Attention, talent: Guilds may have your unclaimed residuals

Commentary: Groups trying to locate individuals owed more than $150 mil

Hollywood's guilds, unions and collection societies are sitting on a gold mine of unclaimed residuals and royalties. They're holding more than $150 million for tens of thousands of actors, writers, directors and musicians they're trying to locate.

I began looking into this recently when I learned that my late father had a small piece of this pie coming to him.

My dad, Larry Robb, was a bit player and longtime SAG member. He had a small role on an episode of "Kung Fu," played Mad Dog in a movie called "Star Hops" and had a couple of lines in the telefilm "Frank Nitti: The Enforcer." We went to the premiere.

My dad died broke 20 years ago; there was no will and no estate. But I recently discovered that he'd left me some money after all -- in the form of unclaimed SAG residuals.

It turns out that SAG has more than $17.5 million in unclaimed residuals for 69,184 people they can't find. SAG has an entire department dedicated to finding them, but actors change agents, move, drop out of the business or die. And their residuals just keep piling up. During the past two years, SAG has distributed $20 million from this fund, but it just keeps growing. Last year, SAG located nearly 6,000 people on the list and expects to find that many again this year.

SAG also has a separate fund of nearly $19 million in foreign royalties that it's trying to give to members or their estates. So far, the guild has paid out more than $7 million from this fund.

SAG uses LexisNexis and other online search engines to locate people but also employs more personal methods. A SAG staffer connected an actress to her money after seeing her onstage. Another saw a performer at a radio station and put him in touch with the residuals department. Still another staffer knew a friend-of-a-friend on the list whom SAG had been seeking for five years and convinced her to come in. Then there's the story of an actress whom SAG located on the very day she'd received an eviction notice. The money SAG was holding for her allowed her to stay in her home.

One day not long ago, I was looking at the SAG website and noticed a quick link called Unclaimed Residuals. I clicked on it, scrolled down and saw a space to type in a member's name. I typed in my dad's, and his name came up. It didn't say how much he had there, but I figured it couldn't be much.

I called SAG to find out, and they directed me back to the website, which contains several pages of forms to fill out, one of which had to be notarized. That would cost 10 bucks. I had to get my dad's death certificate from the Los Angeles County Recorder's office, which cost $12, plus $10 for another notarized statement. Altogether, I was out $32 plus postage, hoping his residuals would come to more than that.

I sent the forms off to the recorder's office, and a few weeks later got my dad's death certificate. A box designated there for his occupation read: Actor.

I took the death certificate and the completed forms to SAG's offices on Wilshire Boulevard. They prefer that heirs mail in the paperwork, but I wasn't sure whether I'd filled out everything properly, and when I got there, Sheila Wilson, the information management coordinator in SAG's residuals estate department, was nice enough to come out to the lobby and look it over for me.

I went home and a few hours later, Sheila called and told me how much was in my dad's account. "Seventeen-eighty-six," she said.

"Seventeen dollars and eighty-six cents?" I replied.

"No," she laughed. "Seventeen hundred and eighty six dollars."

Wow! Thanks Dad ... and thanks SAG! (The check arrived a few weeks later.)

Besides the $36.5 million at SAG, other guilds also have unclaimed residuals and royalties accumulating for their members.

-- AFTRA has more than $6.8 million in unclaimed residuals in its Unable to Locate Fund. A total of $541,000 was paid out of the account last year, following $676,000 in 2008. The fund's single-biggest payout so far is $26,280.

-- AFTRA has a separate fund, jointly run with the American Federation of Musicians, that has more than $6.3 million in unclaimed royalties for 40,910 background singers, side musicians and arrangers. The fund has distributed $16,247,412 to nonfeatured vocalists and nonfeatured musicians whose recordings have generated income from foreign countries. Somebody out there -- a side musician or his heirs -- has a check waiting in the amount of $46,243.83.

-- The DGA has $20,000 in unclaimed residuals but $1.86 million in unclaimed foreign-levies royalties it is holding for 1,472 members and nonmembers who are owed at least $50 from fees collected by foreign countries to compensate rightsholders for the copying, renting or retransmitting of films and TV shows.

-- The WGA has $173,000 in unpaid residuals but a whopping $26 million in undistributed foreign levies.

Several other organizations collect royalties for recording artists. Sound Exchange, for example, is a nonprofit performance-rights organization that collects from satellite radio, Internet radio, cable TV music channels and similar platforms for streaming sound recordings. The group has more than $39 million to distribute to artists and another $28 million for the artists' labels.

All the unions and collections agencies have staffs dedicated to tracking down people owed money, but the lists are long, and new names are added every day.

Just a few of the well-known living performers on the SAG and AFTRA lists include Don Rickles, La Toya Jackson, Lola Falana, Colin Firth and Pauly Shore.

Deceased performers on the SAG and AFTRA lists whose heirs are entitled to their residuals include Natalie Wood, Jayne Mansfield, Lloyd Bridges, Jerry Orbach, Elizabeth Montgomery, Andy Devine, Cesar Romero, Lloyd Nolan, Alec Guinness, Mitzy Gaynor, Janet Gaynor, Martha Raye, Tammy Wynette, Laurence Harvey, Don Galloway and Imogene Coca.

There are lots of other well-known actors who have unpaid residuals at AFTRA, too: Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Downey Jr., Kirsten Dunst, David Spade, Gloria Stuart, Jeremy Irons, Katie Holmes, Bob Hoskins, Elizabeth Hurley, Melissa Gilbert and Whoopi Goldberg, to name a few.

One could put on a concert rivaling Woodstock with the acts that have money waiting to be turned over to them or their heirs at AFTRA, including Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton, Pete Townsend, BB King, Donovan, Mama Cass Elliot, Buddy Holly, Billy Joel, Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, Kurt Cobain, Lowell George, Andy and Maurice Gibb, Ray Davies and Duane Allman.

So all you business managers, agents and estate lawyers, wake up out there. Check these lists.

Better yet, check them out yourself. Just go to their websites and follow the instructions. It's easy.

If I can do it ...

David Robb is a regular commentator for The Hollywood Reporter. He has covered Hollywood's unions for more than 20 years and is author of "Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies." He can be reached at davidrobb88@aol.com.
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