“A year and a half?” I gasped again.
“There’s a queue,” explained Sheena, Queen of the Lost Residuals Jungle. “Qualified and pre-approved arbiters are in high demand.”
“But a year and half?” I pressed.
“Like I said before,” advised Sheena. “It could happen sooner. But it’s unlikely.”
I reminded Sheena that Big Balzac, the producer-slash-financier who owed me nearly a half-million dollars in foreign residuals and penalties, had been shuttering his various enterprises one by one, declaring bankruptcy as creditors got dangerously close to collecting. I saw myself in another queue. The conga-line of the aggrieved debtors. Each of us lined up like a good little kindergartner, waiting for his turn at a bubbler that had long run dry.
Though dear Sheena was an attorney, she wasn’t my attorney. She represented the Guild. The Werth reps me. All along I’d been reporting my progress with the case to him. Suffice it to say he wasn’t entirely thrilled at the most recent result. All along he’d been blasting the residuals minions at the Guild for allowing themselves to be slow-rolled by Big Balzac.
“You could sue him yourself,” said The Werth, clearly dismayed. “But you’ll never get in front of the Guild as far as payment goes. You just need to hope he doesn’t totally close shop before it’s your turn.”
So began the interminable wait. Can’t say I was great at it. Especially considering I’d long written off the idea of getting remunerated by all the thieves who’d ripped me off over my career. Chasing old money felt akin to digging in a dry hole hoping against odds that it would produce oil. Not to mention that I don’t like dwelling in the past. That kind of thinking might appear as fiscally irresponsible, but my usual modus operandi is to keep pushing forward because that’s my job. What am I writing today, next week, next month? Maybe it’s a fault, but I’m all about keeping my eye on the road ahead instead of what’s in my rear view mirror.
To be even more frank, I would’ve nearly forgotten about the pending arbitration if it weren’t for the calls from my friend, the character actor who was also owed a sizable chunk of change. As it turned out, my interaction with the Guild’s residuals minions had become the point of the spear for collecting all monies accrued on the movie. That meant the Directors Guild and the Screen Actors Guild had been drafting in my wake in hope of getting their own members paid. The picture in question had sported a large cast, not to mention the director, various assistant directors, and a UPM-all of whom shared in the movie’s slice of post-theatrical foreign markets. Everybody was owed. And nearly all could’ve used the dough to relieve some of their own, aching overhead.
“Nothin’,” I’d say to my actor pal when he’d bring up the issue of the owed residuals. “And frankly, I don’t expect anything.”
“Yeah,” admitted the actor. “Neither do I, really.”
“He’s an asshole,” spat my actor friend in reference to Big Balzac. “I’d like to introduce him to some guys with baseball bats.”
“Wouldn’t be surprised if that’s Balzac’s way of collecting from whomever owes him.” I recalled the on-set rumors that the financier had a number of dubious finance connections.
“Wouldn’t surprise me.”
It was after one of these conversations that I decided to risk a disappointing call to… what was her name again, I asked myself as I shuffled through my notes? Oh yes. Sheena, Queen of the Lost Residual Jungle. I found the number, dialed, was transferred, and fully expected to land in Sheena’s voicemail box. To say I was surprised when she answered is an understatement. And even more shockingly, I didn’t even need to refresh her memory with my name and the title of the movie.
“Yes,” said Sheena. “Good of you to call. I think we’re just cleaning up on the judgment.”
“Judgment?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “We have a result.”
“So the arbitration already happened?”
“Yours and a whole lot of others,” she explained. “As it turns out, there were a lot of other movies that the company owed money on. So your movie was bundled with the rest. They’re still sorting the numbers out.”
“The accountants. There’s also more than one guild involved now. Very complicated.”
“So the company didn’t declare bankruptcy?”
“Not exactly. There’s a lot of reorganization. The good news is that you’re going to get your money.”
“Really?” I said with strong hint of suspicion. “Why do I find that hard to swallow?”
“Well, it won’t be all your money,” she qualified. “But it’ll be something. Spread out, of course, over something like the next eight quarters.”
“That’s two years,” I added aloud, happy that in all that time I’d been waiting for a result, I’d still retained my second grade math acumen.
“It’s pretty standard,” she said.
“You understand,” I continued, speaking of Big Balzac, “that he’s a thief. And he’s been playing everybody all along. That the money he owes all these people on all these movies is in some off-shore account, earning God knows what kind of interest. All the while, he dilly-dallies with you all about chapter eleven, claims of poverty, extended payment schedules, et cetera, ad infinitum.”
“Most likely,” she said. “But at least you’ll be making something instead of nothing.”
“How many cents on the dollar,” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“On the half-million he owes me. What kind of haircut am I and everybody else getting?”
“I think around ten percent.”
“The discount? Is only ten percent?”
“No,” she said flatly, realizing her mistake. “Ten cents on the dollar.”
“So just for clarification,” I said. “After all this time, Big Balzac is getting away with paying me and everybody else only ten percent of what he owes.”
“Pretty much,” she said.
“And we feel good about it?”
“I suppose that’s up to you,” said Sheena. “It is what it is.”
I was disappointed. I mean, how could I not be? Not that I don’t appreciate that ten percent of something is obviously better than ten percent of zip. I’m sure the lawyers on this multi-guild panel along with the arbiter considered it one for the win column. And had the judgment been for a greater slice of the pie, Big Balzac would’ve bellied up another company and left all us creditors holding empty pillow cases. The disappointment comes from the bureaucratic grind that was in the collecting. And how the process allows thieves like Big Balzac to hide money that is not his, only to be legally cajoled to pay out little more than a fraction of the earned interest on said stolen dollars.
Sadder still is that when I’m amongst other showbiz vets, and I tell a tale such as this, they are hardly surprised and follow with an uncorking of their own stories of royal, Hollywood screwings.
Yet I still remain philosophical. Begrudging not. And forever remembering a simple, Darwinian fact. As long as there are banks, there will also be bank robbers.
- More Behind the Lines with Doug Richardson
- Behind the Lines with DR: Writers Guild Arbitration – Fight or Flight
- Legally Speaking, It Depends: Ideas are Free to Steal?
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