Actors who reportedly lost more than $500,000 after a talent agency abruptly ceased operations say their union did not warn them for weeks about complaints the agency was withholding wages.
The Toronto Star has learned that the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA), the union representing some 200 clients of Compass Artist Management Inc., knew about financial issues at the Toronto talent agency on Aug. 15 but allegedly did not warn some members until weeks later on Sept. 21 — all while continuing to collect union dues for wages that would never end up in the hands of artists.
ACTRA Toronto does not dispute that the agency received complaints from other Compass artists but said it is not their responsibility to investigate or communicate complaints about agencies, adding that it relies on “moral suasion” to encourage adherence to best practices.
“At the end of the day, we have no actual power to make agents behave, and we cannot make public statements based on allegations we are unable to verify,” the organization said in a public statement.
In an industry that contributes nearly $3 billion to Ontario’s economy annually, actors say the response from their union and other organizations meant to support working performers highlights the urgent need for additional safeguards to protect the province’s more than 15,000 unionized actors, who currently have little recourse against unscrupulous agents.
Unlike other entertainment centres, such as British Columbia or California, Ontario does not have provincial industry licensing standards nor regulations for talent agents and management companies, leaving most oversight to the industry itself, a system which actors and even the union admit is wholly inadequate.
As previously reported in a Star investigation, Compass allegedly did not pass along payment to clients for jobs completed months ago. The Toronto Police financial crimes unit said Wednesday it has received more than 60 complaints in relation to the agency and has opened a criminal investigation.
No charges have been laid and the allegations have not been tested in court.
In a statement to the Star provided for the previous story, the agency’s director, Daniel Philip Friedman, said he never did anything “with bad intentions” or malice.
“I couldn’t feel worse or be more genuinely sorry and sad about how this has affected people. I hope people will believe I left no stone unturned to try and resolve this before it got to this point,” he said in response to the many allegations. “I also want people to know that I am not sitting on money, assets, secret homes in the Bahamas, etc.”
In a statement to the Star, Harry Godfrey, director of communications for Minister of Labour Monte McNaughton, said Compass’s alleged behaviour is “entirely unacceptable,” adding that the ministry is reviewing whether additional measures are needed to protect artists.
Affected actors who spoke with the Star say they want to see the province take leadership and enact legislation to regulate talent agencies. But many also blame their union for not protecting them in this incident.
Had ACTRA informed them of the complaints against Compass earlier in the summer and that the talent agency had been dropped from an approved industry list of talent agencies, actors say they would have immediately asked the union and production companies to divert payments from the agency, possibly preventing the loss of tens of thousands of dollars in wages.
Many screen actors, including former Compass clients who spoke with the Star, are paid through their talent agency. The agencies then deduct their commission before sending the payment to their client.
In response to the allegations levelled by their members, ACTRA Toronto directed the Star to a page on its website, which states, in part, “Neither ACTRA nor ACTRA Toronto have (sic) legal standing or jurisdiction in contract disputes between performers and their agents nor any direct leverage or policing powers over agencies.”
But for actor Shaun Hepburn, ACTRA’s response was far from sufficient. The screen performer said he and his son, a child actor, would have saved $30,000 had the union notified them sooner about reports Compass was allegedly failing to pay artists.
“I just thought that the whole point of the union is to lookout for their members,” he said. “They did exactly the opposite.”
Knowing how ACTRA responded to the whole situation “makes me feel very vulnerable,” said Kenton Blythe, an artist formerly represented by Compass. “I viewed ACTRA as an institution with a lot of influence and authority, but this whole situation makes me put that into question. Because if they had this kind of influence and authority, why is there a group of us that is out half a million dollars?”
The Star has reviewed many unpaid invoices from former Compass clients but has been unable to independently verify the total amounts owed to all artists.
In an information meeting with affected Compass clients on Oct. 21, of which an audio recording was obtained by the Star, ACTRA executive director Alistair Hepburn (no relation to Shaun Hepburn) revealed that the union received its first official complaint regarding Compass on Aug. 15. Since then, Hepburn confirmed to the Star that the union has received a “substantial number” of complaints regarding Compass.
The meeting in mid-October, open to both affected unionized and non-union clients of Compass, was tense and at times confrontational, with actors continually pressing the union to explain their lack of communication over the past two months and ACTRA executive members tersely shutting down any line of questioning surrounding the union’s actions.
In addition to ACTRA representatives and artists, police, lawyers and a representative of the Entertainment Industry Coalition (EIC) were also present. Theresa Tova, chair of the EIC, which ACTRA describes as “a voluntary association of agents, casting directors, unions, guilds and other industry professionals,” confirmed the EIC received its first official complaint in the middle of July, with the second arriving in the middle of August. Shortly thereafter, the EIC removed Compass from its list of members, all of whom must sign on to a code of ethical conduct.
Compass artists, however, claim they were never made aware of these developments. Some learned about the allegations only on Sept. 21 from an ACTRA executive writing from their personal email account, urging Compass clients to avoid loss of payment by contacting the union and redirecting where their wages are sent. “Feel free to pass this info on to anyone you might know who is with Compass Artist Management,” the email further states.
Others found out about Compass’s alleged financial mismanagement through friends or an Instagram page sharing stories from fellow artists.
But for many, it was too late.
“I had no reason to believe that this was happening,” said a former Compass artist, who said they are owed about $50,000, which the talent agency received in September but has still yet to pass it on to the client. The money was sent to Compass more than a month after ACTRA first learned about allegations against the agency. (The Star has agreed to keep the artist’s name confidential because they fear reprisal from the union and have several upcoming film projects in development.)
“There’s a 100 per cent chance that I would have all my money had ACTRA or the EIC acted sooner or had they let us know, at the very least,” the artist said. “We should have a right to protect our finances because there’s nothing in place right now to protect actors from this happening.”
The Star spoke with more than half a dozen former Compass artists for this investigation. All claim they never received an official statement from ACTRA nor the EIC about the allegations or that Compass had been removed from the list of ethical agents. In total, about 60 artists are owed money by Compass, according to those interviewed by the Star, who say affected performers are in contact with each other and tallying up what they are owed.
Artists said the lack of communication from ACTRA has left them feeling confused, angry and betrayed by the union that is supposed to protect them.
“When you have the kind of resources that ACTRA has, there should be a way where you can have the recourse to do the thing that you exist for, which is to protect your members,” said Blythe, who said he is owed more than $2,000, nearly half of which, he claims, would be in his bank account had ACTRA warned him in August that Compass was reportedly failing to pay clients’ wages.
Blythe completed four commercials during the summer. The final cheque, worth about $800, was sent to Compass on Sept. 12, almost four weeks after ACTRA received the first official complaint regarding Compass.
Under Compass’s representation with their artists, a copy of which was obtained by the Star, having all payment delivered through the agency is standard for screen artists: “The C.A.M. (Compass Artist Management Inc.) Client hereby directs the engager to deliver all payments due to our Client under this agreement directly to C.A.M. and to deal only with C.A.M. as the Clients (sic) authorized agent,” the agreement reads in part.
However, at their discretion, artists may request that production companies and the union send the money directly to them instead of via their agency. That’s what many Compass artists say they would have done had ACTRA informed them of the allegations levelled against the talent agency earlier in the summer.
At the Oct. 21 meeting, ACTRA and the EIC defended their decision not to notify Compass clients of the serious allegations, claiming a general email to the entire roster of Compass artists would have constituted libel.
“We were given legal advice that we could not do a general email to clients because we would be besmirching their reputation,” said Tova.
Alistair Hepburn added that the union has to be “incredibly mindful of not dragging ACTRA into a lawsuit.”
Former Compass clients, however, continue to question how such an email — stating the union has received several formal complaints against Compass, the talent agency has been removed from the EIC, and artists may request the union and production companies to redirect payment — constitutes libel, as it is seemingly conveying statements of fact.
ACTRA and the EIC did not answer the Star’s question about why an email containing those points would be considered libelous.
In the wake of the union’s response, ACTRA members who are former Compass clients said the union should reimburse them for the dues that were deducted from wages they never received. ACTRA members currently contribute 2.25 per cent of their wages to the union, in addition to basic annual dues of $195.
The union has stated it will not return those fees to members. “No. ACTRA does not reimburse members who are owed money by their agents,” a statement on their website reads. “Neither the producers nor ACTRA can protect performers from the failure of their agents to fulfil their obligations to pay performers.”
Earlier this month, ACTRA Toronto president David Gale released a public statement: “ACTRA Toronto stands in solidarity with the performers affected by the events that have taken place at Compass Artist Management. In this precarious industry, to have your financial, emotional and mental well-being abused by someone you trust is one of the worst possible situations to find yourself in.”
Actors, however, say the union did too little too late. Though a GoFundMe page set up to support affected artists has raised more than $20,000, many performers have resigned themselves to the fact they will likely never receive all they are owed. Now, some are petitioning the province to require talent agencies to be licensed before conducting business to ensure what occurred at Compass won’t happen again.
“The money is probably gone … there’s no money to go after,” said Golden Madison, another former Compass client. “For myself, there’s a group of us who are contacting local MPPs and we’re trying to get the government to get (this licensing regulation) passed.”
Madison’s petition for the government to introduce licensing standards had already received nearly 700 signatures as of Wednesday.
ACTRA Toronto also acknowledged neither they nor the EIC has the resources to regulate talent agencies and that, ultimately, it should not be up to them to police talent agencies.
“The current situation makes it abundantly clear there is a desperate need for a properly constituted regulatory body with appropriate powers to investigate and compel agencies to adhere to a minimum standard of ethical behaviour,” the union said on its website. “The EIC, in its current form, unfunded and entirely dependent on the work of volunteers, is not that body. Nor is ACTRA Toronto.”
Shaun Hepburn wants to see the province introduce a mandatory licensing and renewal process for all talent agents, along with a provincial complaints portal maintained by the Ministry of Labour, where there can be an appropriate investigative process for claims of unprofessional conduct.
A government official who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record said the Ministry of Labour is working to bring the temporary help agency and recruiter licensing framework into effect. Though the framework, first introduced last year, does not mention talent agencies, the official said the ministry is open to amending the framework and reconsidering what kinds of businesses would be covered.
Hepburn also questions why it is an industry standard for screen actors’ wages to be sent through their talent agents, a practice that he said is convoluted and hinges largely on trust. He believes the events that transpired at Compass will lead to a reckoning among many performers, perhaps forcing the industry to change how money is sent to actors so they are paid directly from production companies, before sending a commission to their agents.
Ultimately, Blythe said he hopes those outside the industry come to understand most actors work in unstable conditions and that there need to be added safeguards, both within and outside the industry, to ensure performers are protected from talent agents.
“We don’t live lavishly. We sacrifice a lot to do what we do,” Blythe said. “And that puts us in a very precarious financial situation. It really breaks my heart and makes me sick to know that some people are out their … salary because of what happened.”
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