Will Play Cats, Ogres, and Witches But #NotALabRat: Equity Secures Profit-Sharing Agreement for Actors Involved in Developmental Projects - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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Will Play Cats, Ogres, and Witches But #NotALabRat: Equity Secures Profit-Sharing Agreement for Actors Involved in Developmental Projects

Will Play Cats, Ogres, and Witches But #NotALabRat: Equity Secures Profit-Sharing Agreement for Actors Involved in Developmental Projects

On January 7, 2019, Actors’ Equity Association (“Equity”) went on strike against the Broadway League because actors were not being adequately compensated for their involvement in developing new Broadway shows.1 Before Broadway productions are ready for an audience, they go through several years of development so the story can be edited, songs can be re-written, and characters can be born. Actors are critical for helping a show make the page-to-stage leap, and they often remain involved with a production from inception to Opening Night. However, while Broadway grosses have increased exponentially (in 2018 Broadway shows grossed $1.825 billion)2, actors were still being paid salaries established in 2007, eleven years later.3 The 2007 agreement establishing those salary caps has been used seventy-five times since 2016.4

Equity is the labor union representing 51,000 American actors and stage managers.5 In November 2018, Equity began its “#NotALabRat” campaign to highlight this financial discrepancy and push for new solutions to be instituted.6 Some producers had already begun sharing profits with Equity members who were involved in the development process.7 For example, the cast of Hamilton made history in 2016 when they convinced producers to pay the actors who had helped develop the show one-percent of net profits.8 The more recent productions of Frozen and Mean Girls have followed suit.9 However, this practice was not the industry norm and, more importantly, was not memorialized in any union agreement.10 When negotiations failed to fix the problem, Equity declared the strike.11 As a result, Equity members (which almost all Broadway performers are) could not work on labs, workshops, or staged readings.12 This bold move paid off; approximately one month later, a new agreement had been reached.13

The new agreement applies to labs, workshops, and staged readings.14 Chief among the agreement’s achievements are that producers will now split one-percent of a show’s profits with the actors and stage managers who were involved in the show’s development – once the production has recouped its initial investment.15 In addition, the agreement establishes a new five-year term for actor salaries (with increases set to occur three times during that time span), options for additional assistant stage manager contracts, a new minimum of five weeks for rehearsals (for Broadway musicals; plays will now receive a minimum of four weeks), and further health and pension benefits.16 Not only does this give actors a piece of the pie, so to speak, but agreeing to review salary caps in five years ensures that any unforeseen monetary issues cannot exist in perpetuity.

Big-name actors often have the power to request higher compensation and benefits during negotiations, leaving producers to take advantage of those performers who have not yet achieved such star power. This is why this agreement is such a monumental achievement. Developmental labs and first productions are vital to creating successful Broadway shows. During that time, actors not only create characters from the ground-up, but they develop the chemistry that can only come from years of workshopping. Even if an actor does not have a role in the final iteration, their work is invaluable to the overall process of crafting an award-winning show. Furthermore, developmental labs are often a great way for younger actors to get their foot in the door. Acknowledging that these actors deserve to be recognized for their contributions is a significant step towards achieving fairness and creative equality.

Yet, concerns remain. Under the new agreement, profit-sharing will only kick in once a show has fully recouped its initial investment. In the modern Broadway era, these investments total millions of dollars. As profitable as the 2018 Broadway season was, recouping those investments without tremendously raising ticket prices (to keep theatre accessible, an entirely separate issue) makes it exceedingly difficult for the non-Hamilton shows of the world to recoup (or if they do, it takes an exceptionally long period of time). Broadway performers may wait years to see payments rewarding the fruits of their labor. However, instituting this initial remedy is a step, albeit overdue, in the right direction.

  1. Actors’ Equity Association 1913, Strike: Actors’ Equity Puts All New Show Development Work with The Broadway League on Its #Donotwork List, https://www.actorsequity.org/news/PR/NotALabRat01072019 (last visited Mar. 14, 2019). [https://perma.cc/BUD9-UGJN]

  2. Michael Paulson, Landmark Broadway Deal Gives Actors a Piece of the Profits, N.Y. Times (Feb. 8, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/08/theater/broadway-profit-sharing.html. [https://perma.cc/TSD9-33W7]

  3. Actors’ Equity Association 1913, supra note 1.

  4. Id.

  5. Paulson, supra note 2.

  6. Ryan McPhee, Actors’ Equity Calls for Strike Against Developmental Labs, Playbill (Jan. 7, 2019), http://www.playbill.com/article/actors-equity-calls-for-strike-against-developmental-labs. [https://perma.cc/D6PF-YVYB]

  7. Id.

  8. Robert Viagas, How the Hamilton Cast Won a Slice of the Show’s Financial Pie, Playbill (Sep. 28, 2016), http://www.playbill.com/article/how-the-hamilton-cast-won-a-slice-of-the-shows-financial-pie. [https://perma.cc/K36Y-XQA2]

  9. Paulson, supra note 2.

  10. Id.

  11. Id.

  12. Actors’ Equity Association 1913, supra note 1.

  13. See Paulson, supra note 2.

  14. Id.

  15. Id.

  16. American Theatre Editors, Actors’ Equity Ends Strike Against Broadway League, American Theatre (Feb. 8, 2019), https://www.americantheatre.org/2019/02/08/actors-equity-ends-strike-against-broadway-league. [https://perma.cc/E5EV-XENS]

Marissa Saravis

Marissa Saravis is a second-year J.D. candidate at Fordham University School of Law and a staff member of the Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal. She is also a member of the Fordham Law Moot Court Board and serves as the Social Chair for the Media & Entertainment Law Society. Prior to attending law school, Marissa worked in management and development on Broadway and Off-Broadway productions. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Dramatic Art and English from UC Davis.