Playwright Bargaining Legislation Reintroduced in Washington, DC

News   Playwright Bargaining Legislation Reintroduced in Washington, DC
A bill that would allow playwrights to negotiate Broadway contracts as a group—a piece of U.S. legislation little loved by Broadway producers—will be reintroduced in Congress, reported Variety.

Senators Chuck Schumer (D) of New York and Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah were the sponsors of the legislation when it was first pushed in 2002; they back it again here. The bill's official name is the Playwrights Licensing Relief Act of 2004 and, if successful, it could have a far-reaching impact on the Broadway theatre.

A measure of the proposal's importance can be read in the identities of those who will journey to Washington to speak for and against it. Arthur Miller, Stephen Sondheim and Wendy Wasserstein will sit on the pro side, while Shubert Organization chairman Gerald Schoenfeld and producer Roger Berlind will voice their opposition.

A similar bill was introduced in the House of Representatives in December 2001 by Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts and Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois.

The move comes at a time when the League of American Theatres and Producers is busy hammering out a new version of the all-important Production Contract with Actors' Equity.

If passed into law, the bill would effectively give dramatists the same collective bargaining powers long enjoyed by actors, directors, stagehands and other theatrical professions. Up until now, anti-trust laws have forced scribes to negotiate such things as royalties, licensing of titles, development and productions as independent contractors. "In a marketplace increasingly dominated by large corporations, individual playwrights need to be able to stand together to collectively negotiate contracts," said Schumer in 2002 from the stage of the Elizabethan Theater at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington.

Those who consider the theatre a playwright's medium might be surprised to discover that, at the negotiating table, dramatists arguably possess the least degree of power of any creative group. Unlike, say, Actors' Equity, the Dramatists Guild is an association, not a union and is not covered under the National Labor Relations Act. As a result, anti-trust laws prevent the guild's members from sitting down as a whole to negotiate a Broadway production contract. Instead, each writer works out an individual contract. This means that where, say, Neil Simon might make out well, a first time playwright would likely fare comparatively poorly.

Currently, dramatists and producers work from the Approved Production Contract, which was forged in the early '80s. That pact was made after the League of American Theatres and Producers hit the guild with an antitrust action, reported Variety. Since then, the guild has attempted to alter relations between writers and producers.

"Over the course of the last two years," librettist John Weidman told Variety in 2002, "we approached the League and various producers to talk about how we did business. We had some interesting meetings, but in the end we were rebuffed. A number of producers thought it was a good idea but they feared anti-trust problems and accusations of price-fixing in a field in which the market is supposed to operate without restraints. This bill gets rid of the long shadow of anti-trust."

The 2002 House bill reads: "The antitrust laws shall not apply to—A) agreement by and among playwrights, or by and among representatives or associations of playwrights; or B) concerted action taken by playwrights or by representatives or associations of playwright."

The Dramatists' Guild has more than 6,000 members.

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