Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Pseudonyms and Personal Service Contracts

I keep hearing that the Catmull-Lasseter team at Disney Feature Animation intends to phase out Personal Service Contracts. Pixar doesn't have them, I'm told, so why should Disney Feature Animation? It hasn't happened yet, and maybe it won't ever happen, but I remember when the Mouse House had almost no Personal Service Contracts. It was the early and mid eighties. They could cut you loose on forty hours notice; you could depart under the same arrangement. That, of course, was before Jeffrey K. and Michael E. rode into Toon Town and rewrote the old, sleepy way of doing business. Disney animated features started raking in huge stacks of money, and Disney management decided to tie up animation talent. If you were a director, if you were an animator, you got offered a long-term employment contract with escalation clauses. You worked "exclusively" for Disney for three or five or seven years. After "Aladdin" came out, other studios got into the act, and by and by EVERY company had personal service contracts. And things began to get ludicrous. Trainees got long-term contracts. In-betweeners got long-term contracts. And everybody was prohibited from working for any animation competitors. But somewhere along in here (we're talking now about the middle 1990s) all pretense of enforcing these contracts dissolved into gray vapor. As the Animation Guild business rep who consulted on a lot of personal service contracts, and saw much of what was going on, it was apparent that LOTS of people were free-lancing on the side. And one day I got a call from Chuck Jones' Warner Bros. studio. I don't remember if it was Linda Jones -- Chuck's daughter -- that I talked to, or the company production manager. But the conversation that ensued remains vivid: I was asked if the Animation Guild had any objection to a half-dozen Disney animators taking pseudonyms (phoney names) on the credits of a short that Chuck was doing. Warners, it seems, was a little nervous about the guild contract, which stipulated that animators had to be given screen credit. Was the guild going to get nasty if they put fake names on the credits? At the animators request? No slouch about adding up two and two, I asked: "These animators. They're exclusive to Disney, right? And they don't want Disney to know that they're, ahm, moonlighting for somebody else, right?" After some hemming and hawing, I was told that yes, that was exactly the problem. I responded: "It's okay with us if it's okay with your animators. But I suggest you get letters from each of them to that affect, so they can't change their minds later." I guess that Jones' little company took my advice, because I never hear another word about it. But some time later I had occasion to ask a Disney executive if he knew that some of Disney's top animators were violating their contracts by working for the competition. I got a small, tight smile. "We know." "And you're not going to do anything about it?" "Like what? Fire them?" I said I saw his point. So if Personal Service Contracts go away in the next year or two, it's okay by me. I mean, why bother to draw them up in the first place if they don't mean much of anything?


Anonymous said...

imagine all the lawyers being out of work...a shame...

Anonymous said...

Steve...why on earth did you tell that exec about his freelancing animators? *scratches head*

I'm not trying to be nasty--I honestly have NO clue what good it would do the membership...? It seems like something a junior company executive would bring up, not a union business manager. I can't figure your thinking there. What if he'd said "NO! WHO??!" I guess you'd just shrug it off...

(Hell, *I* knew which people were freelancing on those projects, and I didn't even know the animators personally. So obviously every single anim exec did too).

As for the contracts: they were really about as valuable as the proverbial paper--to the employee. If the company determined to dump someone, they could, contract or no contract. Do you have any memories of an employee who was cut loose despite a contract--and the Union made sure that didn't happen? But that's reality...and the power of BIG lawyers. ; )

Kevin Koch said...

Regarding your last point ("Do you have any memories of an employee who was cut loose despite a contract . . ."): I know of a case at a major studio where exactly that happened (an artist had an end-of-picture contract; they quietly requested to production that they be allowed to work under a different, less difficult artistic supervisor, and were supsequently laid off -- months before the project was finished). The union grieved the lay-off, and the company ended up paying that artist a substantial lump sum, plus made a large contribution to the artist's pension and health hours. That's just one case that happened to a friend of mine. I believe Steve can give other cases.

By the by, after that incident, the studio added language into their contracts essentially making the term of employment "end of picture, or until artist's services are no longer required." In other words they could let you go anytime they wanted, even though you thought you had an end of picture deal. Of course, they squawked when several artists used that clause to jump ship early, but what's sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose.

Steve Hulett said...

Why on earth? Because it was years after the fact, when it was a long-time open non-secret.

Come on already. If there's an elephant in the room, and the guys in suits and ties are standing around around pretending the pachyderm isn't there, it's kind of fun to point out the existence of the large beast, don't you think?

As to negative fallout, there wasn't any.

Steve Hulett said...

And to follow up on Kevin's post:

Several years back, Disney attempted to dump a half dozen animators and CGI people who had TERM personal Service Contracts (that is, they ran to a specific date, not just "end of picture.")

The Guild was able to get all of them paid off in full; the company had initally offered 3 weeks kiss-off pay.

My favorite moment in THAT particular cycle was when the Human Resources person told an employee: "Your performance reviews are terrible, don't make us terminate you for cause." I gently pointed out that the employee who was being dumped had gotten a contract pickup AFTER his lousy reviews.

I received a withering look and a tart: "THAT was a mistake!"

I replied it was a "mistake" the company was honor-bound to pay for. Which it ultimately did.

Anonymous said...

I'm not suggesting you were trying to get us in trouble, Steve. : )So, then--you were just baiting them? ; ) Okay with me! Just wondered why if was brought up at all(I'm probably reading this wrong--it just seems to sort of float the idea that the studios's service contracts are unenforceable--which they well might have been)---but I wasn't there for the context of it.

Kevin Koch said...

I think the point is that some of the terms that were enforcable (like not working for a competitor) would simply have given the company the right to fire the people ignoring that exclusivity clause -- which the company didn't want to do.

Steve Hulett said...

Why did I bring up the freelancing animators in the first place?

Because an exec was bloviating to me about letters of the law and honoring contracts (when I had been witness, over and over again, to the company tearing up personal service contracts whenever it suited their whim -- see above.) And it irritated me.

See, I knew -- and the exec knew -- that the company wasn't inclined to fire its lead animators for animating on a Chuck Jones short that in no way competed with Disney animated features. Wasn't going to happen. And certainly wasn't going to happen long after the fact.

So yeah. I baited him. Rubbed his nose in it. But it was long ago, and I was young and impetuous. And of course I no longer do horrible things like that.

Anonymous said...

Steve: :D

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