Top tips for negotiating stage to screen projects

Here, film and TV producer Anne Beresford presents ten top tips for negotiating stage-to-screen projects.

1. Ask yourself: Why are you doing this?
It’s good to know what your answer is to this question at the earliest stage because it will guide you through subsequent decisions.

If your aim is for your content to be available on every platform, all over the world, that will take you down one path and inform the conversations you have with rights holders; If your goal is a single screening at your own venue to mark an anniversary, that will take you down a very different path.

Keep coming back to this question throughout the process – and be aware that your answer may change (see Tip 5, below).

Is there buy-in to the project from senior management within your organisation? These projects can impact the whole production and your relationships with your cast and creative team so it’s vital that there is support and oversight from a senior member of the team.

2.  Do what you do best
Think about working with a specialist producer whose job it is to know their way around the film/TV/online distribution contracts, pitfalls and technical challenges – it could avoid serious headaches later.  Yes, some skills are transferable between film/screen and theatre production; I (as a film/television producer) could probably manage a passable stab at producing a theatre show but you – as theatre producers – would do it so much better than me.  The same is often true the other way round.  A positive collaboration between film/TV and theatre producers in my experience brings the best results.

3. Be fair and be open
Creating and maintaining good relationships with all the teams involved is crucial and being fair and open in your negotiations is a key part of that. Short term gains can sometimes have long term costs.

In terms of the negotiations themselves, try to keep your proposals as simple as possible. You might want to think about creating bands or tiers of payments/ agreements rather than 20 (or more!) individual contracts.  In my experience, banded or tiered contracts can help people to feel the process has been transparent and equitable.

4. Talk to people
Emails have a place, but not always for negotiations. You can often much better judge how the other side feels and their negotiating position if you talk to them – so pick up the phone or meet face-to-face and then follow up with an email to confirm the detail.

During these conversations, think about what you can more easily identify and potentially offer which matters to the person on the other side of the table.

Rumplestilskin from BalletLORENT. Photo Bill Cooper

5. Expect the unexpected
All sorts of things can come up and change during the process of negotiations and production so be prepared.  Something is almost bound to catch you out at some point, and you will never be able to anticipate everything.  Keep an eye out for pitfalls where you can – for example, have you checked in with your composer/set designer/writer that you have an accurate list of any third-party material that is in the finished piece.

6. Things may change so keep your options open
Try to build some flexibility into your approach because your situation might change as the project develops. Therefore, try to construct things so you can adopt and adapt as necessary. Don’t box yourself in so much that, if you find you have a hit on your hands, you can’t extend or expand your screening scope.

7. Don’t overpromise
No one is likely to make a fortune on the back of this project so focusing too much on potential additional payments further down the line on the back of a broadcast is not wise. Be honest – if it comes, great.

8. Templates are useful, not tablets of stone
Existing contract templates are tools to be used and can save a huge amount of legwork but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be adapted for your needs.

9. “Well, no one else has ever asked for /said that before”
Is not a helpful thing to say or to hear in negotiations.  Each production and person is different.  Start in your preferred position but expect and prepare to make reasonable changes.

10. Keep it real and in proportion
In negotiations, people can become locked into disagreements about what are – in reality – small points. For example, a percentage point or two might be the equivalent of a lot of money for one production, but a tiny amount for another. Keep a sense of what things mean in real terms and, during negotiations, work out how close the parties really are and what compromises can be made to get the project over the finishing line.

Bonus tip!

11. Enjoy the ride
People are often excited about stage-to-screen but they can be suspicious of it as well.  There is a potential for an awful lot of work to be fitted in around already busy schedules.  Try and enjoy it – it should be a pleasure not a chore!

Anne Beresford is an independent producer working in film and television. She has a long track record of producing award-winning music and arts films. Her stage-to-screen credits including Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach, Maxine Peake as Hamlet, King Lear and The Railway Children.  She is currently working on a new short film with Hong Kong Ballet, a hip hop music drama and a new music feature film supported by Ffilm Cyrmu Wales.

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