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What do you advise to pursue first, the stage production or the movie version of my script?

By Robert L. Seigel

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Question: I have an idea for a stage play that would also make a good movie. What do you advise to pursue first, the stage production or the movie? What's easier to get development and/or production financing for?

I used to have this debate with an attorney colleague regarding which is less difficult (note I do not say “easier”) to develop and fund: a stage play or an independent film. I would argue that it is the stage play since the development time can be shorter for shows (though some plays and musicals require years of development between rewrites, staged readings and showcases or regional productions), and the investors often feel better in investing in a show since there are opening nights and cast meetings to attend (although opening night could be closing night as well).

There is a connection of excitement experienced by investors in a live production along with a certain pride of ownership that when they are involved in funding a play as being a “producer” or “associate producer” of a show. Even in this recession based economy, there are still high net worth individuals who want to be part of a show. On the other hand, films can take stretches of time to develop, fund and even shoot, and there is less of a connection between an investor and the often time-consuming process of “hurry up and wait” on film sets.

Although a show may close and still have a life at regional theatres and in “stock and amateur” productions, one can argue on behalf of films since there are more revenue outlets for a film ranging from theatrical, DVD, television, internet streaming/download, etc. In addition, there are certain parts of the country where people reside where the allure of filmmaking is alive and well and they are less acquainted with plays and musicals except if there are strong regional theatres in such areas.

Theatre producers have been aware of the need for “seed money” or “front money” during the development of a show so that they can acquire options on shows, prepare the appropriate financing documents, engage a general manager to prepare a budget and advise, perhaps a casting director and a director along with scheduled stage readings and backers’ auditions. This “front money” model has been applied by motion picture producers gradually only over the past few years since some investors appear to be more willing to invest front monies in a show rather than a film for the reasons stated above.

Due to technological advances in filmmaking such as shooting and editing digitally, the costs of an independent film and an Off-Broadway show can be somewhat comparable with budgets in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. With the advent of regional theatres, not for profit theatre organizations and Off-Off- and Off-Broadway venues, there are numerous outlets for shows while the number of conventional venues for independent film screens has narrowed for non-studio or non-mainstream fare (although there has been a growth in alternative exhibition sites other than movie theatres such as universities, libraries, community centers, etc. for such projects).

In some ways, produced plays are like published books since both types of work indicate that someone other than the writer sees the merit in the writer’s work and has expended time and money in having it produced or published.

The path between the adaptation of a show into a screenplay for a film (and vice versa) has been more traveled by producers over the years. One example would be Aaron Sorkin’s play “A Few Good Men” which was originally produced as a play before it was produced as a film with a few of the play’s key producers attached as producers and/or executive producers of the film.

The key issue for a writer is to determine whether a story can be developed as a show as well as a film. Is the story dialogue or visually driven? How will these different versions of a story be physically produced and budgeted? Speaking with producers in both media and line producers and the theatre’s equivalent, general managers (who are often stage producers as well) would be helpful.

About Robert L. Seigel

Robert L. Seigel ([email protected]) is a NYC entertainment attorney and a partner in the Cowan DeBaets Abrahams & Sheppard LLP law firm which specializes in the representation of clients in the entertainment and media areas.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided here is intended to provide general information and does not constitute legal advice. You should not act or rely on such information without seeking the advice of an attorney and receiving counsel based on your particular facts and circumstances. Many of the legal principles mentioned might be subject to exceptions and qualifications, which are not necessarily noted in the answers. Furthermore, laws are subject to change and vary by jurisdiction.
Screenwriting Article by Robert L. Seigel

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