Friday, February 12, 2010

The Fustercluck of Foreign Levies

... as regards the Animation Guild and its members.

Years and years ago, when I was moist behind the ears and Brian Walton was the executive director of the Writer Guild of America (west), I got into a kerfluffle with him regarding foreign levies. "Foreign levies" are royalty-type monies that foreign collection agencies vacuum up from various sources on behalf of film and TV writers and directors, and then turn over to the writers and directors' guilds in the U.S. for pay out to credited writers and directors. For example, the European Union collects a tax on blank videocassettes that goes towards payments to writers and directors.

I objected to Walton that his organization was collecting money for persons the WGA did not represent, under a system in which TAG had no input. (This was in the early nineties, when the WGA repped zero animation writers.)

I was told to buzz off.

And here we are, years later. And whether TAG likes it or not, the Directors Guild and Writers Guild are the collectors of foreign levies for animation people. And the amount of foreign levies flowing into their coffers is considerable.

Unfortunately, the way those two organizations go about handing out the money is, as far as we can see, considerably different ...

Over the course of the time levies have been paid out, the DGA has contacted us on a regular basis to help track down animation directors for which it has no contact information. TAG has been happy to assist the Directors Guild on locating the recipients of the money. As a result, quite a few of our director members have gotten checks in the mail they probably wouldn't otherwise have received.

But while the DGA has been diligent in working to locate animation directors to whom money is owed, the WGA has been the opposite. In the two decades that payments have gone out, the Writers Guild has contacted us exactly once for a list of addresses of animation writers. The WGA now represents some animation writers and hosts the Animation Writers Caucus, but its database for writers of cartoons is far from complete. Why the Writers Guild doesn't check in with the other organization that has lots of names and addresses that would be useful to it is a mystery. Perhaps WGAw has its reasons, but its performance seems lackadaisical to us.

Unsurprisingly, in 2005 various writers sued the WGA over its slothfulness in paying out foreign levies. Now, some little while later, a settlement is in the offing, but a few writers object to the terms:

... [T]he proposed Settlement Agreements ... is a settlement in name only. It makes no provision for the actual payment of Foreign Levies to class members and fails to address the central thrust of the Complaint: that WGA converted, misappropriated or otherwise refused to disgorge Foreign Levy money belonging to writers who identities and locations are already known. ... The Settlement does not materially benefit the plaintiff class, and indeed confers no greater benefit on participating class members than on class members who opt out. The Settlement was negotiated by class representatives who shared on interest with writers of non-union work, yet who also shared no commonality with the typical covered writer who is a member in good standing of WGA ...

Here [are] some of the key problems with the Settlement, (resolutions in italics):

1) WGA is under a fiduciary duty to pay union and non-union writers their Foreign Levies but is not doing so. (No change under the Settlement.)

2) The WGA is not doing anything to actually locate and/or distribute funds to individuals, and in particular, non-covered writers who may not be known to it. (WGA pledges to do a better job, but does not pledge to work with the myriad stakeholders who are entitled to Foreign Levies, including ... IATSE Local 839 ...)

3) There has never been a comprehensive accounting of which writers have not been paid their Foreign Levy royalties. (There will not be a comprehensive accounting ...)

4) WGA does not have a viable system to collect and distribute Foreign Levy royalties. (Consultants will prepare a secret report for WGA -- and plaintiffs' attorneys' eyes only -- recommending improvements ...)

5) WGA has authorized signatory production companies to take 50% of earnings of writers of non-union works even though those companies have nothing to do with non-union productions. (Settlement permits this apparent conversion to continue, and requires writers of non-union works to release WGA ... from all claims.)

6) WGA retains undistributed Foreign Levies indefinitely, circumventing California escheat law, and retaining all interest. (Nothing changes.)

7) Writers have the right to assert claims for Foreign Levy royalties against foreign collecting societies. (Writers are obligated to release foreign collecting societies from all claims ...)

8) WGA takes a 5% administrative fee from Foreign Levy disbursements. (The administrative fee charged to writers will increase to 10% of disbursements ...)

9) WGA fails to pay writers any interest on money owed ... (No change ...)

10) WGA lacks any authorization from non-members to even collect foreign levy moneys on their behalf. (The Court made no ruling on this subject, but the FAQs on WGA's website assert that the Court has "affirmed WGA's right to do this.")

11) Writers are entitled to Foreign Levy royalties from Latin American countries. (The release requires writers to relinquish claims for these royalties.)

12) Writers retain the right to allege claims against production companies for misappropriating their foreign levy royalties. (Ambiguity in in the release may be construed by production companies as requiring writers to relinquish claims ...)

TAG's position in this tangled mess is straight-forward. We have a problem with being cut out of the process and have said so repeatedly, we have a problem with the (seemingly) lackadaisical payouts of levy money by the WGA to our members, and we want to see a) more transparency and b) more responsiveness than the WGA has so far been willing to offer.


Anonymous said...

With a few exceptions, the WGA has a history of selfish provincialism, with absolutely zero regard for the broader entertainment community, and little regard for actual writers. The organization's primary motive seems to be to strengthen itself, even at the expense of working writers. This is proof of that. And writers wonder why the WGA is despised?

How is the WGA any different than the greedy, selfish corporations they rail against? They aren't. They're the equivalent of corporate thieves themselves. A pox on their house.

Anonymous said...

"I want my money, Jimmy. Where's my money?! Gimme my money, Jimmy!"

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous,

Talk about provincialism. You make broad accusations about the WGAw (I assume you mean the West though you don't bother to make that delineation) which sound more based on emotion than any understanding of WGA history. Specifically, what disregard for "actual writers" are you talking about? What "disregard" for the "broader entertainment community" are you talking about? Because we had to go on strike to stop roll-backs? If you guys had any balls you'd have gone on strike years ago and not have become the holding pen for WGA members on the way up or the way down.

I'm afraid, Sir or Madame, that you sound like just another running dog of your corporate masters.


Proud WGAw Member

Anonymous said...

"Proud WGAw Member"

Must be one of the few that got paid.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Because we had to go on strike to stop roll-backs?

Keep drinking the Kool-Aid! Sounds like you didn't notice that the deal you got was slightly worse than the deal originally offered, waaaay before the strike. Count in how much money you lost during the strike, and the truth is you came out faaaar behind. That stike was kind of like setting your house on fire to kill termites. Real smart.

If you guys had any balls you'd have gone on strike years ago and not have become the holding pen for WGA members on the way up or the way down.

Ah, now we see your true colors. You're superior to us simple cartoonists. That's why every animated show that originated with writers has been a screaming disaster, right?

And tell us, are you really on board with the way the WGA has handled the foreign levies? Can you honestly read what Hulett posted above and not be outraged? No, you can't. You've got that cherry-flavored Kool-Aid mustache, and that special warmth in the belly that goes with it.

Anonymous said...

As an animator, I'm a proud supporter of writers and the WGA. I'm not really sure why there's a pissing match going on here.

But I will say, in regards to the "holding pen" remark, that the best writers of entertainment anywhere in film are the story crew at Pixar. It's quite clear that they are better at story than the entire community of live-action screenwriters. Their track record backs that up.

Live action screenwriters should wish that they had the creativity, accomplishment, and successful track record of the animation story crew at Pixar.

Anonymous said...

I'm not really sure why there's a pissing match going on here.

It's not a pissing match. The above post highlights how the WGA talks the talk, but doesn't walk the walk. I know WGA writers who are outraged by the way their union holds onto their (the writer's) money. When it comes to animation writers, they don't give a shit. This is more evidence. If they cared, they'd make a phone call to TAG, and get that money sent out. Instead, they hold on to tens of millions of dollars, earn interest on it, and then take a cut when they get around to mailing a check. Sickening. Hypocritical. Typical.

Anonymous said...

I forgot about the white collar strike thing. Were those the folks who walked off their jobs when our economy hit that gargantuan iceberg that everyone with half a brain saw coming? WGA certainly knows how to write a good tragedy.

Steve Hulett said...

I would like to point out that WGA writers have worked on Pixar projects. More than once.

Quality writers are quality writers.

yahweh said...

"Quality writers are quality writers."

and are few and far between...

Anonymous said...

Pixar films have LOTS of Union employees! Especially now that they're owned by Disney. Writers, sound people, some post production, voice talent.

Site Meter