Thoughts from a Los Angeles Theater Producer

Lets get down to business!

Posted in Producer's League by Rick Culbertson on September 2, 2009

(you may want to start with my first-first post to learn more about me and why I am starting this blog)

Ok, so my first real post is going to cover the most important issue as I see it: A LOS ANGELES PRODUCERS LEAGUE.  This issue is complex, and can’t be covered in one blog post.  And most of my posts over the next few months will be about specific issues that will, I hope, support the formation of a real Producer’s League.  But since it is the largest of the several large elephants in the room, I thought I would start here and at least give a taste…

 Why do we need a Producer’s League?  Very simple: To give us power.  Right now, we as producers have no power.  Zero.  All of our agreements are promulgated (as opposed to collectively bargained).  Some of you may say, “But there are always meetings about the 99 seat plan to which producers are invited!” While that might be true, we don’t really have a real voice as a group.  And what about the other unions that we pretty much just ignore like USA, or SSDC, or the Musicians Union?  Our current choice is to either accept the union, ignore the union (which forces our talent into having to make a bad decision) or just use non-union talent. And then there are the theater rental contracts– which are, for the most part, not good deals for any of us.

First the unions.  Now, don’t all you hard-core pro-union people jump all over me here, but in LA the unions can basically do whatever they want. I discovered this when I tried to transfer my show to a HAT contract from the 99-seat plan after it ran for 60 performances.  I had many disagreements about what Equity wanted to do, but since I already had union talent in place, my options were limited: I basically had to agree with Equity, or close the show.  (For full disclosure, Equity did relent to me on one of the major issues, when I was in a total bind.  But I wouldn’t have been in a bind if it was all worked out before hand.)

Now, this is not meant to be an anti-union post. I really think that we need unions (I will get to this in a later post), but what I quickly realized was: I was a small, little, first-time producer with a small show… going up against Equity.  I had no bargaining power.  In addition, before I even started rehearsals, I called Equity and asked what I need to prepare for prior to the moment that I went from 99-seat to HAT. In answer to this question, I was told that they wouldn’t deal with that until it happened during my run.  They wouldn’t even tell me what to expect or what it would cost me!  

So, I had zero info from Equity on what I would need to prepare for, and absolutely no producer’s organization to help me.  It was like standing on the moon: desolate, lonely and no one to help. This is not a pleasant situation for a producer, no matter how much experience he/she has.  If we had a Producer’s League, we would be able to negotiate a streamlined process for any show to transfer, thus allowing me and the rest of us to be prepared before we even start raising money. As it was, I was left waiting for answers from Equity just weeks before the transfer, not knowing whether I would even have the money to make the switch.  I had no idea what to expect… and I got burned.

Then there are the other unions.  It seems crazy to me that most of the advice I received about unions other than Equity was basically: “Don’t worry about them.”  To which I responded, “Then why do they exist?” As I learned later, some of these unions will come roaring over the hill the minute you are no longer a 99-seat show.  This is not the best way to work.  Its time for us to bring these additional unions into the fold from the beginning. As I said before, I do think that unions are necessary, but they have to work with us– not against us.  If we had a League in place to protect our bottom line, working together safely with the unions would not be an issue.  This would also create opportunities for artists to work with us without having to work “under the radar.”

And then there are the theater rental contracts. In Los Angeles, theater owners can do whatever they want with their rental agreements. Many theaters in town require that a producer purchases a minimum number of weeks up front, thereafter booking the space you rented to someone else after you– all before you even open your show.  This means that if you have a hit…. too bad! No extensions. You gotta close!

Having a Producer’s League behind us would ensure that we, as producers, can negotiate better contracts.  It becomes very simple:  If theaters don’t want to co-operate, then we just don’t rent them.  With a League, this type of bargaining wields a huge amount of power; without a League, the theater will simply rent to the next guy, offering him the same bad deal you didn’t want to take (more on this issue on my future post about open-ended runs and theaters).

Ok, like I said, there are a ton of issues that expand upon this single broad issue. But these are three major points as to why we should have a Producer’s League.  The how, when, and who… well, that will have to come in future posts.

 Leave me a comment and let me know what you think!

(And don’t forget to sign up on my twitter page!)


6 Responses

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  1. Kelly Lester said, on September 2, 2009 at 8:46 pm

    Hi Rick,

    Great Blog!!!
    I am so appreciative of your info, thoughts, insightful observations, and especially, your ideas for change and progress to benefit and support the theatre community here. Bravo to you for putting it out there and getting the proverbial ball rolling towards new ways of doing things!! Looking forward to reading more!

  2. Paul Doble said, on September 2, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    This is a really good read Rick. Keep it coming. I’m spreading it around.

  3. Micah Wylie said, on September 3, 2009 at 9:20 am

    I fell victim to the theatre rental situation with Mercury Fur this Spring. The show was gaining the traction we needed for an extension just as our 5 weeks were drawing to a close. Ticket sales were up, we had great buzz from Variety. The theatre, however, was already rented out to the next show. We were left with few options. Once the show closed, the momentum vanished. A remount was too big a financial risk for the company. A bittersweet end!

    I think you are onto something here!!

  4. Gregory Franklin said, on September 17, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    As an AEA member I’d like to see all producers familiar with the 99-SEAT plan. And I think it needs to begin with language. It is no longer called EQUITY WAIVER. The continued use of this outdated and invalid terminology by producers, directors and casting directors perpetuates a serious misnomer. In 1988 AEA came up with a plan which would better meet the needs of its members and clarify its needs from the producers. It’s called the 99-SEAT AGREEMENT. Since moving to Los Angeles I’ve worked under a number of AEA contracts including the 99-SEAT AGREEMENT and have found that independent producers are much more familiar with the details of the agreement and are held to the fire by AEA. However, AEA turns a blind eye to the ongoing nonprofit company-based theatres. I certainly don’t want to make it more difficult for these theatres as AEA knows they are dealing with nonprofit theatres with a variety of mission statements, resources and venues. And the 99-SEAT AGREEMENT provides an affordable way for producers to create and expand new work. But I feel that all producers must find a commonality that will benefit both the actor and the producer without either feeling left out.

    • Rick Culbertson said, on September 17, 2009 at 4:14 pm

      I myself am guilty for using the term waiver. And I agree that it works to brand LA theater as unprofessional. Thanks for your great comment Greg. I agree completely

  5. Gregory Franklin said, on September 17, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    I left out the most important and probably the most guilty of using the outdated terminology of EQUITY WAIVER…actors.

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