Doing the Hollywood shuffle

Small British theatres are realising there are big bucks to be made from new plays.
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British theatrical talent is hot in Hollywood at the moment, thanks to Four Weddings and a Funeral, Ralph Fiennes and The Madness of King George. But for too long the theatre community has viewed the film and TV industries as maurauding barbarians who periodically swoop down and carry off their most prized assets. There's some justification in the attitude. Think of all the films that began as stage plays: Dangerous Liaisons (RSC), Death and the Maiden (Royal Court), Insignificance (Royal Court) to name but a few. In each case the theatre that took the initial gamble received no credit - let alone cash - when the big money became interested. Even a fraction of a percentage of the budget of a film like Death and the Maiden would have gone a very long way for a subsidised theatre.

"Theatres up and down the country are being ripped off," says Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of the Bush theatre. When Dusty Hughes's Commitments was made into a TV film in 1980 with the Bush cast, director and set, the theatre was paid pounds 70 "for prop hire". But when Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing goes into production for Channel 4, directed by the Bush director Hettie Macdonald, the theatre will get pounds 10,000 thanks to Dromgoole's wrangling.Gradually, theatres are realising that they are sitting on a miniature goldmine if only they can learn how to exploit it.

The Bush and the Hampstead theatres have recently signed a deal with a US film company, Vanguard (which incorporates Touchstone Productions, Merchant Ivory, Miramax and Disney) to act as talent scouts for new writers in return for an annual $10,000 stipend, plus a slice of the cake if any of their recommendations go into full production. The Soho Theatre Company have a similar deal with Mick Kohn, a producer with Amblin Entertainment, while the Tricycle has set up its own production company, Tricycle TV. The Royal Court passed up the chance to do a deal with Vanguard for various reasons, including a nervousness on the part of writers that they might lose out.

"We don't want to punish the writer," says Dromgoole. At the moment, a theatre's only chance of profit if a play is made into a film is via the writer - the theatre will get 10 per cent of the author's income, which is paltry enough as it is. But then why should a theatre get any more than the prestige - and box office takings - of a successful production? "We have an excellent resource, based on our literary department," says Dromgoole. "Now we're putting it into the marketplace. If a play we suggest goes into production, we could make $75,000 [which represents 15 per cent of the Bush's frozen annual subsidy] without the writer losing out. We've got to get into this kind of spin-off culture to supplement our meagre funding."