Thursday, August 11, 2016

Why I'm not going to the Fringe next year

Today I bought tickets to see a couple shows at the New York International Fringe Festival. It will probably be the last time I do that. Here are some reasons why.

When I pay to see theater, I like to have some of the money for the ticket price go to the artists. That's why ticket fees really get to me. I know from personal experience that ticketing companies screw people both ways. They charge the theater for using the ticketing service, and then they turn around and charge an extra fee to the audience member buying a ticket.

As a playwright, my income has been compromised by ticketing companies. In the past, I have been compensated with a modest percentage of the money a theater collects on tickets sold. Notice, the playwright is only compensated on money the theater is able to collect, so the fees the theater pays get deducted from the amount on which the playwright is compensated. The fee charged to the audience member goes directly to the ticketing service, and no artist gets a dime.

In the past, I have bought Fringe passes and redeemed them at Fringe Central. Typically, I'll see five or six shows, and go to Fringe Central to avoid the fees. No more. Now the "convenience fee" must be paid by everyone. If you buy your ticket at the door, you pay the convenience fee. If you buy your ticket at Fringe Central (now one of two Fringe Lounges), you pay a convenience fee. If you use the Fringe App, you pay a convenience fee. If there is no way to purchase a ticket without it, there is no point in calling it a fee. For all practical purposes, it's just an increase in ticket price.

And by how much? This years, the fee is four dollars, though slightly less if you use the Fringe App. Since a Fringe show is $18, there is more than a 22 percent increase in the ticket price for fees, none of which will ever go to a single artist putting on the show. And does it really cost four dollars to purchase a ticket? Well, before buying the tickets, I stopped off at the post office. I sent three pieces of writing to three different cities, all over the country, and the post office charged me about four dollars for all three together. Three large brown envelopes to three corners of the country for the same amount as processing a single ticket!

Clearly, this problem is bigger than just the Fringe, but when the Fringe refuses to offer a single way around an exploitive "convenience fee" they are adding to the problem. I don't know what the Fringe's contract is, but it's possible they are charged even more, above and beyond the four dollar fee. If so, that amount might also be deducted from any return the artists make, since it is the artists who actually produce the shows. The Fringe provides a venue, but doesn't put a dime into the shows. All of that comes from the artists, who typically self-produce. Doesn't the Fringe care about artists?

Well, the answer is apparently no. But you don't have to take my word for it. When I returned from buying the tickets, I found an e-mail from the Dramatists Guild complaining about the abusive practices of the Fringe. Yes, the Guild has complained about the Fringe in the past, but according to this letter, things have gotten even worse.

The standard for theater festivals around the world (including the Edinburgh Festival) is that festivals are not entitled to subsidiary rights from authors. There is a simple reason for this. Festivals are not actually producing the work. All they do is provide the venues, the hype, and a little publicity. Every penny that goes into the actual production comes from the artists themselves, sometimes working with a non-profit entity, sometimes not.

According to the Dramatists Guild:

The NYC Fringe, however, under Article IV-B of their contract, requires an author to pay 2% of subsidiary rights revenues earned within 7 years of the festival (after the author's first $20,000). And the contract does not limit the scope of its definition of "subsidiary rights," so it includes every use of the play on a worldwide basis; this is a definition broader than a LORT theater or even a commercial off-Broadway producer might be granted.

That's right. The Fringe is asking for more than even an off-Broadway producer would get, and that's when the actual producer of the show, often a playwright him or herself, is supplying every penny of the investment. The Fringe does curate (poorly) the festival, provide venues, and do a certain amount of advertisement. However, artists pay for that, too.

Again, according to the Dramatists Guild:

In addition, the rules require the payment of a $40 application fee, a $700 participation fee, and a significant share of the box office receipts. Regarding its box office share, the Fringe reports that, in 2015, they paid producers $10.44 for each full priced [$18] advance ticket they sold, and $9.78 for each full priced ticket sold at the door. In other words, the Festival kept 42% of advance sales and nearly 46% of door sales.

So the artists pay dearly for their venues, and for any publicity the Fringe might do. The Guild claims, however, that the Fringe has no specified obligations to support a show with any marketing, nor does it require proper billing for the author. There is also no guarantee of an acceptable venue (which has been a problem with some shows in the past) or for the Fringe to provide needed technical support. Again, this has caused major issues for shows in the past.

And here's the real kicker in the Guild's e-mail:

Furthermore, it has been reported to us that the Fringe sent out its contracts to authors for this year's festival at the end of July.  If that is true, then it was a contract presented only a few weeks before the festival was scheduled to begin, after money has been raised and spent, leaving little or no time for authors and producers to assess their options in good faith.

Seriously? Contracts just went out? No wonder we weren't hearing about this before now!

In the past, I've seen some really good shows at the Fringe. I've also seen the Fringe present some of the worst garbage to ever deface a stage. A lot of my friends work on Fringe shows, and I like to support them. If I have to put up with incompetent administrative staff and some terrible venues, such is life.

However, things have gotten beyond ridiculous. If the Fringe doesn't clean up its act by next year, I will not be going. If my fellow artists want to be exploited, that's their choice, but I certainly don't have to support the people exploiting them.