An Actor's Cautionary Tale: Cancer Diagnosis and a Drawn-Out Battle Over Residuals

 

A version of this story originally appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Actors often complain about late residuals checks, although SAG-AFTRA has cut processing delays lately. But few stories compare to the battle waged by Alex Doe (whose name has been changed by THR), a voice actor who was diagnosed with cancer in 2012 and endured a 3½-year residuals runaround from Warner Bros. and SAG-AFTRA that threatened Doe's health insurance.

Boomerang, the offshoot of Time Warner's Cartoon Network, failed to report thousands of reruns of the actor's show for several years, and the Warner Bros. residuals department resisted the union's contrary data. The actor filed a claim with SAG in February 2011, and the union and studio began arguing about the number of reruns and whether Doe had been overpaid on a DVD release. Warners repeatedly promised more information — surprisingly, collective bargaining agreements don't require that any particular data be provided — and months often passed between emails and phone calls. In 2012, the head of the union's residuals claims department referred the matter to a legal department attorney.

But even with both departments involved, the delays continued. (A possible reason: Union attorneys are assigned crushingly large caseloads and also were busy with the complex SAG-AFTRA merger and several major contract negotiations.) "SAG was lazy, and Warner Bros. was negligent," says the actor in an interview. Nothing much happened until Doe brought in a private lawyer this spring to hound the union. Even then, meaningful residuals didn't start flowing until the end of July, after Doe enlisted a talent agency exec who interceded with Warners directly.

SAG-AFTRA counters that what dislodged the money was that Cartoon Network stopped running the series, which, the union says, made it easier to highlight the unpaid Boomerang residuals. "Our team … successfully recovered approximately $200,000 for [Doe and castmates]," a union rep tells THR, calling the case "unfortunate."

Doe also charges that union representatives were misleading and unsympathetic, and often failed to return calls or make follow-up calls. The particular staffers Doe dealt with have been praised by some members and criticized by others. The union calls them "diligent and dedicated."

"We all feel a tremendous obligation to ensure the best result for [Doe] and all our members whenever we are pursuing residuals claims," says a spokesperson. "In certain cases, full and final resolution to a claim may take an extended period of time and that happened in this matter."

Residuals collected exceed $2 billion per year in aggregate across all entertainment unions, but how much goes uncollected? SAG-AFTRA alone processes over 3.5 million paper checks annually in face amounts that range from meaningless (one cent) to tens of thousands of dollars. Performers' residuals can average 40 percent of their total compensation, and SAG-AFTRA national executive director David White told THR in 2011 that "very little that we do is more important than getting our members their residuals."

Doe's cancer now is in remission, and the independent SAG Health Plan recorded the residuals so that the actor will remain eligible for health insurance. A Warners rep tells THR the studio expects to supply "all outstanding payments and detailed supporting documentation" by the end of August, which could mean full payment for reruns, DVDs, foreign uses, new media and interest on the late payments. Castmates might be owed money, too. Of the ordeal, the Warners rep says, "We very much regret this unfortunate incident and the delay in processing [Doe's] residuals."

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Email: jh@jhandel.com
Twitter: @jhandel

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