Actors are losing millions of dollars a year in missed residuals. Recently, SAG-AFTRA said that its unclaimed residuals fund has grown to $76 million (up 40% from six years ago). The Actors Fund is holding almost $4 million.
The amount of residuals that involve studios having yet to pay what’s entitled to a show’s cast and crew is likely even larger than the known amount of residuals that have been paid out, but never claimed by a beneficiary.
Why are so many actors missing their residuals?
According to entertainment lawyer Jonathan Handel, that’s due to little active industry monitoring of when projects are airing. As it stands, it’s up to individual studios to keep track of when and where their films or TV shows are being licensed and distribute the residuals accordingly. The in-house tools studios use to track payments tend to be prone to human error and are often inaccurate.
“When you’re talking billions of dollars in millions of separate payments with hand-coded systems that are fed data that’s [manually entered into] Excel spreadsheets, there are going to be errors. There’s going to be missing money,” explained Handel. “And it’s talent that suffers from a lack of money monitoring.”
Unions don’t have the capacity to track the various residuals and royalties that are due to their individual members either; they instead act as resources for members to file complaints about outstanding residuals. So it is up to talent to check that they are getting what they are owed. WIOpro, a new software designed to track when television shows and films air, aims to help them do that.
“We are really driven by a desire to empower talent, and to bring a degree of agency to actors and writers and directors and composers that they have not had,” said Handel, who co-owns WIOpro alongside co-founders composer Shawn Pierce and software engineer Adam Shafron. “It’s the ability to gain a degree of extra clarity into what amounts to, in the case of actors, as much as 40% of their income.”
How does the WIOpro software work?
Actors will be able to compare the airings of the shows and films they appeared in with the residuals checks they receive. If the numbers don’t match up, they can contact SAG-AFTRA, who will file a residuals inquiry with the studio. “What we anticipate is that this probably will increase the number of residual claims that all the unions see,” said Handel, who also served as outside legal counsel to SAG-AFTRA.
According to Handel, who is a residuals expert (he even wrote a book about it, “Entertainment Residuals: A Full Color Guide”), the entertainment industry pays out about $3 billion annually in entertainment residuals (and over $750 million in commercial residuals). But based on his research with industry insiders, Handel estimates that 10–15%, or half a billion dollars, of residuals go unpaid.
Handel does not mince words when discussing the issue: “It’s a horrific amount that talent isn’t getting.”
WIOpro, which stands for “When’s It On? Professional,” aims to help performers, composers, writers, and anyone else working in the entertainment industry to keep track of when they are entitled to royalties and residuals. The system keeps tabs on not only shows running on individual networks, but also when they’re being syndicated and what regional markets they’re airing in. The data includes broadcasts in the U.S. and 54 other countries. Said Handel: “We cover 10 million airings a week. So we’ve got a lot of data, and it’s something like 500,000 separate programs that can be tracked.”
The tool does not yet have data on what is available on streaming services; that functionality will be added in the coming months.
The founders of WIOpro hope that their software will be used in-house at the various entertainment unions and guilds. They also envision studios using it, especially to monitor any airing of their work that is unlicensed.
“We’ve had conversations with certain unions, and we would love it if the unions licensed the product—both for internal use by their residuals departments and to buy a blanket license for all their members,” said Handel. “I think that this tool needs to be used by people at all junctures in the industry.”
Said SAG-AFTRA of the software: “Any tool or technology that helps provide greater transparency into how the industry uses our members’ work—and empowers us with that information—is a good thing. We are eager to learn more about the software and its capabilities.”
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