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Contracts With Authors

( Originally Published 1916 )

AUTHORS in America have had little assistance from any organization in establishing equitable contracts, although their agents have done much; yet there has come about a sort of acknowledged standard to which reputable firms are not loath to subscribe. And it is likely that this will be substantially the basis of the model contract now being prepared by the counsel of the Society of American Dramatists and Composers. On the other hand, there ever are unscrupulous persons anxious to defraud others of their rights; and of this number probably an equal proportion are dramatists.

The first thing after acceptance of a play is money down, unless, of course, production is immediate, when possibly no advance is made. For a new author, this advance on royalties ranges from perhaps $250 to $500, or even $1,000—assuming, for instance, that the author has public standing in another line. This amount binds the manager's option of producing the play.

But a manager has been known to accept a play not to produce it himself, but merely to keep another manager from doing it, and so destroying the freshness of, or " taking the edge off," some prearranged piece. This is the more likely to happen because authors commonly submit plays similar in character to one then running or announced under the producer's direction. To guard against this, a date limit of perhaps six months is set to the option. And when that time has expired, the producer may extend his option usually for two periods of three months each, at the rate of perhaps $250 apiece, or forfeit the first sum, and yield up the play to its author, representative, or other owner.

It is generally considered that a manager is taking extraordinary chances in producing an author's first play—usually from two to three times as many as with one by an established dramatist. This estimate is accurately made here by the circumstance that the new man often gets but five per cent. of the gross receipts, while the playwright who has " arrived " with one other production at least, ordinarily gets ten per cent., and the long-established, " representative " dramatist may get as much as fifteen.

The average matter of author's payment is adjusted to what is known as the " sliding scale," whereby he gambles on chances of success along with the manager. This system is always based on gross receipts of a production, before any other expenses are deducted.

It starts with five per cent. on the first $3,000; seven and one-half per cent. on the next $2,000; a fiat ten per cent. beginning with the next $2,000, or, perhaps, fifteen per cent. on all over $10,000 gross. The gross is almost invariably figured on the week, although the production may play three or more different theaters in six days. In a large city, and depending, of course, on capacity of the house, weekly receipts of a successful play usually vary any-where from $4,000 to $10,000. Occasionally the contract stipulates that by the time a certain sum is paid in royalties, the play becomes property of the manager; but this is comparatively rare.


In the body of the contract there are various minor considerations, such as stock and motion picture rights, which are generally shared equally with the manager; options on production abroad, which commonly allow the author an increased percentage, and the condition that if the manager fails to present the play for, say, fifty performances over a period of perhaps forty weeks, or the theatrical year, the play reverts to the author.

Something is said, too, about appearance of the author's name on programs, and in certain classes of advertising which are specified carefully. So the author, while not having his name in the ordinary newspaper directory as a rule, may be represented when the space is increased—this being a form of what is technically known as " display" advertising. Novelization rights are generally retained by the author, although these often are ceded some newspaper or " news " syndicate for publicity accruing from serial publication.

A brief clause in the contract, which may achieve monumental importance later, is the author's guarantee that his play is original or an authorized translation, adaptation, or dramatization, and contains no libelous matter, and that, in event of libel or plagiarism being found, he will undertake responsibility, and recompense the manager for any losses sustained in consequence.

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