Several business stories and business trends in theatre are developing rapidly, and while it is tough to predict specific outcomes, a few developments are worth watching closely.
The SAG/AFTRA Commercial Strike: Now starting its fifth month, the strike against the producers of commercials by actors from the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists is the longest in SAG's history. It may soon become the longest in the history of any entertainment union. The actors want to protect their residual payments, increase payments scales for cable commercials and establish union jurisdiction (coverage) of Internet commercials. Commercial producers seek other formulae, and both sides are entrenched. The union has used something like $2 million from its strike fund, and the producer's Joint Policy Committee (JPC) claims commercial production was up again in August, suggesting that the strike has not worked to further the union's agenda. On the surface, this is just a bitter entertainment labor dispute that will eventually sort itself out. But the SAG contract with commercial producers will probably come to be viewed in terms of a more significant, historical context. This is true if only because the timing of this contract negotiation - - coming amidst the music industry's copyright suits over MP3 and Napster, and just ahead of next year's writers contract negotiations -- makes it the one to watch. For actors, writers, producers and anyone else in entertainment who creates or distributes creative or intellectual property, the SAG commercial strike is beginning to look like something of a "Rocky Hill."
Equity's Production Contract: While this hasn't developed into as contentious a negotiation as the SAG/AFTRA commercial contract, the talks over the granddaddy of Equity contracts have been typically long. The many serious issues being discussed between theatrical producers and the actors and stage managers of Actors' Equity Association are outlined in detail and kept current on the Equity website. One business issue involves the rearrangement of show schedules to leave Wednesdays dark, because they are harder to sell, and making up for it with a longer weekend schedule. Talent bristles over the impact this has on health and safety, because it cuts into precious recuperation time, they say. One respected theatre veteran described the coming weeks and months as an experimental period where we will learn how a five-show weekend really affects talent, both vocally and physically.
Location, Location, Location: A strong economy, more sophisticated (and ambitious) management at nonprofits and good ol' theatrical chutzpah have made the past few years exciting in terms of bricks and mortar...the theatres themselves. Whether it's the total redesign and refurbishing of the Pantages in Los Angeles (among numerous Nederlander upgrades), Roundabout's new American Airlines Theatre, the Guthrie's plans to expand or Shakespeare and Company's purchase of a sprawling new facility, many theatre companies are making important capital investments.
Jack Goldstein Departs Theatre Development Fund: The end of the year may seem like a long way off, but for those at the Theatre Development Fund (TDF), which runs numerous programs including the TKTS Booth, the scheduled departure of executive director Jack Goldstein when his contract expires is fast approaching. The veteran of Equity and TDF executive positions is highly regarded and will be missed but, to TDF's credit, the transition is being managed well. Goldstein and the TDF board have initiated a nation-wide search for his replacement. Goldstein has received offers but is carefully considering his next move. Broadcast Media Developments: In the past year, the theatre community has seen Broadcast interest reach new levels along the Great White Way. Yes, it is widely reported that CBS has quietly exercised its contract option to air the Tony Awards show next May, even if it scales back and reconsiders hosts and venue choices. And earlier in the year, newcomers to the Broadway broadcast gallery included the subscription based network Broadway Tonight (Broadway Digital Entertainment) and the pay-per-view based Broadway Television Network. All of this interest serves to lift the Broadway profile, certainly, and any real success with the broadcast models could have a significant impact on theatre. In New York, meanwhile, WNBC program director Adele Rikin told Playbill On-Line that there are a lot of theatre boosters at that network, where the decision to cover the annual Broadway on Broadway season kick-off revue stemmed from an effort to "broaden the reach of Broadway as well as to bring Broadway into the homes of our viewers."
New Blood: The arrival and/or continued success of new producers like Latin/Pop star Enrique Iglesias (Four Guys Named Jose and Una Mujer Named Maria), Jordan Roth (The Donkey Show, the Rocky Horror Show) and Andrew Barrett (now developing In Sarajevo) could signal the start of a trend featuring interesting projects from hip, young, creative producers.
Frank Wildhorn's The Romantics: What makes singling out Wildhorn and one of his shows appropriate is the composer's methodology, which is essentially a redefining of the way musicals can be produced. Using a three-part mini-musical format, The Romantics features Wildhorn's wife, the singer Linda Eder, along with various male leads starring as historic couples. Wildhorn is also preparing to break out certain individual mini-musicals and develop them as independent, full length theatrical projects as well.
Creative Business Models: It may seem like a vague notion, but the theatre community will probably continue to experiment with any number of new business models. In other words, if it works, keep it; if it doesn't, then "anything goes." Some examples: SAG is betting that despite a limitless number of "actors" in the world, there are so few truly talented actors that the union can risk a long strike now rather than miss the chance to redefine its commercial contract for broadcast, cable and the Internet. Theatre producers may or may not do away with the Wednesday matinee, but they'll play with the model and try to improve it. Off-Off-Broadway, at the Midtown International Festival, organizers are already planning to re-scale that event to make it more manageable. Even at the League, one independent source said, there may be some early consideration of holding the annual convention in Cuba in order to help generate stronger interest in the event. This begs the chat engine casting question of the year -- would Roundabout tap Fidel Castro as Phyllis in next year's revival of Stephen Sondheim's Follies?
-- By Murdoch McBride