Tuesday, May 30, 2006
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?
Posted by Steve Hulett at 10:54 PM