Sunday, August 20, 2006

The LA TIMES Weighs in on Animation Writers and Residuals

In today's Calendar section, The Los Angeles Times has a big story on writers' residuals in animation. It's a pretty accurate representation of present realities (see my post below) but I've got a few thoughts on it... There have been writers in feature animation since the beginning of the medium. Joe Grant, for instance, co-wrote the screen story for "Dumbo." Joe was mostly an artist, but he also knew how to use a typewriter. But board artists were major drivers in story development for animated films from the thirties to the seventies. "Snow White," "Bambi," "Jungle Book," all of these were propelled by story artists. However, as live-action executives have come to dominate the development of animated features, they've brought their propensity for written scripts with them. (Michael Eisner once famously said: "I just don't get storyboards...") Since the age of Eisner and Katzenberg, feature animation writers have often been hired as something other than simple studio employees. (TAG Vice President Earl Kress and I were both salaried staff writers at Disney Feature Animation; this doesn't happen so much anymore.) Writers today often work at home, often have step deals, sometimes have back-end participation in a film's success. Some of them receive huge salaries. Most feature animation writers today work under an Animation Guild contract (Disney, DreamWorks, Warner Bros. Universal among others) or no union contract at all (Pixar, Blue Sky Animation, Barnyard Productions). The only animated feature that I know about being done under a WGA(w) contract is "The Simpsons Movie." None of Pixar's films, from "Toy Story" to "Cars" were done under any union or guild's collective bargaining agreement. Same thing for "Ice Age I" and "Ice Age II." Both were huge money spinners for Fox, but no residuals were paid to the WGA (east) or unions in the IA, because they had no contracts with the producer, Blue Sky Animation. The Writers Guild is free to organize Pixar or Blue Sky writers and board artists any time it can collect representation cards. My guess is that they would stand a fine chance of winning a National Labor Relations Board election. But it has to get the cards and file an NLRB petition first. (And honestly, I wish the WGA the best of luck.) As I stated in the TIMES article, I believe that residuals should be paid to all of an animated feature's creators, generous residuals. Unfortunately, what I believe doesn't always come to pass. I've negotiated a number of collective bargaining agreements over the last decade and a half, and while we've improved terms for writers under that agreement, we haven't achieved improvements in the residual structure. Back in 1960, Hollywood labor was successful in getting residuals because they had the muscle to make it happen. Residuals weren't a mandatory subject for bargaining, yet the DGA, SAG, WGA and IATSE got them anyway. Long industry shutdowns were too much for the majors to endure, and the majors capitulated. Of late, the majors haven't done any capitulations that I can see. During the last two contract cycles, it was the guilds that backed off demands for a bigger cut of the DVD bonanza (currently residuals total a few cents on each video disk sold). I wish it were otherwise, but it's not. I don't view residuals or the lack thereof as moral or immoral. As I've said before, it's a leverage issue. When you bring enough clout to the bargaining table -- as a solitary employee or a labor organization -- you get what you want. And when you don't have the clout...well, there's always the next time, when hopefully you do. That, like it or not, is what it has always boiled down to. Everything else is eye wash.


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