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Hey, Unpaid SAG Members: Your Case is Closed, Are You Watching?

No details on the SAG settlement of money it hasn’t paid actors, released late on a lazy August Friday? That’s just how Hollywood wants it

In typical take-out-the-garbage fashion, the Screen Actors Guild quietly announced the settlement of a long-troublesome lawsuit over foreign levies late on Friday afternoon.

The guild announced no details, and acknowledged no wrongdoing – and hoped no one would notice.

Almost no one did. 

From the start, this has been a thankless lawsuit, brought by "Leave It to Beaver" actor Ken Osmond (pictured below) on behalf of himself and fellow actors, and supported by a number of outraged members, including screenwriter and former Writers Guild official Eric Hughes.

But because the issue is so complicated, it is thus ignored by news organizations. It is embarrassing to the guilds and the studios both, and thus easily swept under the rug.

It seemed this lawsuit served no one who runs the entertainment industry.

But it did indeed involve many millions of dollars undoubtedly owed to the people who create the movies and television programs that are the core content of this business.

Instead of going to them, their foreign levy money –  taxes from foreign sales of blank and other cassettes and DVDs – were stashed in accounts, quietly forgotten, while the guilds handed half the cash over to the studios.

The Writers Guild settled last fall for $30 million (within days of TheWrap publishing embarrassing testimony from a whistleblower indicating the shredding of documents).

Now, we still don’t know how much SAG is settling for.

Eric Hughes writes to tell me that there was a mandatory settlement conference mediated by the court last Tuesday. The written settlement will be filed Aug. 30, and a hearing on preliminary approval is set for Sept. 8.

But I still want to know: How much did SAG agree to pay?

Hughes writes: “SAG has been threatening not to settle if it can’t keep in its settlement what we were able to have listed out from the WGA settlement.”

Meaning, for example, a provision that allows the guild to keep money that is unclaimed after a certain period of time. That might sound reasonable, except there is no accountable party making sure the union is trying to reach people to give them their money; for well over a decade, the guild shirked exactly that responsibility.

Don’t forget, WaxWord wrote two years ago about $25 million in unpaid foreign levies – which the guild said were actually unclaimed residuals. (I don’t think I believe that, but as long as the money gets paid, not sure it matters that much.)

According to Friday's guild statement by Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, deputy national executive director and general counsel, the guild has paid  “more than $7 million in royalty funds to more than 70,000 individual performers that would otherwise have gone unclaimed and been lost to them forever.”

Oddly enough, though, Crabtree-Ireland told me in March 2008 that the guild had paid out $8 million in foreign levies since 1989. (I wrote at the time: “a figure that seems preposterously low.”)

The guild undertook to return $25 million in unclaimed “residuals” later that year in response to a WaxWord post about the money; we need to know now how much of that has been paid out – is that the $7 million to which he refers?

These and many, many other questions remain unanswered. I venture to say that most of them  will remain unanswered.

That’s how the guild wants it. And, it seems, that’s how Hollywood wants it too.