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Actors Play Waiting Game for Residuals

SAG-AFTRA focuses on fixes

Winning an Emmy confirms that an actor’s performance will stand for time immemorial. It doesn’t take quite as long to recoup any residuals for the winning performance — it only seems that way.

For the 165,000 SAG-AFTRA members, the check is really staying in the mail — for nearly two months.

The average wait for residual checks is now 56 days, an increase of eight days from late 2010. National executive director David White says that has to change sooner rather than later.

“We’ve had an incredible increase in the number of incoming checks, but we all recognize that 56 days is not acceptable,” White says.

The number of checks that the performers union processes are staggering, growing from 2 million in 2010 for SAG to 2.2 million in 2011 and 2.4 million last year — plus 500,000 checks for AFTRA members — for a total of approximately 2.9 million for the merged union. The staff believes that the total could reach 4 million checks for 2013 based on current rates.

The increase in new media and cable programming has contributed to the rise in the number of checks, White says.

“There has been a noticeable improvement in the processing time per check,” he says. “But the volume of incoming checks has increased dramatically over the past several years. We are laser-focused on decreasing the number of days to deliver checks.”

White says the key impediment to improving delivery time stems from the system in which studios, networks and payroll companies use separate proprietary systems to process residuals, requiring SAG-AFTRA to manually input a significant amount of data.

“Before we can send checks to members, we have to sort through each company’s reporting differences and verify their information,” he adds.

SAG’s first residuals had come without a strike in 1952, when it worked out a deal for TV reruns. It then expanded the payments in 1960 when it obtained the first residuals on feature films sold to TV, following a seven-week strike that halted eight major productions, including Elizabeth Taylor’s Butterfield 8, Jack Lemmon’s The Wackiest Ship in the Army and Marilyn Monroe’s Let’s Make Love.

Studios agreed to pay residuals for movies produced after the date of the agreement, and paid $2.25 million to start the pension and health fund as compensation for movies produced before 1960.

By the 21st century, growth in programming and reruns began to overwhelm SAG. In 2001, SAG took the extraordinary step of apologizing for delays; by 2010, it had installed automated equipment to speed processing. The new machines have been nicknamed after the Rocky and Bullwinkle characters Boris and Natasha.

Actors’ total income from residuals in 2012 was approximately $639 million.

White says that one of the three steps to improving delivery time is getting the right staffing in place post-merger. He notes that the recent restructuring of SAG-AFTRA did not lead to any reductions in the residuals department, where there are 28 staffers.

The other areas that can be improved, White says, include efficiencies through expanded automation and a “shared best practices” approach with the companies to adopt innovative solutions that reduce delivery and processing times.

White admits that the challenges of combining the SAG and AFTRA operations, which include recently downsizing to 15 offices from more than 25, had been formidable. He said that speeding up delivery times has been a major concern for members and staff.

“I’m impatient like everyone else,” he concludes. “The best-case scenario is for our members to receive their checks in one to two weeks through a fully automated, industrywide process. Under the industry’s current paper-based system, the target is for our members to receive their checks within 30 days. The worst-case scenario is seeing any increased delays in the current delivery time.”

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