For decades, the entertainment industry has robbed artists by taking credit and residual income from them by claiming the copyright. Imagine a record company telling Prince, yeah, we’ll sell ur records but then we own your copyright forever.
Coel walked away from Netflix after the streamer refused to allow her to retain any percentage of the show's copyright.
Michaela Coel's breakout success in the U.S. is largely credited to Netflix. The streamer was the domestic distributor of her acclaimed comedy series “Chewing Gum,” for which Coel won a BAFTA for Best Female Performance in a Comedy Program, and she later appeared in an Emmy-winning episode of “Black Mirror” and fronted the 2018 Netflix musical film “Been So Long.” Netflix also released the Coel-starring drama series “Black Earth Rising” outside the United Kingdom in 2019. Coel’s history with Netflix made the streamer a natural destination for her latest project, “I May Destroy You,” but the creator walked away from a mega-deal in order to maintain ownership of the series.
In a new profile published by Vulture, Coel reveals that Netflix made her an offer for “I May Destroy You” in spring 2017 worth $1 million. The series is based off Coel’s personal experience of being sexually assaulted during the making of “Chewing Gum.” Coel, who wrote all 12 episodes of the series and co-directed nine, stars as a young writer struggling to come to terms and process a recent assault. Coel turned Netflix’s $1 million offer down because they wouldn’t allow her to retain any percentage of the copyright. The creator even ended her relationship with CAA after it “tried to push her to take the deal” with Netflix since CAA “would be making an undisclosed amount on the back end.”
Coel told Vulture that she tried negotiating with “a senior-level development executive at Netflix” in order to retain “at least 5 percent of the copyright.” According to Coel, “There was just silence on the phone. And she said, ‘It’s not how we do things here. Nobody does that, it’s not a big deal.’ I said, ‘If it’s not a big deal, then I’d really like to have 5 percent of my rights.’ ”
When Coel bargained down and asked to own just 0.5 percent of the copyright, the Netflix executive said she would have to run it up the chain while adding, “Michaela? I just want you to know I’m really proud of you. You’re doing the right thing.”
“I remember thinking, I’ve been going down rabbit holes in my head, like people thinking I’m paranoid, I’m acting sketchy, I’m killing off all my agents,” Coel said. “And then she said those words to me, and I finally realized — I’m not crazy. This is crazy.”
Coel eventually pitched “I May Destroy You” to the BBC in the fall of 2017 and the network offered her everything she wanted, from “a seat at the table on the production side” to “full creative control and the rights to the work.” HBO would join BBC as a co-producer of the project. The show debuted in June to some of the best TV reviews of 2020. IndieWire’s Tambay Obenson gave the series a perfect A grade in his review. Read Coel’s new profile in its entirety on Vulture’s website.
By Zach Sharf
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson