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After a Writer Asked for Equal Pay, the New York Film Academy Let Her Go

Krista Knight agreed to write a movie musical short for the prestigious academy pro bono. After discovering her colleagues were being paid, she requested the same.

Krista Knight, playwright (all images courtesy of Krista Knight)

The New York Film Academy (NYFA) bills itself as an influential global institution that has lured many of its faculty from universities like Harvard, Columbia, and Yale while courting blockbuster names like Rose McGowan, Steven Spielberg, and Al Pacino as guest speakers. In its 26-year history, the for-profit education center has taught over 5,000 students annually in areas like film, acting, photography, and broadcast journalism.

Despite NYFA’s vaunted history and access to vast resources, the academy did not plan to pay playwright Krista Knight for her work writing a 20-minute movie musical short for the institution’s second-year musical theater majors, a project she began in the summer of 2018 and was expected to conclude later that fall.

When Knight agreed to take on the project, she knew it came without pay; what she didn’t know was that her male colleagues on the creative team were being compensated for similar-level tasks. The film’s director Mike Price recruited Knight by referral from a mutual colleague. In his first email to Knight, in June, Price said there would be no monetary compensation for her position as the movie musical’s bookwriter; instead, he promised Knight “‘in-kind’ pay in resources and a credit moving forth into film festivals.” Knight accepted the offer.

Weeks after Knight began work on the project, however, she learned that the rest of the creative team — including the composer and the librettist, who were both men — were receiving a small stipend of $150 each for their work. She asked NYFA to pay her a $150 stipend, too. Shortly thereafter, she found herself dismissed from the project.

On August 6, Knight says she wrote an email to Mark Olsen, NYFA’s Musical Theater Conservatory Chair, addressing her concerns about financial disparity on the project and asking for $150 dollars. She forwarded this email to the project’s director, Mark Price, and choreographer, Deidre Goodwin. “Industry standard is that composer, librettist, and bookwriter are each paid 1/3,” Knight wrote in her email. “So if the composer team (composer and librettist) is being paid $300 for the project, the bookwriter should also be paid $150.”

Olsen says that he never received a direct email from Knight, but that he received Knight’s request for payment from Price and Goodwin. “Although not part of our usual budget for these projects, when I received [Knight’s] request [for payment] I instantly approved it,” Olsen told Hyperallergic in an email.

In an August 16 email to Knight, Price wrote: “We’ve received the okay for compensation, just waiting for official confirmation and timeline for payment.”

Goodwin and Price explained to Knight that the school had not planned to pay her due to “an antiquated policy at NYFA to only pay the composers and not the bookwriter.” They stressed that they were trying to change this practice.

One thing Mark want to clearly address right away is that in no way does the lack of a stipend for the writer have anything to do with gender inequality. Both writers and composers have been male and female in the past. Really don’t want for you or anyone for that matter to have that thought in their mind or spirit because it simply isn’t accurate.

I am a black woman and Mark is a gay hispanic man and we are I hope, obviously, strongly against inequality of any kind.

Mark and I have vehemently fought for this to change since the moment we signed on to this project and are continuing to do so. […] Just don’t want you to perceive that it has anything to do with trying to pay men and not women and that we are not still trying to change it.

While she was waiting for confirmation of payment, Knight didn’t feel like it was right to continue working for free and paused her work on the project for two weeks. With reassurances from the August 16 email that the financial details were being settled, she continued working and submitted a rough draft of the script on August 22, three days past her initial deadline.

On August 23, Knight received an email from Price and Goodwin, who informed Knight that she was effectively being let go from the project’s creative team. They implied in the email that this decision had been made due to Knight’s failure to meet an August 19 deadline for the script. “We sincerely hope we can collaborate in the near future,” Price and Goodwin wrote.

Mark Price, Krista Knight, and the NYFA musical cast

Reading their message, Knight says she was caught off-guard. She says Price and Goodwin encouraged her to approach NYFA about receiving compensation, and even informed her that emailing the department chair would help her case.

As a playwright, Knight has held residencies at places like Yale University, Dartmouth College, and the Juilliard School, while showcasing work at venues like The Public Theater, the Kennedy Center, and the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

Knight says she put a significant amount of time into this project, including attending seven conferences with the director and choreographer about their vision. She created writing prompts and sat in on classes at NYFA to collect general material for her script. It wasn’t until her second meeting with the creative team that Knight realized she was the only member not being paid. She says she had been encouraging the team to be “more artistically ambitious because [they] weren’t being paid.”

That’s when the composer divulged that he was, indeed, getting paid. So were the director, the choreographer, and the librettist.

“I’ve never heard of the composer team being paid and not the bookwriter,” Knight told Hyperallergic, saying it was industry standard to pay all staff on a creative team. She doesn’t want to assume that her lack of payment was a gender-related decision, as she wrote in an email, but instead stresses that it’s symptomatic of a culture in which artists are made to feel grateful for any opportunities that come their way:

I don’t think that NYFA chose not to pay me because I’m a woman and the composer and lyricist are both men, but by choosing to only pay the composers, they are also choosing to pay the artists that are more likely to be men. I think not paying artists/writers in general is still very common, because they can, and artists (like me) are willing to work for free. Because I was told there was no payment, it also meant that my agent was not involved, and I have no protection for the time and work I’ve already generated for this project, or from being removed from the project entirely when I asked to also be paid.

Neither Price nor Goodwin responded to Hyperallergic’s multiple requests for comment.

In his response, Olsen stressed to Hyperallergic that the movie musical short was not a commercial endeavor; it was an educational opportunity for students, which is often created by NYFA’s staff writers and musicians. He continued via email:

The director and choreographer met with a number of interested composers and writers and picked the people they felt were going to be fun and a good fit to interact with the students and to insure a smooth timely journey.
Krista agreed up front and seemed comfortable with the arrangement and a time line of due dates was set.  This latter element is really important because the students and the composers and the teachers are all on a very tight calendar whereby exact deadlines must be met or it endangers the completion of the tasks (getting music to musicians, setting studio time, the actual shoot) and all must stay on track to complete by the end of the semester.
I was troubled to hear that weeks after the process was set in motion, Krista reported to the teachers that she felt she should be compensated as much as the composers.  (They will receive $150.00 each).  I never received a direct email from Krista but the teachers passed along her note to me in an email she had sent them. And although not part of our usual budget for these projects, when I received the request I instantly approved it.

Olsen believes that the situation deteriorated because of communication glitches. “Where things faltered is in the fact that this a basically a good faith based project where artists get together and collaborate to help create the best possible experience for the students,” he writes. “When it became evident to the teachers that the writer was in fact not writing and was not going to write until she received some sort of formal agreement from the producer (who was happily processing it) and after missing a key deadline putting in jeopardy the entire work flow of the project, the artistic team lost confidence in her ability to be a good fit for the project.”

Going forward, Olsen notes, NYFA will either offer an honorarium for artists or avoid complication by not using outside writers.

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