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By Frankie Goodway
“I don’t think anyone goes into Oxford drama to make money. Also, you’re not supposed to – the rule is that any profit generated from Oxford drama is supposed to stay in Oxford drama. Sometimes it doesn’t happen.” Ramin Sabi opened our conversation on profiteering producers with an apt summary of how money can seep out of the system. Every OUDS contract requires that the producer of a play make no personal profit from it, but though OUDS may be the clear authority on these matters it is not the only funding body available.
With £50 as the top limit for spending on props, sets and costumes during the upcoming Cuppers competition, it may come as a surprise to budding thespians in the first year to learn that Oxford student theatre is flush with cash these days. One veteran producer estimated the money in Oxford drama to be between seventy and a hundred thousand pounds.
The money available is spread far and wide. While OUDS may be the largest single funding body in Oxford it has no monopoly over funding – any prospective producer can apply to a number of college arts funds for loans, as well as various current and former production companies, JCRs, and individual investments (though commercial sponsorship is forbidden for BT productions). With so much money around the potential for personal profit-making also rears its head. The usual method of funding, pro-rata loans, as well as the necessity of forming a production company, should ensure that no individual profits are made and that all money remains in the system. This is not always the case.
The main precaution that keeps production money within the realm of Oxford drama is the insistence on production companies, rather than individuals, handling payments and loans. The production company model seems fairly straightforward as a formal structure for dealing with play finances and liabilities. However, while it should move money out of the hands of individuals into more easily regulated companies, most small production companies are little more than bank accounts with a whimsical Shakespeare reference as the account name. With these small production companies, the money filters out of the system – either through losses, a neglected bank account or a killer cast party.
Once a company gains momentum as a profitable force, though, the difficulty comes in halting that momentum. After all, after three or four years the people behind a company will be out of Oxford, making reinvesting profits in Oxford theatre that much more difficult. Production companies started with a small amount of personal capital, such as DEM Productions, can eventually run into profits of thousands of pounds. Ramin Sabi, the executive director of DEM Productions, has since removed his personal investment in the company, leaving it largely independent, though obviously it remains a very personal project. On the DEM website there are plans for the creation of a theatre in London in 2014, after Sabi has left Oxford. Sabi assures me in our conversation that none of the money DEM has made in Oxford (every production supported by DEM has made a profit) will go towards that theatre.
Illyria Productions is a phenomenally successful production company, responsible last year for The Hothouse, which had one of the largest expenditures seen in recent years, as well as the hugely profitable The Seagull in 2011. Now that much of the team behind the company have left Oxford, it is touted on the OUDS website as a particularly active funding body. The most notable contribution from Illyria in recent months has been the creation of the Illyria Film Fund, set up by Jess Campbell, the current OUDS treasurer, and Alex Darby “with the generous support of Aidan Grounds and Fran Denny,” the original co-producers. Aidan Grounds is a former OUDS treasurer but the Film Fund looks set to work along a grant, rather than a pro-rata loan scheme, perhaps a reflection of the dubious profitability of student film. To what extent student film elides with Oxford drama is debateable, but the donation is clearly well-intentioned.
When discussing the confusing system with Sabi a dichotomy emerged – the necessity of big Playhouse productions making profits to be reinvested in Oxford theatre, versus the need to wind down big production companies at the end of their time with investment in potentially loss-making shows. Last year all the Playhouse shows were profitable, injecting money and life into Oxford theatre, but to a large extent the shows were safe choices: Sabi admits that Dangerous Liaisons was dangerous in name alone. So while big profits are great in theory for Oxford funding, pursuing them drives down artistic risk-taking; on the flipside, without financial risks it becomes difficult to recapture the capital from former production companies without grants.
The result is a system that can be taken advantage of, even if recent OUDS treasurers have done an excellent job of recouping loans and cracking down on fraud. Of course, some would argue that making a personal profit is no bad thing. Toby Mather, a second year Jesubite and follower of Oxford theatre, commented: “I think making money while at Oxford through any means is admirable. Except perhaps selling drugs to schoolchildren.” Perhaps my discomfort at profiteering out of productions reliant on volunteers is a sign of socialist weakness – but I’m sure my unease is shared. Campbell, the current OUDS Treasurer, replied to our enquiry by revealing that OUDS “are working out a formal system to help student producers put their profits back into Oxford drama,” by creating “an underwriting fund for Playhouse shows, financed by producers whose shows have been particularly successful.” And for anyone tempted to manipulate the system for profit, Campbell has a stern reminder: “The OUDS contract states that students cannot take profit out of Oxford drama – and anyone in breach of this contract can be disciplined by the Proctors.”