How In-House Lawyers Took 'Falsettos' From Stage to Silver Screen

During this year's annual Tony awards recognizing Broadway theater, Whoopi Goldberg took to the stage to announce that the musical revival of "Falsettos" would be hitting movie theatersnationwide starting July 12.

Now it's time for the filmed version of the musical, which played at Lincoln Center Theater in New York, to hit the big screen. Falsettos might have been nominated for five Tonys that evening, but a deal had been negotiated long before the June 11 awards broadcast to make the stage production into a piece of event cinema.

Lawyers involved in the negotiations took Corporate Counsel behind the scenes of how Falsettos made its way to movie theaters. The musical, written 25 years ago during the AIDS crisis, tells the story of a gay man, Marvin, his wife, lover, son, their psychiatrist and their lesbian neighbors.

Last year, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts' director of business and legal affairs Danielle Schiffman had a lunch meeting with Kim Youngberg, general counsel of Screenvision Media, a company that creates preshow cinema advertising—or the trailers before the trailers that theatergoers see before the movie starts. 

The two lawyers decided it was time to start exploring opportunities to work together again. They had met when Screenvision and Lincoln Center partnered in 2014 to bring "The Nance," another Lincoln Center play, starring Nathan Lane, to movie theaters across the country.

The two teams started brainstorming but it wasn't until the weeks leading up to Christmas 2016 that their latest partnership was solidified.

Falsettos opened in October 2016 and ran through January. Filming took place the first week of January and will be used for other distribution channels such as the PBS' series "Live from Lincoln Center," which will air Falsettos in the fall.

With a limited window, Schiffman said she and the team at Lincoln Center jumped on the opportunity to bring Falsettos to the big screen and start filming before the show's run ended.

Event cinema deals can be difficult to work out too far in advance, in large part because producers don't typically want to create competition for their own shows by offering a cheaper alternative at the movie theater. And even if a show is closing its doors on Broadway, a national tour can potentially interfere with whether the show's creative team feels comfortable competing for those ticket sales.

Schiffman said she needed buy in from all of the cast and creative team in order to make the project work. First, the producers needed to give their permission, as well as the musical's writers, composers and stage directors.

She then had to ink deals with all of the managers representing the show's stars, including Andrew Rannells from HBO's "Girls" and Christian Borle from "Smash," among other actors, sound engineers, makeup artists and costume designers—negotiating on issues such as compensation, billing and residuals.

"All of them have to agree before you're green-lit," Schiffman said. "You're only as strong as you're weakest link. If there's one holdup, or they don't want to do it for artistic reasons or financial reasons, you have to be aware of the fact that this might not happen."

Schiffman was the primary lawyer but she had help from her in-house lawyers and hired outside counsel for the more intense labor negotiations. Much of the work on the deal was completed in the weeks leading up to Christmas of last year.

"There was a lot to be done and we worked through the holiday. I won't say that everyone was happy to work through the week of Christmas but there was so much enthusiasm to bringing this show to movie theaters, so this whole thing has been a labor of love for us," Schiffman said.

Even a deal with CBS, which broadcast the Tony's last month, had to be papered. Screenvision's EVP of operations and exhibitor relations Darryl Schaffer said that CBS is one of her company's clients, so it was part of the network's on-screen ad buy to have the person introducing the Falsettos cast's performance during the live awards broadcast also announce Lincoln Center's partnership with Screenvision. That announcer happened to be Whoopi Goldberg.

"That was a really great way to sort of kick off the process," Schaffer said.

Lawyers also had to negotiate the number of theaters in which Falsettos would play and how many showings each theater will have. And Schiffman had to have talks with the lyricist of Falsettos, William Finn, because some of the show's more profane language had to be changed to comply with the Federal Communications Commission's broadcast rules.

Screenvision's Schaffer said negotiations with Lincoln Center went pretty smoothly, because "all of us had the same goal of trying to bring the musical to as many theaters as possible." Plus, there was already a deal template in place from Screenvision and Lincoln Center's previous agreements on The Nance.

In the deal, the exhibitors, or the movie theaters, take a cut of the revenue. Then Lincoln Center, Screenvision and event cinema exhibitor Kaos Connect "split the box office," as Youngberg puts it.

Youngberg declined to disclose precisely how the revenue will be split, but said it was pretty straightforward.

The Falsettos cinema deal might technically be complete, but there is still legal work to do on Lincoln Center's end, Schiffman said. This week, for instance, the show is officially rolling out, and she has spent a fair amount of time monitoring social media and searching on Google for illegally distributed content.

In a phone call Monday afternoon, she said she had just sent a cease and desist letter to someone who had advertised a bootleg copy of the show on social media.

"We constantly have to protect our material. We deal with this all the time with our shows," Schiffman said. "There's a difference in someone putting out a quick Snap [on Snapchat] about the show that could be promotion for us and then filming the entire musical from their seat."

Beyond the legal issues, Schiffman said the whole process, especially hearing from audiences, has been rewarding.

"It's been refreshing to hear audiences say: 'Thank you for reaching my demographic and for caring about the LGBTQ community and things that are important to me,'" Schiffman said.

Contact Stephanie Forshee at sforshee@alm.com.

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Stephanie Forshee

Stephanie Forshee is a writer for Inside Counsel magazine. Previously, she has worked for the Puget Sound Business Journal, the San Fernando Valley Business Journal and Auto...

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