Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Studio Politics

Over the years I've had lots of disgruntled artists come into my small, ratty office and complain about their crappy studio, their crappy boss, and how he's not only an idiot but totally talentless and unfair. They also tell me how THEY don't "play politics" with this goof ball and are therefore getting screwed. And when they at last get the bile out of their systems, I usually have a two-part answer. Part One is, "Well no, you're PLAYING, because everyone who's walking upright and breathing is playing politics...whether they like it or not. It's only a question of, are you playing well, playing badly, or are you somewhere in-between?" Part Two is, "And it sounds like you are definitely getting screwed. So you have a decision to make. Do you want to stick to your guns and be right? Or do you want to bend a little and be employed? Because I don't think, from what you're telling me, that you can do both." I learned part of the above from cold, hard experience. When I was at Disney, it was a point of honor to defend my position and take as little crap as I could. I would argue. I would bloviate. This worked fine when Ron Miller was Chairman of the Board, but when Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg rolled into town, it was a wonderful roadmap to a quick layoff. Which happened quite rapidly after I displayed attitude to new Disney animation boss Peter Schneider. One Friday I was working on "Oliver and Company," and the following Monday I was standing in line at the unemployment office. For the next couple of years I didn't hold a job for longer than nine months at a stretch. It wasn't a happy time for me, but it did cause me to reassess my previous "take no crap" position. And when I landed a job at Filmation, I was the best little employee you've ever seen. I was obsequious. I was endlessly pleasant. I never got into an argument with my boss or anyone else. And I worked my ass off. Filmation went belly up nine months later, and I got laid off with the other 140 odd employees. But the sting wasn't nearly as sharp as it was when I was bounced from Disney. (When the whole ship slides beneath the waves, you might be miserable, but you have a lot of company. Weirdly enough, that's something of a comfort.) Now, at that point, the life lesson seemed to be "stick you head into your supervisor's large intestine and keep it there." But I've since discovered that there is a happy medium. After observing animation artists at close range for a decade and more, I've come to realize that the individual who's a pleasure to be around, has some integrity, and also does her (or his) work competently will find more employment than over time than the artistic genius who picks fights with everyone within a two hundred yard radius. In other words, you've got to be skilled at the political game called "playing well with others," know how to do the job reasonably well, but not be such a doormat that you get labeled a "total yes man" with no fresh ideas of your own. Face it. It's a hell of a balancing act, because the rules change slightly from studio to studio, from regime to regime. Nobody plays it perfectly, but those who play it best end up with long and lucrative careers. Looking back, I think one of the people who played it best was a long-time Disney artist who arrived in the early fifties, rose slowly and steadily through the sixties and seventies, and reached the top of the animation department in the early eighties. During most of that time he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. (There was a gag cartoon of him moving out of the way of a lightning bolt that then zapped another artist. This gent -- and I'm not going to name him because the name isn't important -- never made a misstep until Mr. Eisner and Mr. Katzenberg came along. Then, all of a sudden, he didn't seem to do anything right. He got into loud arguments with the new top kicks. He challenged Jeffrey K. in meetings. And shortly after the last picture that he worked on was completed, he was laid off. I remember thinking "Why would ____ self-destruct like that? After all those years at Disney? What demons drove him to it?" Months later, when he returned to the studio to show off the big R.V. that he'd bought with some of the kiss-off money he'd wheedled from the new execs as payment for his forced departure, it dawned on me: "___ didn't screw up at all. He WANTED to get out. He was ready to go do something new. He maneuvered them into buying him out." The moral here is: Politics counts (along with talent, a drive to excel, and a bit of luck). Those that are fortunate enough to possess all four attributes will usually end up reasonably fulfilled. And not paupers.


Chrlane said...

Steve-- I think your stance on this issue requires some revision. Politics are no reason to fire someone, and so long as the only organized body protecting the rights of animation talent refuses to admit this, you will continue to reside in that "crappy little office", because all you are doing is underlining the problems.

Sure-- life is full of politics-- but there needs to be a respect for the livelihood of talent above political issues and such. This basic human right needs to be underlined and enforced; not undermined and jadedly discouraged.

Steve Hulett said...

Chrlane, it's my observation that if you have a competent artist who is a pleasure to be around, and a more than competent artist who is difficult, the competent artist will find more work...and work more steadily, than his better, but more difficult colleague.

The above is an observation about workplace realities, not a political tract about "the way things should be." Over the years, The Animation Guild has filed grievances for unfair terminations, overtime violations, underpayment of wages, etc. And it will continue to do so.

Unfortunately, what no guild or union can offer is a blanket enforcement of "fairness." If you have the talent of Da Vinci but your supervisor prefers Chester Gould or Al Capp because Chester and Al don't argue, complain and bitch the way that you, Mr. Da Vinci, do, a labor organization won't protect you. (And believe me, on more than one occasion we have tried. But an arbitrator doesn't like to rule on who is "better." It's beyond the scope of his powers.)

Don't misunderstand me. I believe that talent very often prevails. But it's important that talent understand the dynamics of the corporate workplace in this corporatist age. And not sabotage itself.

Chrlane said...

Ages come and Ages pass-- and it is the responsability of those who see a better way to blaze the trails of change. So long as those who are purported to represent change continue to behave poorly, and make lame excuses for corruption and political abuse, there can be no hope of change.

So please do not speak so lightly of "self sabotage".

Steve Hulett said...

Speaking lightly is the farthest thing from my mind. I'm dead serious.

Kevin Koch said...

It's hard for me to see how acknowledging the reality of human nature in the workplace is behaving poorly or making lame excuses. Unlike your straw-man accusations, Steve wasn't writing about tolerating corruption and abuse -- he was stating some truths about how playing well with others is a good way to continue to be invited back to keep playing. And as Steve wrote, and I can verify, the Guild is aggressive about fighting to right wrongs in our industry.

Chrlane said...

Well then how come I hear so many people bitching about being blacklisted after disagreeing with one of your friends?

Reality is something we make, you know. I would like nothing more than to see animation artists unite into some kind of cohesive, self-respecting group. But with everyone supporting the basest, most territorial, adolescent nonsese, how can this be?

Kevin Koch said...

I'm afraid I haven't the slightest idea what friends are mine you're talking about, so I can't respond to that. I'm completely with you about artists needing to be supportive, cohesive, and respectful.

Chrlane said...

Well so far as WHO it is I am hearing this about, I figure you most likely have SOME idea. It's common knowledge that he has a lot of political sway, and that you don't get very far if he doesn't like you. Truth be known, I would have no problem with this if, from what I could see, he had sound judgement. But in my experience, this sound judgement seems to be hard to come by in the field, especially from people who claim to be judges.

There is a lot of depression, substance abuse and disfunction in our ranks, largely due to the nature of societal attitudes towards artists, sexism, and to abusive working conditions.

And I am glad if you agree with me that these are matters needing attention. I would like to see nothing more than for the male and female elements find common ground, and for new attitudes to prevail in the field. I contribute how ever I can.

I have done considerable research into the 'word of mouth' hiring practices and I am not pleased with what I have seen, I might add.

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