Like so many things, this saga began with a phone call. This one came from a character actor pal. We’d worked on a couple of films together. Our most recent picture had long since resided in the post-theatrical market of DVDs, pay-per-view, cable, etc. From that movie, the residual checks had begun to land in the mailboxes of the contractual participants, myself included.
“Hey,” said the actor. “Thought I’d give you a heads up. “I’ve been on the phone with the residual folks at SAG and they said something about our foreign pay and cable residuals being held up for some reason. You know anything about that?”
“Not a thing,” I replied weakly, already mentally berating myself for not being as aggressive or on top of some of the more finite financial points that may or may not affect my bottom line. I tended to look at dealing with the bureaucracy of my own union as something akin to dealing with the DMV.
“Why do you think they wouldn’t be paying us?” he asked.
“I’m sure it has something to do with the Big Balzac,” I said.
Now who or what’s a Big Balzac? That’s what I’ve decided to name the producer-slash-financier whose company had funded our latest cinematic endeavor. Of late, one after another of his many production entities had been going belly up, declaring bankruptcy, leaving a lot of creditors holding worthless paper.
“SAG says I’m owed somethin’ like forty grand,” said my friend.
“Ouch,” I said, adding numbers in my head. Forty thousand dollars is a lot of scratch, especially to a character actor who doesn’t know when his next gig is going to materialize—someone with a mortgage and college tuition to pay. I was also calculating my own piece of the money-pie as a credited writer.
I promised my character actor pal that I’d look into the matter via the almighty Writers Guild. Why the WGA? Well, simply put, because they’re responsible for all residual accounting for member writers. That’s because without the union’s collective bargaining efforts, there would be no residuals whatsoever.
So I phoned the Guild, was bounced from desk to desk, and finally landed with a kindly Lady Minion in the Residuals department. I made my inquiry, passing along what I’d heard from my actor friend, left my phone number, then waited. Which was easy because I was busy with matters like making my own living.
About a month later…
At last I received a call from the Guild. A bit of legwork by the lovely Lady Minion had grown fruit, thus proving the actor’s assertion that money was owed.
“Yes,” said Lady Minion on the other end of the line. “It appears that the company is in arrears on making their foreign residual payments. By our calculations, your unpaid foreign pay and DVD residuals add up to around four hundred thousand dollars.”
I swallowed hard. Did I hear that right? I was owed four hundred grand?
“More,” she answered, as if reading my mind. “In interest and penalties that’s just shy of half a million dollars. Best we go and get that for you.”
Yes. Best you should. Go forth, Guild Fairy and collect my missing gold.
I composed myself, half-kicking my own ass for not having been on top of this massive malfeasance, and the other half wishing I could mule-kick Big Balzac in his gargantuan cajones for royally trying to screw me out of another veritable heap of cash. You see, this was not my first rodeo date with Big Balzac. And he’d successfully bucked me to the dirt once before.
“What’s next?” I asked.
“I need to connect with the company,” she said. “But rest assured. We’ll get your money for you.”
I was relieved. And I admit, felt cared for. In the cradle of Mother Guild.
“So what happens first,” Lady Minion said, “Is that I get in touch with the company. Present them with the facts and gauge their response.”
“What kind of response do you usually get?” I asked.
“With a studio,” she explained, “It’s pretty pro forma. Same with an independent company we’ve worked with before. But this is my first time dealing with this particular company.”
“You personally?” I asked. “Or the Guild’s?”
“Both, I think.”
Strange, I initially thought. But maybe it was promising news. Big Balzac had made a bucket-load of pictures. Mostly lower budget, under-the-radar indie films. I knew some other writers and directors who’d worked under the Big Balzac banner. Each and every one of them had experienced a litany of money issues, including late or non-payments, budgets slashed mid-picture, vanishing contingency funds, and on and on. Yet Lady Minion had given me hope that, at least in the residual department, my case might’ve just fallen into the anomaly category. Perhaps Big Balzac would gaze upon my fair union as an eight-hundred ton beast that should never be trifled with.
“Got a good response,” said Lady Minion in our follow-up phone call some three months later. I’d been so busy I’d nearly forgotten about my “found” money. “The company acknowledges that they owe both the unpaid residuals and the accrued penalties.”
“Great,” I answered with pretty much zero sarcasm rising from my throat.
“Before we work out a payment structure,” continued Lady Minion, “The company wants to sort out the other residuals they owe on the movie–to actors, DGA members, et cetera. And they’ll get back to right back us.”
“Right back to us?”
“Well, we hope,” she said kindly.
Sweet. At least the process was moving. More months passed without news or surprise. It was not uncommon to find getting paid in Hollywood akin to sucking crude oil through a crack pipe. Still, I finally called fair Lady Minion. I didn’t see it as a positive sign when I had to remind her of my case. As far as she knew, there had been no discernible forward progress, but she would check in with the company.
Okay, I told myself. The Guild is clearly tight on resources. Like more corporate desk jockeys, Lady Minion was probably overtaxed with cases piled double-wide and ceiling high.
“Okay,” said Lady Minion. It had been about a week since I’d last phoned her. “I talked to the company’s accounting office. And as I suspected, this residual issue is backed up for them and includes more movies than just yours. There’s a lot to untangle. But they assured me that as soon as possible they will present us with a payment schedule.”
“Now, if I may,” I offered to Lady Minion. “If I recall you haven’t had any dealings with this company.”
“Until now, yes,” she said.
This is where I informed her that I was highly suspicious of their good intentions. I went on to add that despite this being an issue concerning unpaid residuals, it was sounding awfully familiar. Big Balzac and his coterie of production entities had a demonstrative history of delaying payments, giving endless lip service to bill collectors, only eventually to belly-up the company in bankruptcy court.
“I understand,” she said. “But we aren’t bill collectors. Those are WGA residuals. We are the Guild and we eventually will get your money.”
“Even if the company goes bankrupt?”
“I spoke personally to their head of business affairs. There are too many residuals on too many movies they have to pay off. I don’t think bankruptcy is going to happen.”
“Have you ever read the trades?” I asked. “Big Balzac is folding tents every month.”
“I gave the company a hard two weeks,” she assured. “If they don’t have a schedule for us, we will certainly take it up a level.”
“What does that entail,” I asked. “Taking it up a level?”
“Assigning you to our legal department,” said Lady Minion. “And I’m sure they don’t want any of that.”
As you might expect, nothing concrete came from Big Balzac or his company. This is where I said goodbye to Lady Minion and hello to my very own Guild attorney. I shall call her…
Sheena, Queen of the Lost Residual Jungle.
All images that such a moniker might inspire, let me say that Sheena possessed a voice inhibited by a severe nasal issue. But at least she called back quick enough. And she promised me that it would no longer be Lady Minion negotiating with some nameless Balzac lacky. It would be now be lawyer to lawyer.
Can’t say that statement intoxicated me with much confidence.
And as it turned out, taking it up a level meant four months of Sheena getting the same run around from Big Balzac’s Chief Counsel despite my continued warnings that she was falling for the same derail and delay tactics the company had used with great success time and time again. Finally, Sheena had heard enough.
“Okay,” Sheena said to me on the phone, the solid taint of indignation in her voice. “So we’re filing a lawsuit against Big Balzac.”
Yes, screamed my inner psyche. At last I will have my satisfaction.
“So what’s that process like?” I queried.
“A mediator has to be assigned,” she said.
“Why a mediator?” I innocently asked.
“That’s part of the collective bargaining agreement,” Sheena explained. “In the case of a lawsuit, all companies signatory with the Guild have the right to arbitration.”
The more I pondered it, the more arbitration appeared dandy-fine to me. It was more streamlined than the endless legal posturing that often occurs in a lawsuit. That and it was a matter of record that I was owed all that money. Fessed up to by the company lawyer. Let a judge tell Big Balzac to pay up.
“How long before am arbiter is assigned?” I asked.
“About a year and half,” she deadpanned.
“I’m sorry,” I said, believing my brain had just been hijacked by my ears. “I thought you said a year and a half.”
“That’s right. A year and a half.”
NEXT WEEK, the conclusion of RESIDUAL ANGST.
- More articles by Doug Richardson
- Indievelopment: Film Budgets – Limitations and Creativity
- Balls of Steel: Writers in the Ring of Arbitration
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