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Are Spotify and the Comedy Community Headed Into Battle? What’s Behind the Faceoff

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You don’t hear much about a “war on Christmas” this year, but you do hear murmurings about a war on comedy. It’s a loggerheads that has Spotify under scrutiny for removing a significant number of comedy albums from its service, in response to many comics and their reps believing they have a right to the same kind of dual royalties that musicians have always gotten.

Comedy performances already earn royalties from streaming services for the mechanical license — that is, for the actual audio recording. But music, apart from comedy, requires two licenses: one for the recording and one for the song itself. It has long fallen to performance rights organizations like BMI, ASCAP and SESAC to collect those publishing royalties for songwriters. Now, many comedians are contending that they should be treated as singer-songwriters, earning a separate royalty for the underlying “literary work” as well as for the performance of it.

Spotify and other streamers, not surprisingly, have effectively said “Hold on a minute” when it comes to these fresh requests (or demands) for additional royalties, neither outrightly denying or affirming what comedians are asking for, for the time being. But it’s the move that Spotify did make in response to the requests that has stirred ire and made news. And that move was to remove much, or in some cases all, of the recorded work by comedians who are affiliated with the two newish orgs that are looking to collect these additional royalties.

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The removal of many of those comedians’ albums was done on or around Thanksgiving eve, in what some might consider the equivalent of a Friday night news dump. But comics are keeping the issue alive into December and will, presumably, beyond.

Stepping into the fray this past week was Lewis Black — currently a Grammy nominee for best comedy album for “Thanks for Risking Your Life.” His catalog was not taken down by Spotify during Thanksgiving week, but on Dec. 12, he publicly requested that the service remove all his recordings from the app, wanting to stand in solidarity with those more affected. (Spotify doesn’t seem to have paid heed to his request; as of Dec. 16, he still has five albums available for streaming there, including the current Grammy nominee.)

The Laugh Button website, a comedy news source, noted the week after Thanksgiving that the quiet removal of albums from Spotify affected “all levels of comedians from working comics to some of the biggest names in the game,” including Jim Gaffigan, John Mulaney, Dave Attell, Mike Birbiglia, Chad Daniels, Tom Segura and Kyle Kinane. Subsequently, the site published a much longer list of comedians whose work it had noticed had gone at least partly missing, including Jeff Foxworthy, Tiffany Haddish, Kevin Hart, Jeff Dunham, Larry the Cable Guy, Patton Oswalt, Bob Newhart, Paula Poundstone, Robin Williams, Amy Schumer, Lisa Lampanelli and many more.

Wrote the Laugh Button: “The comics are stating that when their publishing companies approached Spotify and asked for said royalties, Spotify decided it was easier to remove the albums in question rather than pay comedians what they are legally owed. … Artist publishing is a common practice in the music space, companies like ASCAP and BMI have long collected artist royalties for decades. However, the concept is fairly new to comedy and this event seems to be an inflection point for the industry as billion-dollar streaming platforms might have to reconcile with the idea that they haven’t paid comics accordingly for years.”

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What most of the comedians affected have in common is that they are affiliated with Spoken Giants or Word Collections, two rights organizations that have launched to sign up spoken-word artists for literary-work royalties, now or as established in the future.

Spotify pretty much pinned the situation on Spoken Giants in its one public statement on the subject since the controversy arose:  “Spotify has paid significant amounts of money for the content in question, and would love to continue to do so. However, given that Spoken Giants is disputing what rights various licensors have, it’s imperative that the labels that distribute this content, Spotify and Spoken Giants come together to resolve this issue to ensure this content remains available to fans around the globe.”

With Spotify unwilling or unlikely to further explain its position in the media, the public conversation has been a one-sided one, with Spoken Giants CEO Jim King making the case that comedians only want the same rights and moneys for their recordings that singer-songwriters have gotten for a century.

It’s not hard to guess, at least, what Spotify’s position might be in this contretemps: that these particular royalties hadn’t been much of a topic of discussion, much less a recognized right, in previous years, and so it wasn’t about to start giving away extra income out of the sheer goodness of its heart without those additional rights being officially established in some way.

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The manner in which it responded to Spoken Giants trying to establish these rights, by removing albums en masse and thus putting a halt to any royalties they might generate via Spotify, might seem smartly proactive from a legal standpoint, to some. But to many in the comedy community, it smacks of a kind of union-busting.

“We want comedians to benefit from the exposure Spotify provides and earn royalties for their written work, which is the basis of every great comedy performance,” King said in his own statement. “No one wants to lose Spotify as a platform, we just want to establish that underlying written works in comedy have value.”

King is, not incidentally in all this, a former BMI executive, so he can be sure to press the music analogies as these discussions proceed, or don’t, if a stalemate remains. “Taylor Swift writes her own music; she performs her own music. Those are two different rates, and every platform pays on those two different rates,” King told Vulture. “We have purposely focused on modeling ourselves after the music industry because this is very similar — almost the same as the music industry.”

In a statement to Time magazine about his request to have his own work removed in solidarity, Lewis Black said: “I in no way represent all of the comedians on Spotify but I do believe that all of them should be paid for the writing that they have done and not just for the performance of what they wrote. It has taken a long time for comedy to be recognized as an art form. Therefore, Spotify should recognize that a joke is as powerful as a lyric of a song, which they do pay for. … I need neither the money nor the exposure, but please put all of the comedians back on your platform and let’s sit down and find a way to pay us what we are owed for the words that make you laugh. Yes, a joke is intellectual property.”

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What’s at stake for comedians? Not enough that they won’t still have to make most of their money on the road, but for some upper-middle-class or mid-level comics, it could make a difference. In reaction to the current controversy, Kyle Kinane tweeted that streaming revenue for his entire catalog amounts to about $2,000 a month, based on about 180,000 streams. That doesn’t amount to much of a living in and of itself. But if that were doubled — not that anyone would expect literary royalties, which would undoubtedly ramp up over time if enacted, to immediately match performance royalties — that could be enough to be the difference between some working comedians staying in the business or getting out.

What would Spotify and other deep-pocketed services (which have also received the demands, but not removed albums in reply) have to lose by issuing literary-work royalties for comedy albums? Perhaps not much in the overall scheme of things, although acceding to requests for royalties that never previously existed may be seen as a slippery slope to go down. What may be the bigger risk is letting the faceoff go unresolved while maintaining the good will of the comedy community at large, as the service continues to be synonymous with recorded comedy in a big way via its podcast deals with top comics.

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Berlin Fest Chief Carlo Chatrian on Gender Balance, Sigourney Weaver, Other Stars’ Travel Plans and COVID Testing

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Berlin Film Festival artistic director Carlo Chatrian on Wednesday unveiled the full lineup for the fest’s 72nd edition which he is hellbent on holding as an in-person event despite the global spread of the omicron variant, even after other top fests such as Sundance and Rotterdam have thrown in the towel and gone online.

Chatrian spoke to Variety about the selection and what he expects his “exercise in resistance,” as he has called it, to be like on the ground in Berlin.

One thing that I think is clear is that the global film community is supporting your determination.

Yes. Despite everything that is happening, the willingness and desire to be part of the festival on the part of production companies, sellers, actors and directors is very strong. I was even moved a couple of weeks ago when they told me that Paolo Taviani, who is 91, really wants to come at any cost. I think filmmakers are pining to be reconnected [with audiences] and the Berlinale even more than other festivals gives that sense, because you are at the center of a city. Now let’s hope that we will now be able to make all this concrete.

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You’ve pointed out that more than half of the films selected take place in the present day, but only two deal with the current pandemic. Which ones?

What I meant is that there are two films that are set nowadays and the characters in them deal with the pandemic, but they are not about people who get ill. One is the film by Claire Denis — “Both Sides of the Blade,” starring Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon — and the other one is Hong Sangsoo’s “The Novelist’s Film.” In both films you have people not only wearing masks, but also going though life during lockdown.

You also said family is a key focal point in many of the movies this year, as are human and emotional bonds. What are some of the films that are emblematic of this?

There is one film that I think can be taken as emblematic which is Ursula Meier’s “The Line.” Starting from the title. In the film one of the characters draws a line around a house. It’s a line that one of the characters cannot trespass because of something that happened. But the film is about being close to the line, being connected. The line is something that should divide, but at the same time it becomes a point of connection. It’s a film about how on the one hand we want to be connected, on the other hand we are afraid of being too close. 

But I’ve found this in several other films. Hong Sangsoo’s “The Novelist’s Film” is all about chance encounters. Some are real, others are just formalities. Another good example for me is Carla Simon’s “Alcarràs,” a film not set during the pandemic about how a family from a different generation in a rural area in Catalonia deal with a difficult moment in time when the fields they work in are set to become an area for solar panels.

There are lot of other films dealing with family issues. Another is “A Piece of Sky” by Michael Koch which is also about a family. “Before, Now & Then” by Indonesian director Kamila Andini is another film  — from a female point of view — about a family and dealing with the future and the past.

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You have twelve returning filmmakers, eight of which in competition. And five who have already won at least one Berlin Bear. What is the significance of this?

I highlighted that aspect because on the one hand this edition is very connected to the tradition of the Berlinale, which I’m very happy about –– 12 out of 18 means almost two thirds of the selection is made up of filmmakers who have already been to the Berlinale, who know the Berlinale. At the same time I wanted to highlight that we want to discover new voices. There are six, and not all of them young filmmakers, who are coming to the festival for the first time. So there is also a breath of fresh air that includes two first-time filmmakers. It’s a good balance.

Besides Paolo Taviani who are the others who have won a Bear?

Ursula Meier, who won a Silver Bear, Andreas Dresen, Hong Sangsoo, Denis Côté, and François Ozon.

Seven out of eighteen films in the competition are directed by women. More in general, where does this year’s lineup stand in terms of gender balance?

I can’t give you exact data, but I think we have a better gender balance than usual. [We have] more women than in the past few years. We are not 50/50 but we are working to reach that level. As I’ve already said, for me it’s important to point out that all the seven films by female filmmakers are in the selection because they are good. As good as the others, and maybe even more. I am happy that out of eighteen we found seven. I hope that in the future we will be able to find more.

You’ve said film teams coming to Berlin are going to be smaller. Who are some of stars who might be coming? Will Nick Cave be coming to promote his latest collaboration with Andrew Dominik “This Much I Know To Be True” screening in the Berlinale Special program?

I think it’s a bit too early to answer that question. Some films were invited just a few days ago. What I can tell you is that right now we expect all the films in competition to come with talent. Whether this will be the reality, it’s too early to say.

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My feeling is that all the films in competition will come with guests, whether that will be the case or not is a bit too early to say. Regarding Nick Cave, we are in contact with him. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s not to be ruled out.

“Call Jane,” the directorial debut of “Carol” screenwriter Phillis Nagy, which among other talents stars Sigourney Weaver, will premiere at the online-only Sundance. Berlin could give them an opportunity to have a non-virtual premiere. Will they be coming?

The production and the sales company are totally aware of that. But of course it’s easier for film teams traveling from Europe to commit three weeks prior. It’s tougher when it comes to the U.S., given the numbers and cases in the U.S. We expect Phillis and the main cast to attend, but I cannot confirm.

How about U.S. crime drama “The Outfit” directed by Graham Moore and starring Mark Rylance, Zoey Deutch and Dylan O’Brien?

Graham Moore is expected to attend. I don’t think Mark Rylance will be coming due to a work commitment. But we are expecting the other cast members. But again it’s the same as with “Call Jane.” Universal is willing to bring the director and some of the cast to Berlin to take advantage of the physical premiere opportunity with a red carpet, press conference, interviews. But not sure yet.

What is the feeling going to be like on the ground for people attending the festival, compared with Cannes and Venice? One of the elements of those festivals was having on-site testing. Will that also be the case in Berlin?

The biggest difference between us and Cannes and Venice is that we take place in winter. So we cannot expect people to hang out and meet outdoors. The other big difference is that the festival takes place in a big city which is the country’s capital. The rules are actually changing in Berlin as we speak. Yesterday in order to access a movie theater you had to have been tested [on a daily basis]. But right now you can access a movie theatre, if you are fully vaccinated, without having been tested. We need some time to really get a sense of the rules that will be in place at the beginning of February.

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If you ask about my sense, my feeling is that we will have a festival with screenings in place, with most delegations coming, albeit small ones, but with the filmmakers and lead talents. And I hope — and this is the big question here in Germany — that the audience will attend. But I am confident that they will overcome the fear that is of course normal because I feel that, as always, there is a lot of expectation for the Berlinale.

As for testing, the city of Berlin is spotted with testing stations. Unlike France and Italy, it’s already a habit for a Berliner to get tested once or twice a week.

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Fremantle Develops New Seasons of ‘La Jauría,’ ‘Señorita 89,’ Fires Up Latin American Format Biz (EXCLUSIVE)

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Underscoring the robustness of a fast evolving Latin American TV market, U.K. production-distribution giant Fremantle and the Larraín brothers’ Fabula have in development a third season of gender abuse thriller “La Jauría” and second season of “Señorita 89.”

The moves comes as Fremantle is firing up both its premium scripted series and entertainment format business in Latin America, which is fast emerging as a key growth market for platforms and heavyweight independent production-distribution companies such as Fremantle.

Total Fremantle revenues from Latin America increased by 25% from 2019 to 2021 with production revenues in the region rising by nearly a third in the same period, said Jens Richter, Fremantle CEO, international.

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Both series come from Lucía Puenzo, fast consolidating as one of the foremost showrunners in high-end Latin America drama. “La Jauría” season two was co-produced by Amazon which took rights to Latin America and Spain. It was sold to HBO Max for the U.S.

An immersive thriller exposing the unseen and unseemly reality behind the glamor of a 1989 Miss Mexico beauty pageant, “Señorita 89” is produced by Fabula, L.A.-based Spanish-language streaming platform Pantaya, global streamer Starzplay and Fremantle, in a fertile production partnership.

The four partners have re-teamed on Pablo Fendrik’s anticipated sci-fi miniseries “The Shelter” (“El Refugio”). Fremantle Mexico and Sasha Robles are also partnering Pantaya and Starzplay on upcoming crime thriller “Toda la sangre.”

Fremantle has several more Latin American scripted series currently in development with co-production partners. On most it would take global distribution rights, Richter told Variety.

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In formats, Fremantle has recently  produced “Family Feud” with Chile’s Canal 13 and Brazil’s Globo, where it is currently airing, having bowed the format recently on Paraguay’s Canal 13.

“Got Talent” is launching later this year in the Dominican Rebublic, produced by East Coast Productions for Color Vision, and on Peru’s Latina TV.

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Got Talent Peru
Courtesy of Freemantle

Brazil’s TV Rede has re-upped on “Password.” “X-Factor” is set to launch soon on RCN Colombia.

Multiple further Fremantle licensing deals in Latin America, both renewals and launches, will be announced soon on “Got Talent,” “My Name Is” and “The Price is Right.”

Powerful market forces are at work.

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Fremantle originally struck a first-look deal with Pablo and Juan de Dios Larraín’s Fabula, which kicked off with 2019’s “La Jauría,” with the goal of produce out of Latin America premium drama that can travel into the world, as was the case with “La Jauría.”

That goal remains, said Richter. Since 2019, however, two new trends have emerged. “A lot more platforms came into the market, into Latin America. So there are a lot more people for us, a lot more partners for us to play with and – and it’s something we see in other territories as well – there’s a lot more curiosity and openness in terms of stories to tell.”

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Senorita 89
Courtesy of Pantaya

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Supercharged by escalating internet penetration, facilitated by the expansion of digital payment solutions, Latin American has become the second fastest-growing streaming market in the world, added Sheila Hall Aguirre, Fremantle EVP, content distribution & format sales, Latin America and Hispanic U.S.

“Latin America is looking for edgy themes: Crime, edgy female empowerment, and biopics,” she said.

Producing ever more for their own global platforms, Hollywood’s studios have pulled back from third party sales around the world. Free-to-air networks are positioning ever more as purveyors of “live” entertainment.

“The entertainment format business is mainly with more traditional local free to air channels. The pandemic proved really tough for broadcasters, hitting advertising hard. But now it’s rebound time,” said Richter.

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Fremantle has some of the biggest tried-and-tested formats in the world.

During the pandemic, Fremantle was also able to advise clients on how productions were still getting made in other parts of the world. “Consultancy was key,” she said.

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