you get recommendations of talented individuals, but your friends and associates will be able to give you some insight into whether or not the two of you will get along.  You’re going to be birthing a baby together . . . and if it was your idea, then that writer is acting like a surrogate . . . so you want to make sure you understand each other and can go through this difficult (and at times painful) process together.

Great writers are hard to find.  And great writers that are also passionate about the same subjects you are passionate about are even harder to find.

But they are out there.

Sometimes it just takes a ‘shit ton’ of work to find the ‘write’ one.

What do you do when you find that perfect writer?  Do you commission?  Do you collaborate?

More on that tomorrow.

Let the truth spark your original story.

Creating original works, whether they are screenplays, sonnets or shows, is incredibly difficult.  This is one of the reasons why 64% of the productions on Broadway over the last 30 years have been adaptations (Another reason?  People want them more than you think).

Often I get what I think are great ideas for new productions.  Maybe I’ve imagined a setting or a storyline that I think would translate well to the stage.

But then what?  Either I have to put my fingers to the keyboard and crank the sucker out, or I have to commission a writer to take my idea and spin it into gold.

Once you get going, the writing comes easier.  An object in motion tends to stay in motion, and one at rest . . . well, you know the physics.

But how do you start a totally original idea that is entirely made up?

Start with something that isn’t made up.

I always look for some specific kernel of truth to inspire me or my writers to start the story.  If I’m working on a show that takes place in a small town in New Jersey, I’ll find a small town in New Jersey, take a Zip Car across the bridge and spend a day there, soaking up the specifics about that town.  If I’m working on a show that is about a duck hunter, you can bet I’m going to track down an actual duck hunter and hang out with him or her for a day or two.  If I’m doing a show about medieval times, you can bet I’m going to go back in time and . . . ok, maybe I’ll read about the middle ages instead.

Some people call this research. I call it The Story Spark Plug.

Just a little bit of truth . . . just a little bit of non-fiction . . . can beget the best original stories around.

Need an example?

Sunday night Mark Boal won the Academy Award for Best ORIGINAL Screenplay for his movie, The Hurt Locker, which is about a United States Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal team during the Iraq War.

Before writing the movie, Mark was a freelance journalist who was embedded with a bomb squad.

Huh.  I wonder where he first heard the phrase, “the hurt locker.”

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