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Looking for Hollywood's unpaid millions

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Mira Nair, the Writers Guild of America West, has something that belongs to you.

The Mira Nair in question may or may not be the sometime screenwriter and celebrated director of "Vanity Fair," "Monsoon Wedding" and "Mississippi Masala": To know, she would need to navigate to an index tucked out of sight behind a button marked "Services" on the Web site, scroll to a bar labeled "Uncollected Monies," put her name in a search box, then fill out the offered claims form, requiring driver's license and Social Security numbers.

The same goes for writers or the estates of writers with names as famous as Tom Clancy, Ben Hecht, Preston Sturges, Vladimir Nabokov and Charles Bukowski. Queries through the guild's search mechanism show that the union is holding money for all of them as "undeliverable funds" a substantial part of which comes from so- called foreign levies collected from countries that tax videocassette sales or rentals or use other devices to compensate copyright holders for re-use of their works.

Guild officials say that about $6 million was tagged "undeliverable" as of April, and up to 40 percent of $18 million more then held in trust was expected eventually to fall into that category.

How that unclaimed treasure piled up at the Writers Guild and whether the guild is doing enough to find the rightful owners, many of whom are not members has become the latest controversy roiling a Hollywood union that in the last two years has weathered strife over its high-stakes screen credits arbitration process and seen two presidents resign under pressure.

On Friday, the writer-director William Richert, whose credits include "A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon" and "Man in the Iron Mask," filed suit against the guild in Los Angeles Superior Court, seeking class-action status and claiming that the union had fraudulently collected and kept money intended for others, among other things.

Richert (whose name does not appear through the union's search engine as being owed anything) is represented by the attorney Neville Johnson. Johnson earlier represented a client who accused the union of abusing its credits arbitration process, a case where he had help from the expert witness Eric Hughes who unsuccessfully ran against Daniel Petrie Jr. for the union's presidency in a federally monitored election last year. In another election, the results of which are to be announced this week, Ted Elliott ("Pirates of the Caribbean") and Patric Verrone ("Futurama," "Muppets Tonight") are vying to succeed Petrie, whose term is ending.

A guild officer did not respond to calls over the weekend seeking comment on the suit. Interviewed before the suit was filed, guild representatives said that the surplus funds which mirror a similar build-up at the Directors Guild of America, where the Web site offers no mechanism for connecting the people with their money simply reflect a surge in collections, matched by an unintended delay in the process for finding payees.

"I have been doing a good job finding money," said Robert Hadl, the former MCA/Universal general counsel who now serves as a consultant specializing in, among other things, foreign issues for the Writers Guild, Directors Guild and Screen Actors Guild. "We're just not fast enough on the other end."

Explanations like that ring hollow to Sandy Sturges, widow of the director-writer Preston Sturges. After all, his wife, far from missing, was invited by the guild three months ago to unveil the portrait of her late husband during the dedication of the new Preston Sturges Lounge at WGA headquarters. "I suppose they're like the IRS," Sturges said, referring to the U.S. taxation agency. "You move once and they never send you your refund check."

Unlike television residuals, which producers and studios have been obligated to pay since the 1950s, foreign levies stem from such modern technology as VCRs, DVDs, the Internet. Many countries, but not the United States, use measures like taxes on blank videocassettes and DVDs or assessments on VCR rentals to compensate copyright holders. The guilds began tapping this revenue as early as 1990, not only on behalf of members but also of others who had a stake in films but did not belong to the Hollywood unions. Hadl said that he had so far exacted income from a dozen countries and was now in negotiations with Belgium, Sweden and Romania. Latvia and Lithuania may be next.

"Hey, this is a great program," he said. "They send us money, and we send nothing back."

But Hughes, who remains something of a watchdog within the guild, is critical of the union's stewardship of those funds particularly money owed to writers who have worked for the screen but are not members and thus often have no address on file with the guild. "What they're doing is stealing from dead people and nonmembers," Hughes said in an interview.

Charles Slocum, an assistant executive director of the union, said it was better to have the guild gather the money for nonmembers than to leave it unpaid by the foreign governments. "Actually, nonmembers are better off, because we get it and we will hold it until we find them," he said. "It will always be available for the person it was intended for."

Mira Nair did not respond to a call to her New York City office regarding the appearance of someone by her name on the guild's missing persons rolls. A spokeswoman for the novelist Tom Clancy, whose movies include "The Hunt for Red October," declined to comment, saying that the writer's finances were a private matter.

But Sturges said the guild would soon hear from her. "When Fox released 'The Power and the Glory' in 1933," she said, "Preston was supposed to get a percentage of the picture's profits, but Fox said they were never able to get anything out of Latvia. I presume they're still holding on to his share. Maybe the guild can get them to release it. Wouldn't that be cool?"

(C) 2005 International Herald Tribune. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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