Clearing up Coogan Confusion

You know what they say about the best-laid plans. When SB210 went into effect in January it was meant as an important revision to the current state Coogan law—the law that requires producers to place 15 percent of a young performer's earnings into a blocked trust, thereby protecting the young performer. But what has quickly become clear to savvy parents is that the changes that have taken place have in some cases made it more difficult for children to work. If parents are not educated about what the new law requires, their children can be turned away from a job on the spot.

Anne Henry and Paula Dorn are parents of young performers who have found their children dramatically affected by the new legislation. Having assisted in writing the last law revision, the two recently founded Bizparentz, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating parents on a variety of topics, including Coogan.

"When SB210 passed in January, it became clear to us that there wasn't a way for parents to let each other know that such a bill existed, or talk about whether we liked it, whether there was something we could do to improve it," says Henry. "There was no place to just quickly get information out."

While many parents rely on Internet message boards—places like the Professional Actors Resource Forum on Dephi forums, or Actorsite—there wasn't any centralized place for parents to go. Henry and Dorn financed the new organization out of their own pockets and now have some 300 families as members. In addition to managing a website with a wealth of legal information—www.bizparentz .com—they also handle questions on issues like emancipation and schooling.

"There was no place to go to ask questions about those things," says Henry. "If you just ask your manager, well, they've kind of got a little agenda."

Much of Bizparentz's recent work has been devoted to a massive educational campaign about the new Coogan revisions. IT has held numerous seminars across California, including one sponsored by the SAG Foundation. This educational crusade is motivated by an important realization many parents are making: The Coogan law has not worked the way it was were intended.

Henry explains. "When they wrote the first Coogan revision back in 2000, a major change went through. Prior to that, you would only have your Coogan money taken out if you were a pretty major player. In 2000 the bill made every child actor on every single job have to have a Coogan account. The second change was that it made all the money—100 percent of the child's wages—belong to the child themselves." This made the law in California differ from those in other states, where the child's wages belong to the head of household.

The changes produced a domino effect, says Henry. "One effect was that a lot of children's money went missing." The producers were left holding nearly $1 million in Coogan payments that for various reasons did not get into the children's bank accounts.

There are a number of reasons for this. "Say a kid turned 18 in the last three years," explains Henry. "They closed their account as soon as they could. Then a movie they did gets released on video. When producers try to put money into their account, it will come back saying, 'This account is closed and we don't know where this person is.'"

"Another example," says Henry, "is when you get residuals from a feature. Often the foreign or TV rights are sold to other production companies. But your paper with your account number did not travel to the other production company. The new company payroll system doesn't even know you are a kid."

Henry says the key problem—which the new law still has not addressed—is this: "It's really that there is no system here. You assume your employer sent that money to your account. But, with Coogans, you have to check because you would never know. There's not even any standard form for how to deal with Coogan money."

The recent revision (SB210), however, attempted to clean up the mess of the million dollars in unpaid wages. It authorized the producers to give the unpaid wages to Actors' Fund of America ( Parents will theoretically be able to contact Actors' Fund to see if their child has missing money.

Henry and Dorn were also successful in getting an important amendment to the law. "We got them to agree that producers have to give us a receipt that says they took our Coogan information. Now they can't say they gave the money to Actors Fund because they didn't know where to put it," says Henry.

Permit Dance

Another important change with SB210 is that child performers' work permits are now tied to their Coogan accounts. Says Henry, "Now, if you don't attach your Coogan trustee statement, your work permit is no good. So when you go on-set, if you don't have that set up right, they could tell you that you can't work."

This presents a kind of Catch-22 for many parents, as there are certain banks that won't open a Coogan account unless the child has a direct offer for a job. In general, Henry suggests that parents shop around before choosing a bank for their Coogan. Fees can range from $5 (through the SAG/AFTRA credit union, where Coogans are open to all SAG eligible performers) to $500 at certain banks. Henry also warns that most of these are a bad investment, generating sometimes as low as one-quarter of a percent interest. If the child earns enough, however, parents are allowed to authorize investing the money in a more profitable mutual fund. "We are being forced to invest our children's money badly," laments Henry. "In order to invest in a mutual fund, you have to have a pretty big minimum deposit before you do that, possibly even $5,000."

Another change has come with the permitting process. Parents used to be able to get walk-in appointments. Says Henry, "Now you can only do work permits by mail, which is a 30-day process. So what do you do if you get a commercial that shoots tomorrow? If you didn't already have your work permit, you are in trouble. If you did, you better have a Coogan account attached to it—though it might be an account with nothing in it."

Bizparentz offered two key suggestions for parents of child performers.

1.) Plan in advance. "You need to have a Coogan account with your work permit," says Henry. "You might have to do extraordinary things to get this done. You might have to put in some of your own money as a minimum deposit. Do research. Don't wait until child gets a job anymore. You used to be able to get away with that. You can't anymore. And plan in advance enough to do the work permit by mail."

2.) Monitor your Coogan account carefully. "Look at every paycheck," says Henry. "Call the bank and make sure that money got in. The system doesn't work. Parents are the only ones who can follow the money. Agents will not do this stuff, and it's not their job. We have a form on our website that is a checklist for parents to use. It's a hassle. But if you did it all, you would know your child had every penny of their money." BSW