Canadian Union Takes Bite Out of U.S. Actors' Residuals (Exclusive)

The Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists charges American actors and other non-members a 25 percent processing fee, while members of the Canadians-only organization pay a fraction of that amount. The union blames “U.S. actors coming up and taking Canadian jobs.”

An Arctic blast swept in from Canada last week as that country’s largest performers union rebuffed efforts by American actors seeking refunds of a 25 percent “service charge” the union withholds from their residuals checks, The Hollywood Reporter has learned. The fee, which applies to non-members only, is as much as 11 times higher than what members pay, but according to the union – the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists – membership is only open to Canadian citizens or residents.

The size of the fee appears to be unprecedented. A source close to SAG – which charges no service fee on residuals – indicated that the guild will be looking into the matter. AFTRA declined to comment.

The 25 percent service charge is “grossly unfair,” said Vincent Spano, who starred in Alive, a 1993 film shot in British Columbia. “It feels like a penalty for working in the country and being an American,” he added, while noting that he loved Canada and its people.

An official of ACTRA’s Vancouver-based branch, the Union of British Columbia Performers, left a voicemail for another performer on Alive, saying “you guys signed a contract, there was a statement in there about what the residual fees would be when you’re a non-member.” However, the official – UBCP’s chief financial officer, Connie Brown – wouldn’t explain what contract she was referring to, despite THR’s requests.

ACTRA national executive director Stephen Waddell told THR in a statement that “the provision for a service charge for non-members can be found in the ACTRA Constitution.” Left unexplained was how non-members could be bound by the constitution of an organization they weren’t permitted to join.

David Marciano, who appeared in the Toronto-shot series Due South, told THR he had contacted ACTRA about five years ago and was told that the 25 percent fee was charged on all residuals checks that were sent outside the country.

UBCP and ACTRA offered a series of shifting and inconsistent explanations for the size of the fee, and for a 2008 hike from a prior level of 5 percent. Initially, Brown told at least one performer that the increase was due to rollbacks imposed by producers in 2007, and that the fee was set by ACTRA’s national head office, leaving UBCP powerless to change it.

In response, an ACTRA national spokeswoman in Toronto told THR that the fee had been 25 percent since the mid-1990’s. Informed by a reporter that this was not the case – THR had reviewed a series of payments made by UBCP to Alive actors – the spokeswoman had no explanation. She suggested calling UBCP – and also said that UBCP operates its own residuals processing department and was free to set its fee at whatever level it chose, contrary to Brown’s explanation.

Told of this, Brown changed course, saying that the fee had indeed been 25 percent for many years and was set at the same level as ACTRA national’s out of “solidarity with our parent union.” Solidarity has its limits though: ACTRA national charges members a 5 percent service fee on residuals in addition to 2.25 percent dues, while UBCP charges members the same dues but no service fee.

Brown added in an email that “I did misinterpret one of my colleagues when they said that ‘we can no longer charge admin fees’ as being related to the 25 percent change.” That’s apparently a reference to administration fees that producers pay – on top of residuals – in order to support the residuals department. It’s unclear why Brown’s colleague described them as a thing of the past, since such fees (at a 1 percent level) are in fact mandated by UBCP’s 2009-2012 agreement.

As for why Alive actors saw their “service charges” leap from 5 percent to 25 percent, Brown now ascribes this to a procedural change, telling THR that residuals for the 1993 film had been processed manually until a new database system was implemented in 2008. The 5 percent level was erroneous, she said, and should have been 25 percent all along.

Missing from Brown’s explanation was why the Alive residuals had been processed manually for a decade and a half, whether other projects had been processed in this way as well, how the 5 percent figure had come about, why the union hadn’t notified the actors of the mistake and how or whether the union decided not to retroactively correct its error by recouping the undercharges from future residuals.

“They easily grabbed thousands of dollars from the recent Alive residuals we received,” said Christian Meoli, a veteran SAG member who first brought the situation to THR’s attention. “That’s just one movie,” he added. “Can you imagine how much they take from actors annually like this?”

When asked whether the 25 percent figure – or the eleven-fold differential between members and non-members – was fair or reasonable, UBCP’s Brown suggested that it was appropriate, because “there are lots of U.S. actors coming up and taking Canadian jobs.” The British Columbia Film Commission’s statistics suggest otherwise, however: over 75 percent of film and TV production expenditures in the province in 2010 came from foreign productions.

Indeed, Alive was a Paramount film, and Due South a CBS series. Both were produced under ACTRA contracts prior to SAG’s 2002 imposition of Global Rule 1, which requires SAG members to work under a SAG contract even on foreign productions.

In a conversation with this reporter, Brown proposed to put UBCP president Alvin Sanders on the line to discuss the matter further. The offer was unexpected, since Brown, in her voicemail message to actor Ele Keats, had said that Sanders “thought it would be better if I called back and gave you the position, because he not might be as diplomatic” as Brown. In any case, Brown returned a couple of minutes later and said that Sanders was not willing to speak about the issue after all.

Ironically, Sanders himself is a U.S. import: he was born in California, and moved to Vancouver when he was 32, according to his IMDb biography.


Twitter: @jhandel