Freelance theatre directors’ fees in the subsidised sector are so low that they can leave even the busy and successful in virtual poverty. They need to rise substantially over the next three years. Despite general funding difficulties, we believe the new Tax Credit makes this possible. Contracts should also be redesigned to reflect directors’ preparation time and the need for participation in success via royalties. In collaboration with top agents SDUK is preparing Directors’ Standard Contract Terms for discussion with the companies at the earliest possible opportunity.
1) A STATE OF POVERTY
As The SDUK Earnings Report shows, freelance theatre directors’ fees have for long been so low that, without a ‘hit’, it is impossible for even the well established to make a reasonable living. (See https://www.stagedirectorsuk.com/fee-report/ ) Doing at most four productions a year (if lucky) a top director can easily earn as little as £20-£22,000, which will not cover most mortgages, a London rent, or basic childcare. Early career directors can only survive by taking other work.
The director is regularly the worst paid member of the theatre team, earning less than the theatre’s Artistic Director, Chief Executive, General Manager, Head of Finance, Publicity, Development or Production, all of whom will be on staff contracts with paid holidays and no periods out of work. Which of these would even consider working for the rates that are paid to freelance directors in most UK theatres? On the Fringe, the director’s fee is often the first to be cut from the budget.
The successful director can also earn less than his or her freelance designer, whose rates will not be much lower but who is often able to work on several jobs at once. The director can also earn less than freelance stage managers who are paid overtime. In fact, a director who does a lot of preparation can earn less than the National Minimum Wage, even at a world famous venue. Only a West End or Old Vic run, or a couple of productions at the National Theatre or RSC, will bring some respite from the poverty of even an established theatre director.
To remedy this unjust and irrational situation SDUK is seeking a substantial rise in most freelance directors’ fees in the subsidised sector, of the order of 40% to 50% over the next three years, or 15% per year on average by 2018.
2) PREPARATION TIME
A key factor in low fees is the absence of proper payment for preparation time, which on a complex production can easily exceed the rehearsal time. The SDUK Earnings Report also shows that some of the most successful productions are those with the longest preparation. However ‘prep’ is rarely acknowledged in the director’s contract, and almost never recompensed in the fee.
SDUK would like to open discussions on a set of contract clauses that make clear the need for preparation time to be agreed in advance and specifically paid for.
3) PARTICIPATION BASED ON THE DIRECTOR’S INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY
We believe that the director, as the guiding creative spirit, with the writer, should always participate in some way in the success of his or her production, and not only in the commercial theatre. This is a basic principle of all US theatre contracts, and of many film and TV contracts in the western world.
Royalties on Extended Runs or Tours
In particular, directors should automatically be paid a royalty on any run extension or revival that is due to the success of the production. Some shows in the NPO sector have extended runs in large houses that bring in big revenues. Their writers can earn large sums in royalties; their directors should also benefit.
Many NPO touring productions pay royalties. ETT and, recently, Headlong pay 1% as standard. The National Theatre of Scotland pays a royalty of 2% on a second tour. The RSC, however, regularly transfers productions from Stratford to London without paying any royalty at all. We will be seeking discussions on this practice.
Royalties as Standard
But why confine royalties to tours or extended runs? The Old Vic is exemplary in paying very good fees, plus a royalty on all performances (2% or more). The Lyric Hammersmith has paid a 1% royalty on its Christmas show. Every theatre executive knows that the audience success of a show is very largely down to the director. Paying royalties on top of a decent fee is the fairest and most appropriate means of recompensing the director.
Digital recordings and transmissions
Digital rights in both theatre and opera are rapidly growing in importance, with many performances being retransmitted that were originally contracted as ‘live’. Such transmissions should always provide for a royalty. Participation, on the basis of intellectual property, should always be the guiding principle.
The SDUK Standard Contract Terms will propose fair royalties and rights payments so that directors always share in the success of their productions.
There are delicate issues to resolve over the copyright in devised productions, and situations where the director has had a substantial authorial input. We will be entering into discussion on these with the relevant parties.
The SDUK Standard Contract Terms will define and defend the intellectual property of theatre and opera directors.
Expenses. These can be a cost to regional companies, but are of course absolutely essential to directors not locally based. Expenses need to cover all genuine travel and living costs so that the director is not out of pocket. Expenses must also be paid for travel to any casting, design or production meetings held in advance of the rehearsal period.
SDUK Standard Terms will define fair provision for expenses throughout the whole contract term.
4) EARLY CAREER DIRECTORS
Many SDUK members are working in small theatres & fringe companies for very low fees, profit share or even for no fee at all. Most do not have agents. Since the SDUK Earnings Report gave them more confidence, some are managing to get better rates by simply refusing low ones, but stronger upward pressure is needed.
In this sector too, rates must rise substantially over three years. Although profit share must be permissible (if it is correctly set up) we support moves for actors to be paid at least the minimum wage, and will be taking similar steps on behalf of directors.
For Assistants, non-payment should cease, except perhaps for some genuine ‘observer’ places. A common complaint is lack of transparency in hiring, a sense of exclusion from a mysterious closed club. We will be undertaking a report on Assistants’ Fees and Contracts for discussion with members and companies later in the year. We will also be developing a set of Basic Contract Guidelines containing ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ to protect those without agents from exploitation.
The situation for young directors is such that it is currently those from well off backgrounds living in South East England that are most likely to progress. Fees are too low to support life away from the parental home, and though assistant schemes exist, access to these is limited to the lucky few. SDUK is profoundly committed to widening both access and diversity in the profession of directing.
5) CHANGE IS COMING
Since it was published in January 2015 the SDUK Earnings Report has radically transformed the fee debate. Directors have been emboldened to turn down poor fees, and SDUK’s campaigns are slowly beginning to work. A few farsighted theatres have recently started to raise their fees (whether due to our arguments or to the patent need for change): whatever the reason, we are grateful to them.
The table below shows the most obvious rises in main house fees between 2014 and 2015, according to data we have received.
Company Increase 2014-2105 Explanatory Notes
Leicester Curve 75% Christmas Show fee
Headlong 50% +1% royalty
ETT 44.5% +1% royalty
Young Vic 29%
Royal Court 17%
Orange Tree 17%
Old Vic (not an NPO) 11% +2.0 royalty or more
(We want to thank most emphatically those companies that went to the trouble to fill out our Fee Questionnaire, and request those who haven’t yet, to kindly do so. Discussion of fees is much more accurate when the facts are known.
These are clear signs of progress, but this is only the beginning. Every company in the UK now needs to follow suit, and the process needs to continue for several years, before directors’ earnings will be where we believe they need to be.
We should point out that the majority of companies seem to have made no increase at all in freelance directors’ fees so far in 2015. Several of these are quite high profile, including, apparently, Birmingham Rep, Bristol Old Vic, Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse, The Royal Exchange, Glasgow Citizens, Tricycle and West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Some of these have assured us that they will be taking steps soon. We urge them all to do so. Royalties and additional payment for preparation are two obvious means of moving rates upwards.
6) NOW IS THE MOMENT
One Artistic Director admitted to us last year: ‘I only pay what I have to’. This is admirably candid, but it is the law of the business jungle. Directors have been forced to take their own steps to redress the situation: hence the rapid growth of Stage Directors UK.
Managing a company is a juggling act even at the best of times, but we do not believe there is any valid reason for fees not to start going up right now, even given the current and anticipated funding climate.
Every theatre company, from the National to the smallest Fringe venue, is now benefiting from an appreciable – and ongoing – rebate on costs through the new Theatre Tax Credit of 15% (20% for touring productions). It is worth noting that directors’ fees are specifically claimable under the scheme.
Most companies employ very few freelance directors in any one year, many less directors than they do designers or stage managers, since so many productions are directed by the resident, staff Artistic or Associate Director. Therefore the additional cost of paying higher freelance directors’ fees will be absolutely minuscule in relation to most annual budgets. It is therefore not just fair, but perfectly possible, to raise them appreciably over the next few years.
We are aware of executives’ natural desire to harbor their resources and hire us at the lowest possible rates, but we believe this tactic is inappropriate to those whose creative vision governs and illuminates everything that happens on their stages.
Though based on a company’s circumstances, fees to freelance directors should always reflect: (1) the importance of the director’s contribution, (2) the status of the project and the theatre, (3) the time spent by the director, including preparation time, and (4) the need to offer participation in the success of the production.
7) THE WAY FORWARD – WORKING WITH AGENTS
One year old today (September 25th), SDUK has already built up considerable knowledge of both contracts and fees in the sector. Agents, however, have been doing this for years, and possess an enormous amount of detailed know how, which they are now sharing with us in the interests of their clients, our members.
We meet regularly with one group of PMA representatives to discuss the issues in this document. We are already working with one group on fees and contracts in the commercial sector and with another on royalty and copyright issues in opera. We will be mounting campaigns on these two issues later this year.
We believe that detailed and comprehensive cooperation between directors, their agents and their professional body SDUK, is the most effective way to improve the situation of British freelance directors. Together we can present a powerful case, and back it up with action.
We look forward to discussing directors’ and assistant directors’ fees and contracts with all UK subsidised companies, starting before the end of 2015. We will be proposing a set of Standard Contract Terms as part of those discussions.
Chief Executive, SDUK
September 25, 2015