EXCLUSIVE: SAG Executive Director David White Announces Improvements in Service

3:24 PM PST 01/27/2011 by Jonathan Handel

The initiative to modernize and improve SAG operations includes an online signatory process and faster residuals processing.

Can a flying squirrel help SAG serve its members?

The guild certainly hopes so. Rocky, along with Bullwinkle, Natasha and Boris are the union’s internal names for a quartet of new residuals processing machines intended to speed up the guild’s notoriously slow payment process.

In an exclusive interview with THR, SAG national executive director David White stressed the significance of the recently-acquired machinery, saying “Very little that we do is more important than getting our members their residuals money.” The union receives $2 million in residuals payments a day and 2 million checks per year.

Members should see reduced delays over the next year, White said. SAG 1st vice president Ned Vaughn commented “David’s focus on modernizing and improving SAG operations is already paying dividends.”

The machines are part of a guild effort to become more responsive to what union officials labeled their two key constituencies: members and producers. For producers, the initiative, spearheaded by White, includes the introduction of an online signatory process and an online “production center.” Those tools are in beta testing, with deployment planned for February 21.

The new signatory process, a feature SAG said is not offered by other entertainment unions, allows producers of lower budget and new media productions to sign up with guild online, bypassing the current system that involves dozens of pages of forms that the producer fills out by hand and mails back to the guild.

White said that the online signatory system will speed up return to producers of the bonds that they are generally required to post with SAG by making it easier for producers to see whether they have filed all of the necessary forms.

The bonds are intended to ensure that producers don’t default on actors’ wage payments. However, many producers criticize what they see as SAG’s slowness to return the bond monies in time for producers to timely fund post-production.

“Believe you me,” White remarked in an email, “it does us no good to keep their money – we want producers to have it to use on their next SAG project.” Whether the online signatory system will significantly change producers’ experiences and perceptions is unknown.

Another online component, the production center, will allow producers to see the status of their projects online. The system will send email alerts when something is late or due and flag missing information or documents.

The guild signs and tracks over 3,300 theatrical productions each year, as well as television productions, commercials, and new media projects.

“We’re doing outreach to producers, agents, managers, lawyers, casting directors and others,” said White. He also commented that the two new online tools benefit members as well, since they “make it easier for producers to sign our agreements and to work with our members.”

Earlier Thursday, the guild announced another online component, a foreign royalty tracker, which allows members to see a report of any foreign royalties collected on their behalf. (Foreign royalties are distinct from residuals, although there are some similarities.)

White said that all of the new systems “can migrate successfully to a successor union,” referring to current efforts toward merger with AFTRA.

At present, the paper signatory forms are rekeyed into the guild’s systems, often by the business reps. By freeing the reps to spend more of their time interacting directly with producers and members, the guild hopes to head off problems that might result in claims, as well as improve the quality of work life for the reps themselves. White emphasized that “no employee will lose their job as a consequence of this initiative.”

SAG’s business reps are themselves unionized, with the Los Angeles-based contingent represented by Teamsters Local 986. According to sources, relations between the guild and its reps are somewhat strained in the wake of a difficult contract negotiation last year.

Another frustration for producers is the fact that the business reps have little ability to compromise and settle claims. On this matter, White offered only a promise to “examine further policy and procedures issues with an eye toward continuous improvement and optimum performance.”

White also said that the guild had increased interdepartmental communication and was creating training videos for staff to give them a common knowledge base regarding SAG contracts.

When and whether videos and explanatory booklets will be made available for producers, lawyers, members and agents was less clear. SAG lags behind the WGA, DGA and AFTRA in this area, as those unions have created detailed booklets on aspects of their contracts.

Like the signatory process, the current handling of residuals is heavily paper-based. At all of the above-the-line unions, checks are generally mailed to the member’s guild, which then processes the checks and remails them to the member – or to the agent, who may then take a commission where permitted and then mails a check again, this time to the guild member.

Clients sometimes blame their agents for delay in receiving residuals, even where the delay is attributable to the union.

Although the fancifully-named residuals machines are an improvement over manual processing, White said “We are also looking at ways to encourage more electronic reporting by the studios and payroll companies paying our members’ residuals.” That may be a difficult sell: contract provisions in the SAG and other union contracts relating to studies of electronic reporting have resulted in little apparent improvement.

In addition, the union and companies may need to end the practice of sending residual checks for extraordinarily low amounts, such an eleven cent check recently provided to THR by a SAG member. The member also spoke of some actors receiving checks for zero cents – the result of rounding down once taxes have been deducted. It’s unknown how many SAG residuals checks per year are for nominal amounts.

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