Whether you’re a creative writer looking to sell your work as a playwright or a theater looking to purchase play scripts to perform at your theater, knowing how much the rights to a play cost can help you on your journey. You also might want to know how to obtain the rights in the first place.

The rights to a play can cost between $50 and $250 per performance. Some publishers request 8% to 12% of the theater’s box office earnings. Expect to pay at least $100 per performance, and $1,000 or more in total, based on venue size and other factors.

This article discusses the factors that affect the cost of play rights. Additionally, it covers how to write a play, how to sell a play as a playwright, and finally, how to obtain the rights to a play. Stick around to learn more about play rights and their cost.

Factors That Affect the Cost of Play Rights

Playwriting differs from screenwriting and novel writing. In the world of theater, playwrights lease their work as opposed to selling full rights.

When purchasing a play, you’re essentially “renting” the work for a specific number of performances over a specified time period. The license provides the rights to perform the show. If you’re selling a play, you’re selling the rights for a theater to produce the show.

Several factors affect the cost of licensing a play, which include:

  • Theater capacity
  • Ticket price
  • Number of performances
  • Number of weeks
  • Status of the organization, such as equity, school, or non-profit.

You can get a rough estimate of how much play rights might cost using the Music Theater International Cost Estimator.

How To Obtain the Rights to a Play

Publishing houses hold the rights to plays for the authors. To obtain the rights to a play, you must receive written permission from the publishing house on behalf of the writer.

The majority of plays produced prior to 1920 are free to use, as they’re part of the Public Domain. They do not require royalty payments or permission to use unless you’re using a modern translation of the original script, which is usually protected under copyright.

Once you’ve decided on a copyrighted script that you’d like to purchase rights to, you can obtain the rights using the following method:

  1. Discover who owns the copyright. Most publishing houses have listings where they catalog their plays, along with the fee for licensing. With that said, the fee listed may not be the fee you’re charged, depending on your organization.
  2. Contact the publisher. If the play is available for production, ask about royalty charges, script costs, and any other potential fees. If you’re set on purchasing the license, then move on to step three.
  3. Write a letter to the publisher. When sending a letter to the publisher for a licensing request, provide as much information about your organization as possible. Be sure to include:
    • Title of the play
    • Name of your organization
    • Organization status (i.e., equity, non-profit, etc.)
    • Performance location (city, state, and theater name)
    • Seating capacity
    • Ticket prices
    • Number of desired performances
    • Performance dates
  1. Wait for a quote. Some applications require review and may take up to four weeks to process and approve or deny an application. If the play is available and the company approves the request, they may send a quote and a contract. Some companies send an invoice along with the immediate license via email. It’s all dependent on the publisher.
  2. Pay for the rights. Most publishers require full payment within two weeks of license issuance, whereas others may request payment two weeks before the first performance.

Remember that the royalty fees only cover the production of the play

Music for the play, including music in between acts or intermissions, isn’t typically handled via the publisher. Instead, you must purchase these rights through whoever holds the rights to the recordings.

Finally, know that sometimes you cannot change any part of a script or play without obtaining written permission. 

That means that sometimes you cannot adjust the language, including curse words, change a character’s gender, ethnicity, or race if they’re explicitly written in a certain way, or modify, remove, or add in any other play elements. 

To do any of these things, you occasionally must receive approval from the rights holder and written permission.

How To Sell Your Play Scripts

Once you’ve composed the final draft of your play, you can consider selling it. This article assumes you already know how to write a play, but if you don’t, you can find several tutorials online that can help you. 

Set a Price

There are multiple ways to determine an acceptable price for a play. Start by researching the rights and royalties associated with other plays and use this information as a rough starting point. Some playwrights prefer setting prices based on the size of the venue. 

Below are some rough examples of potential flat-rate royalty costs for a play, assuming you’re a first-time playwright:

Theater CapacityPotential Flat-Rate Royalty Cost
500 seats$80-$100 for first performance $50 per additional performance
1,000 seats$100-$120 for first performance $80 per additional performance
5,000 seats$180-200 for first performance $100 per additional performance

You can always set your prices higher or lower, depending on the play, your experience, or the status of the organization. For example, you might charge a lower price for a non-profit organization.

Additionally, you can charge for scripts. For hard copies, you can charge upwards of $5 per script plus shipping cost.

If you’re a new playwright and have never written a successful script before, consider offering the play license at a minimal cost. If the theater produces the show and it’s reviewed, you could increase your exposure as a playwright.

If you plan on becoming a serious playwright, it’s wise to become involved with the Dramatists Guild

This organization helps members protect the ownership and royalties of their work. Members receive access to seminars and workshops and can even converse with the guild’s attorneys for questions and contract advice.

Selling to Theaters

Once you’ve determined a price, you can reach out to theaters to see if they’re interested in picking up the script.

Here’s how:

  • Write a letter to the theater. Ask if they’re accepting scripts and, if so, include your background, a brief description of the play, and how long it should last. Ask them for feedback on the script. If the organization fails to respond after three months, write again, asking whether they’ve had a chance to read the play. If you’re still left with no response, move on to the next theater.
  • Use feedback to your advantage. Listen to what the theater has to say because after all, they’re professionals who deal in the world of drama on a daily basis. Use any information and feedback to edit and improve your play. 
  • Don’t give up. You may not get a yes the first time, the second time, or even the third time, but that’s okay. Revise based on feedback and keep sending your play out to other theaters and stay persistent. Eventually, you could receive the “Yes!” you’ve been waiting for.
  • Keep writing. After you sell the rights to your play, start writing again. If you become an established playwright, you could easily develop a good reputation with the theater.

Dealing With Rejection

Rejection is a normal part of life for writers, whether you write books, screenplays, or comics. 

Don’t let rejection discourage you. Request feedback, edit accordingly, and send it out to another company or organization. After a period of time, if the play continues to be rejected, set it aside and work on a new script. 

Later, you can circle back to the old play and determine what changes to make.

Conclusion

Selling the rights to a play can earn playwrights a significant amount of money if they establish a positive reputation with the theater. Becoming a playwright, however, requires hard work, persistence, and tough skin, because you will deal with rejection.

If, on the other hand, you’re looking to purchase the rights to a play, be prepared to pay. Depending on the size of your venue, ticket prices, performance dates, and seating capacity, you could end up paying upwards of $5,000.

Categories: Playwriting

Ol Adams

Letter Review is currently edited by Ol Adams, who is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, casual academic, and guest lecturer at the University of New South Wales. Ol Adams has had short stories published in leading literary journals such as Overland, Southerly, Seizure, and TEXT. Ol has had novels long listed for major awards such as the KYDUMA, has received government funding to produce plays from Create NSW and screenplays from Screen NSW, and has performed / produced professional work at major theatrical venues such as the Sydney Opera House.