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in Filmmaking
on May 12, 2007

Below I blogged about the L.A. Weekly piece, “Double Cross at the WGA,” which was an explosive account of the Writer’s Guild of America’s policy of collecting and not always paying foreign levies on behalf of member and non-member writers. It’s a complicated story but well worth following for several reasons, not the least of which is what it says about our current and possibly future system of copyright.

Now there’s more on the story. Stefan Avalos has written a long and nuanced piece about the scandal at Fade In Online. (The story begins on the website’s front page and is an excellent and accessible read.) The magazine opens with a salute to legendary experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger, who is owed some of this money.

In some circles, Kenneth Anger is a living legend. As an experimental filmmaker, the former child actor, cited as an influence on directors as varied as John Waters and Martin Scorsese, became a darling of the avant-garde via a string of audacious shorts – especially the infamous 1964 classic Scorpio Rising, a melding of gay fetish iconography, Nazism and the occult set to pop songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s. As an author, the notorious scandalmonger endeared himself to controversy-hounds worldwide with Hollywood Babylon, a compendium of lurid Tinseltown sexual indiscretions, drug and alcohol abuse, mental instability, murder, suicide and more.

Unfortunately, cult fame, while undeniably cool, seldom pays the bills, and today, at age eighty, living in a Hollywood hotel and recovering from serious surgery, Anger is a guy who could use a few extra bucks.

Ironically, he, along with countless other writers and directors – both rolling in dough and down on their luck – have been owed money by the Writers Guild and Directors Guild for years, and most of them don’t even know it.

The money in question is millions of dollars from foreign levies, and even though they have your name on lists, the guilds say they don’t know how to find a lot of you. This money is just a fraction of a much larger amount.

Anger becomes a running thread through the piece as a DGA rep explains that they’ve tried to locate the director and have sent him five unresponded to letters presumably alerting him to the funds waiting for him. Avalos and Fade In attempt to find directors on the guild’s “address unknown” list and are, in many cases, quickly successful. And Anger, they point out, received the tenth annual Outfest Achievement Award… in the DGA building on Sunset.

You’d hardly expect a guild administrator to check the program book for an event taking place in its auditorium, but their response to the Fade In’s article is depressing:

When informed of how easy it was to locate these randomly selected filmmakers, the DGA’s Johnston expressed surprise and concern, and promised to inform the guild’s chief financial officer. In an unfortunate and surprising turn of events, hours after Fade In’s interview with Johnston, the DGA removed the list of directors owed money, as well as levies department information, from its website. Subsequent requests to speak with Johnston were declined by DGA officials, who cited pending lawsuits.

In addition to the Fade In article there’s also a blog by Pretty Woman screenwriter and former WGA board member J.F. Lawton called WGA Truth. He links to a a statement on the WGA website about the matter before his own detailed response.

First, an except from the WGA (click on the above link to read their text in full):

The Foreign Levies Program is a notable success story. If not for the WGAW’s efforts dating back to the 1980s, no writer would receive any payments. The money would have remained in the hands of the producers who, as copyright holders under U.S. law, claimed the right to 100% of the levies attributable to American works. By bringing legal and political pressure to bear, the guilds have been able to secure a fair and growing share for writers and directors. Under the current agreement, the WGAW and the DGA each receives 25% of total foreign levy remittances on behalf of the writers and directors.

The program has grown over time. The WGAW now receives levies from 15 countries in Europe and Latin America. Total remittances from foreign collection societies in the last fiscal year alone exceeded $10 million. Since the inception of the program, the WGAW has distributed nearly $37 million to writers (and their heirs and beneficiaries).

Distribution of foreign levies is not an easy or simple matter. The WGAW distributes the money based on data provided by foreign collection societies. The distribution data, however, are frequently incomplete or unintelligible, and in many instances do not include writers’ names. Titles sometimes arrive in foreign languages or are inexactly translated. Where adequate information is lacking, the funds remain in a trust account while the WGAW does the research necessary to permit distribution. While there is still a sizeable backlog of funds awaiting distribution, we have greatly increased the efficiency of the distribution process over the course of 15 years.

In short, the Foreign Levies Program provides a valuable service to all writers, and the WGAW is committed to its fair and efficient administration.

Lawton picks away at this statement line by line, and here’s how he begins:

What is stunning about this is that despite an ongoing investigation by the Federal Government, and two civil lawsuits, the WGA still acts like this is a PR battle they can win by misleading their membership. In print. Don’t they know someone is going to end up on a witness stand being asked where they came up with these “facts?”

For more, Lance Weiler has devoted his “This conference is being recorded” podcast to the debate with guests Lawton and Avalos. Click on the link to hear them discuss why this story is relevant to content creators everywhere.

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