March 2008

March 20, 2008

Secrets at SAG: Where's the Money?

Saglogo_2 Forget the Pellicano trial. The documents emerging in another case in downtown L.A. raise serious questions of dubious dealings between Hollywood's labor unions and the studios, on the eve of negotiations over a new contract.

A lawsuit brought last fall against the Screen Actors Guild by actor

Ken Osmond, a member of the guild who played Eddie Haskell on "Leave it to Beaver" in the 1950s, has revealed the existence of a secret 2002 agreement between the studios and the guild, granting the major studios half of the money collected abroad on behalf of actors from the sale of DVDs, blank VHS tapes and cable transmissions. Half!

European governments levy taxes on such sales, and allot this money to writers, directors and actors. But SAG, just like the directors guild and the writers guild, has generously chosen to share this money with the studios. (So far they acknowledge collecting $8 million since 1989, a figure that seems preposterously low.) Why give up the money? I asked this question to the guild. "It's not a giveaway," explained SAG's general counsel, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland. Under U.S. copyright law, the studios "had a viable argument that they were entitled to 100 percent of the monies, and they would take steps to collect it. From our point of view we negotiated a very favorable resolution." In other words, it's not a giveaway, it's a backroom deal.

But this raises many more questions than answers. Let’s start with the math. Eight million dollars? The European market is dominated by Hollywood films to the tune of 80 percent. DVD sales and rentals run in the hundreds of millions of dollars every year. What might possibly be owed? Lots and lots. The French collecting society, SACEM, took in 52.5 million Euros worth of foreign levies in 2005, and 50 million Euros again in 2006 (details here). If only half of that were from American films (and 60 percent of the French film market is American), that would be about $50 million owed to writers, directors and actors from foreign levies already collected.

Another question: Why wouldn't the guild challenge the studio's argument in court? After all, they have an international convention – the 1989 Berne agreement governing intellectual property – on their side. For another, why the secrecy? SAG only revealed the existence of the fund last summer in an article in its magazine. That article also raised more questions than answers. The original agreement in 1992 gave the guild only seven percent of the foreign levies, which the article does not mention. Why would the guild agree to that? Who got the studios to agree to raise the ratio to 50%? And why has it taken the guild so long to strike agreements with foreign countries over foreign levies? Crabtree-Ireland said that SAG just reached a deal with Germany a few months ago. Huh?

The guild's responses to these questions do not add up. Crabtree-Ireland told me that by last summer only $250,000 of foreign levy money had been disbursed to SAG members, all from France. He also said that $4 million has come in over the past four years, and much of the rest has been sitting around since 1998.

It's bewildering. What is the precise tally of that $8 million? Where did it come from – which movies? Which countries? What about 'Titanic'? Wouldn't a tax on the DVD sales of that movie along have made Kate Winslet a fortune?

For the moment I have more questions than answers. This issue has been around since 1989, and only now is it beginning to be aired. Indeed, it appears that only lawsuits and the efforts of a dissident and rather determined member of the writer's guild, Eric Hughes, has shone some light on these dealings. Hughes, by the way, has a website where he is busily posting documents. The secret agreement "gave the guild a license to steal, because they were never going to tell any actors about it," he told me. "And they took it all. It's all gone." Confused? Welcome to the club. I welcome tips, thoughts and comments on this issue to my email, and everyone else, stay tuned, I will be following through.

March 12, 2008

Prius Nation

Toyota_prius0081 Yes, I did it. I finally bought a Prius. Nothing makes me happier than buying a car that spews fewer fumes into the air, saves me time while also putting less money in the hands of the already-filthy-rich. Sheer contentment. I've been wanting one of these since I first wrote about them for the Washington Post, back in 2000. My car? It's silver. It's adorable. It parks like a dream. It feels like a tin can with no brakes but nothing's perfect. Still, here's the thing; now that the price of gas is careening toward $4.00 /gallon I am so late on this trend that all I seem to see on the road these days are - Priuses! Not just Priuses, but silver Priuses. It's like some Hitchcockian nightmare. Today I went to Trader Joe's, and there were two silver Priuses parked side by side in the lot, neither of them mine. There's a silver Prius parked across from my house every day, also not mine. And then there was last Sunday after my yoga class. I walked back to my car, threw in my mat, got in, inserted the plastic key and tried to start the battery. It wouldn't start. Know why? I was in someone else's silver Prius. Mine was parked two spots up. Know what I think? This isn't a trend, this is an epidemic.

March 11, 2008

Reader reactions

Dear Sharon,

We have never spoken but I just finished you book Rebels on the Backlot and felt compelled to write you. I am a producer who has wanted to be one since 5th grade. Six years ago I partnered with Michael Bay to form Platinum Dunes, which specializes in under 20 million dollar horror films. 2007 wasn't a great year for our company... Then I picked up your book. It was like talking to a friend who understood.  I wasn't the only one suffering. What's more, the directors, producers, writers of the movies that made me want to stick it out when all I had was hope, all went through the same thing. Only worse.  I couldn't put your book down. What's more, despite my own experiences, I gleaned so much insight from your description of the experiences the directors endured that I have a further appreciation for their struggle and dare I say better understanding of my own partner.

Your book should be required reading for anyone who wants get into the movie business and everyone who forgot why they did.


Brad Fuller

Over the holidays, I apparently won the Alan Furst sweepstakes as my brother sent me an Amazon package of everything written by him. Included was a copy of "Rebels On The Backlot" ... I made the wonderful error of peeking into your book. The upshot is I wanted to thank you for an well written book about an interesting subject and all the hard facts, the interviews and followups that you must have done in order to write it. Certain times, you see, hear or read something and marvel at what went into it to make it. Just wanted to say that I appreciated all your hard work. Waiting for your next book.

Ron Kehr

Hi Sharon,

I graduate from undergrad in exactly two days with a degree in Political Science.  I have always been passionate about movies, but have never wanted to stray from my path of eventually becoming a lawyer.  I am not done with it, but what I have read of your book has already inspired in me a personal revelation: I must make movies.  Tarantino inspired me when I did a ninth grade project on him.  Your words, especially on Tarantino, have spoken to me and they tell me: I must emulate the great and make a movie. I don't think my dad will be too happy, so don't worry I won't tell him your name, even though you are the main reason I have decided to changed my career goal from lawyer to producer.  I don't know where and how to start, but this does not concern me.

Thank you so much for writing Rebels,

James Knox Waller

March 02, 2008

Billy Jack, the super-sequel

Billjack I just heard from Tom Laughlin, better known as Billy Jack, about his latest efforts to get a new sequel of his franchise off the ground. Both Laughlin and his wife Delores Taylor -- who played Jean the pacifist to Billy's rugged vigilante in the famous 1971 film -- are eager to reach  a new generation of young people with their message about the injustices they perceive in the world. Laughlin told me about these plans back in 2005, when I wrote about him in The New York Times, but was set back by health problems. Indeed, when he called in the days after the article was published, Laughlin found himself having trouble talking to me on the phone; it turned out he was having a stroke -- at that very moment. He has had a series of strokes since then, but says he now feels well enough to pursue the movie project once more. The film he envisions would be entirely experimental, combining fictional and non-fictional footage. He explains it all at www.billyjack.com. I say don't count him out; Billy Jack is still a guy who'll never say die.