British Talent Agency Blacklists Israeli Theater Companies - Over Money

Yair Ashkenazi
Yair Ashkenazi
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"Little Gem" at Habima.
"Little Gem" at Habima.Credit: Daniel Kaminsky
Yair Ashkenazi
Yair Ashkenazi

One of Britain’s most important literary and talent agencies has told the Culture and Sports Ministry it will stop licensing its properties to Israeli theater companies because of a dispute over royalty payments. Curtis Brown says the Habima national theater and Kiryat Shmona’s Mara theater owes it licensing fees for performances of “Little Gem,” by Elaine Murphy.

In an email sent on Tuesday to Galit Wahaba-Shasho, the head of the ministry’s Culture Administration, a copy of which Haaretz has obtained, Curtis Brown says royalties on the play, which premiered in Israel in late 2012, have not been paid since November 2013.

The Culture Ministry said it will not intervene in what it called a commercial dispute.

“In the brief correspondence between the head of the [Culture] Administration and the claimant, the head of the Administration noted, as an act of goodwill, that she has received a statement of a commitment from the theater that the payment will be resolved by the end of the year.” Wahaba Shasho wrote that she would be in touch with the theater on the matter, said the Ministry. “We have no doubt that the theaters in Israel must be careful to pay for intellectual property rights in Israel and overseas, but we have no authority to intervene beyond that.”

In 2012, Curtis Brown signed a contract with the Mara Theater for the rights to perform the play. The contract, which Haaretz has obtained, is limited to one year and was signed by the previous CEO of Mara. The contract states that Mara will pay Curtis Brown $2,500 for the rights for a year, and will be required to provide a monthly royalty report.

The play was first performed at Habima and Mara in Deember 2012, in a translation by Rivka Meshulach and directed by Mara’s artistic director at the time, Roy Horovitz, with actors Lea Koenig, Moran Rosen and Tatiana Kenlis-Olier. The play was called “Mashehu Tov” (Something Good) in Hebrew. It was performed over 300 times, mostly in the various halls in Habima, and is still performed a few times a month at Habima in Tel Aviv.

On August 30, a representative of Curtis Brown, Camilla Young, wrote to Wahaba-Shasho and the head of the theater and fringe department in the Culture Ministry, Dr. Irit Fogel. Young said she had discovered that Habima was continuing to perform the play with great success, even though the theater did not have the rights to such performances — and did not pay royalties to Murphy, beyond the original $2,500. Young said Mara’s current director, Hagit Rubin, did not respond to requests, including from the agency’s lawyers.

Young demanded Wahaba-Shasho act to arrange the payments to Murphy and to stop the performances. Only on Sunday did Wahaba-Shaso respond to Young, saying Mara had written the ministry saying it was committed to making such arrangements by December 31, 2016.

In response, Young asked why it would take another three months to make the arrangements and transfer the money, which was to have been paid by the end of September. It seems no answer was given to Young, and on Wednesday Young sent a harsh email to Wahaba Shasho, demanding she solve the matter by the end of the month.

“I’m shocked that the National Theatre of Israel have programmed a play that no one has the rights to for 3 years and have sold tickets for it. We licensed the rights in 2012 to Maraa [sic] for $2,500 for 12 months, however given the success of the initial run (of which we haven’t seen any royalties, although I believe it was a sold out show), we would increase this license to $4,000 for a further 12 months. So in order to cover the rights for the last 3 years, which would take us up to 20th November 2016, Maraa owe Elaine Murphy another $12,000 including royalties,” wrote Young.

“Please can this be sorted out before the end of the month. We will not be licensing any more plays to any theatre in Israel while this is being sorted out and I have instructed my colleagues to avoid dealing with the Habima Theatre,” she added.

In addition to delays in paying Murphy, Horovitz was not paid either by Mara and Habima. He sued the theaters and in April he won the case in Small Claims Court in Nazareth, which ordered Mara to pay him 4,700 shekels ($1,240).

In a number of previous cases, Habima has been reported to have delayed royalty payments to foreign authors; and this problematic custom was even mentioned in a report by the State Comptroller published last May on the management of the national theater.

In 2012, Haaretz reported Habima owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties to agencies representing playwrights overseas, as well as large sums to various Israeli artists.

The State Comptroller said in his report that in 2012 the Foreign Ministry asked the Culture Ministry to act on the matter and help bring about payment to the foreign artists in London and New York. Even though such nonpayment could cause serious damage to Israel’s image, Habima had yet to pay part of its debts to foreign artists, said the comptroller, and said the matter must be solved urgently.

Habima said the play was a coproduction with Mara. “The agreement with the owners of the rights including the playwright. was made between the Mara Theater and the owners of the rights directly. Habima Theater is signed with other artists according to the accepted division in such cases. Habima, on its part, transferred the royalty monies to Mara Theater for the owners of the rights, but the money, so it seems, was not passed on by them.”

Mara’s legal advisor, attorney Ehud Raz, said that as far as Murphy’s claims were concerned, the contract with her was not signed by authorized representatives of the theater and the management of the theater was not informed of the contract. In addition, the contract was not between the theater and Murphy. In any case, an examination showed that Murphy received thousands of dollars in royalties for the performances, said Raz.

“The theater, whose job is [to provide] culture with an emphasis on making it accessible in the periphery, and not legal battles, is examining the possibility of ending the dispute with the playwright, over and above its legal obligations,” said Raz.

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