Friday, December 27, 2013

Free money for writers -- sort of...

The photo above is one page of 8 more pages which indicate foreign viewing among a few dozen countries. And I just received a nice little check for foreign use of several of my movies and TV series.  The statements above are for a specific period of time, usually one year. This comes from foreign countries who get money from their various media, in this case those same movies and TV shows.

The foreign countries call it levies, while the U.S. counts it as residuals. Basically it's the same thing and I get these checks regularly throughout the year, some as low as 84 cents and others a lot more. If you click the photo you can see that some payments are 1 cent for Heathcliff (a cartoon series), another is $91.00 for a movie called Rough Air. Both of these are at least 10 years old.

I like to call it "free money".

Why? Because I really didn't do anything for it. I was paid my script fees before the movie or tv production started. Residuals come from usage of the products, something that began in the late 1930's when radio actors would do two performances on the radio for different time zones. This also happened in the 1950's with some TV programs that originated in New York would later be broadcast on the west coast time zone. Remember this was before satellites.

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) fought for residuals for movies shown on TV and in 1960 won that right. Movies produced before 1960 weren't eligible. Eventually this was followed by WGA, the Writers Guild of America.

So, okay, we writers get checks for showing our product. I mentioned my Gentle Ben movie that was made in 2002 and still continues to send me residuals as well as several others. This certainly indicates that my movies and tv series episodes are running somewhere in the world.

But it's not actually all mine.

That's where greed takes over. When I sell a movie I don't get all of what's due to me. That's because the production company takes my copyright to a particular screenplay and keeps it for themselves.

Copyright is the issue, almost every civilized country says that copyright goes to the creator who in this case is me - and thousands of other writers. But not in the U.S. The big guys want to own it for themselves. And if you want to see your screenplay sold, you have to give up your rights to the buyer.

Thus, the foreign levies I mention above are for my copyright payments, which are sort of residuals but based on the fact I own it. 

Canada has another way of payment, rather than pay residuals after the product has been shown, the producers pay ahead. The Writers Guild of Canada has a "Production Fee", which is basically residuals but they are paid upon completion of the movie rather than years later as the U.S. system and foreign levies do.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter that much. And as for "free money", it really is as nobody else except writers, actors and directors get this money after the product has been shown. And why is it free -- at least to me?

Because I didn't do a single thing to get it. Your plumber doesn't get residuals on his work, nor your mechanic or the customer service person at your bank. Do they get payments at the end of each day or month?

I'm certainly not going to give my residuals away, but at the same time realize that it is free money that I really didn't earn. Most writers will probably argue this, but that's my take on it.

And if you happen to be in town sometime and I get a residual check, there is a regular practice among my friends and I to take you out for lunch.  

For free.

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