Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Good Times and Cool Projects

When I started at Disney in my twenties, I would have been totally behind this declaration, from comments to a previous post:

If a non-union studio is treating their employees well (sic), there's no real need for an artists guild. And for many people, it's not just about getting a fat paycheck, its about having pride in working on a great product that you can truly be proud of. Money comes and goes. Having a blast on a good production is priceless.

I had many blasts at Disney. And through most of them, I never gave a thought to the money I made, or if I qualified for some pension or other, or what I was going to do ten or twenty or thirty years beyond the thrill of being involved in the creative process. I was working on animated features for cripes sake, with giants in the industry. That was all that mattered.

But I'm older now, and have come to the realization that you can't live on happy memories or reflected glories of the productions you worked on. I realize, with mortality glowing brighter at the end of my particular tunnel, that boring things like wages and annuities and health insurance are important. Way more important than I believed them to be two or three decades ago.

Now. This isn't a wind-up for a pitch about the wonderfulness of labor unions. Forget labor unions. They aren't the end-all and be-all (trust me, I know), and they've had a fifty-year corporate campaign against them, so among many they are not held in particularly high esteem. And if companies were altruistic, and employees invested ten or more percent of their paychecks each and every year, there would be way less need of them.

But employees don't sock money away religiously (many can't.) And companies, at the end of the fiscal year, aren't altruistic. They can't be. They are entities that exist to make a profit, and as such, they will hire and lay off workers as the need arises.

As happened at Sony a few months ago. As is happening at Disney now. As will happen at Rough Draft and Starz Media a week or a month from now. As will happen at every studio, sometime, in the course of the average artist's working life. It's business after all, not charity. That's the way the United States -- and the world -- works.

And because the world works this way, it's important that the garden-variety mook who isn't the top-talent star has some kind of mechanism and/or safety net which will help him avoid getting wiped out when the next down-sizing occurs. That's why unemployment insurance and social security were invented. It's why there's an ongoing debate over universal health care. It's why, in the 1930s, the Fair Labor Standards Act was signed into law and pretty much invented labor unions.

If you're fortunate and hard-working and skilled, you might work for one company your whole working life. That company might have a gang-buster pension and health plan, and you might be set up for a rich, fulfilling retirement. But the odds are against it.

Back in the early nineties, when the entire industry was roaring and people were making money hand over fist, a Disney Television Animation exec said to me:

You know, there's not really any need for labor unions anymore. I mean, there used to be, but people make way above union scale now, and there isn't much point.

Five years later, the industry was roaring less and the exec, a victim of one of the ongoing corporate shuffles, got bounced from the company and his corner office. After a time, he landed at another studio. I had occasion to pop in on him one day, and reminded him of his 1992 observation of "no need for unions anymore." He smiled mirthlessly and said: "Yeah, well. I said a lot of things back then."

Disney Feature Animation had an incredible string of cool projects in the eighties and nineties, from Little Mermaid to Lion King and beyond. I knew a lot of feature animation employees who made good salaries and big bonuses and believed the good times would go on forever. I had more than one tell me, when they were collecting a paycheck that was double the contract minimum: "What do we need union wage rates for?"

Almost all are now working for less money. Some are working at jobs out of the industry for way less. And they'd be delighted and thrilled to make a wage within hailing distance of contract minimums.

None of the above is written to impugn anyone's talent, drive or passion. Or the memories they have of working on some of the coolest projects of our time. But stuff happens, and the cool projects don't go on forever. And it's useful to have something other than a screen credit and a bucket of anecdotes when you reach the age of sixty.

Which brings me to the situation I sometimes encounter in this job and never like. In fact, I hate it. But it has gifted me with the life philosophy I have today.

There's a sixty-something animation veteran, one who's been in the cartoon business for three or four decades, working at signator and non-signator studios (but mostly non-signator). And he traipses into my office with a glassy, desperate, pinched look on his face. And our conversation goes like this:

"Any work out there? I haven't worked in the past year and a half."

"You're a board artist?"

"Yeah. Also do design work and layouts."

"Where's the last place you worked?"

"Calico. But they haven't had much going lately."

"There's work going on at three or four studios, but they're mostly staffed up. Know anybody at Warners?"


"Disney TV Animation?"

"Not really."

"You look like you're old enough to file for the pension. You thought about doing that? To get some cash flow?"

Long pause. "I don't have any pension. I bounced around too much. Worked at too many non-union shops too long to get one."

"Have anything saved?"

"Not really."

It goes downhill from there. I give him a few names, telling him it might be tough to land anything since there's other people out job-hunting, but good luck. And he nods and shuffles out the door, and I sit gloomily in my chair knowing he's at a place in his life where he's screwed, and there's not a damn thing I can do to help him. And I'm depressed about it.

So see, it's great to work on cool projects, and the memories are indeed priceless. But as you reach your sixth decade of life here on the mud ball, you really, really don't want to be in a position where you walk into the ratty office of some twerp like me and hear yourself saying:

"Is there any work out there?"


Anonymous said...

Sad Story, Steve, and I'm glad you posted it so that some of our younger cohorts, who may have yet to do so, can get a grip on reality.
Meanwhile, might you be suggesting that those of us who,despite having worked to keep our skillsets current, no longer work steadily (yet ARE vested with many union hours logged over 20-30 years) would in fact be better off leaving the biz for a steady grunt job? To my understanding,places like Starbucks and Costco do at least offer benefits and have a 401 K to build on prior to, in our case, actual retirement benefit eligiblity kicking in. What the heck-- the weekly check might not be that great, but the annual income might well exceed the unpredictably spotty totals(Union or not)that some of us continue to hang on and hope for. 10 years ago I was making over 90k, last year I barely made 30K-- but I've always saved.. so I'm grateful for that.

Anonymous said...

Cool projects?

Yeah, I've done 'em. By the time they're done, I'm so sick of looking at the stuff, I don't bother buying the DVD. I'm just looking for the next gig.

But cash in the bank is something nobody gets tired of.

MrFun said...

The cool projects make great conversation. However, the reality is -- four or five guys got rich on those cool projects -- and you weren't one of them.

I truly love this business, and enjoyed many years of great work. Yet, even as a kid I remember talented "old timers" being kicked out on their butts. I knew that one day it would be my turn, so I made plans. God help you if you didn't.

Wise words, Steve. I hope people are listening.

Anonymous said...


I always bug people about starting their 401k's and roth IRA's etc and I am always amazed how hard it is to get them over that line.

My introduction to the industry was bouncing in and out of work and feeling insecure. It was a good education for understanding the benefits of saving everything that you can while you can.

In the end that small financial security allowed me to not rush for the next job but think a bit more and plan a more successful route.

Now I get paid more I don't spend more. I don't plan to until I feel safe.


Jean-Denis Haas said...

That's right Phil and thank you for helping me out! I've been slacking ever since though.

Anonymous said...

The important thought here is that it's NEVER too late to start. ANY amount you can sock away is going to help you down the road when you don't want to - or can't - work anymore.

Everyone can save SOMETHING, even if it's no more than taking the change out of your pockets every night and dumping it in a jar. You'll be amazed at how quickly it adds up. Look at your lifestyle - can you skip Starbuck's one morning a week and bank that cash? How much did you save by buying something on sale - set that amount aside.

Anonymous said...

Steve posted about how it's never too late to start saving a few weeks ago. I am so grateful that he did that, because I've since started reading good financial-advice articles on and I have moved my Roth IRA assets from a managed Fidelity 2030 (FFFEX) to a 100% indexed Fidelity Four-In-One (FFNOX). That way I'll never have to worry about manager changes or my investments underperforming the market. Down the line I'll start looking into Scott Burns' Couch Potato Portfolio. I'm 32 years old, and I don't want to end up in a bad situation 33 years from now.

Steve Hulett said...

Anon, you figured it out a good ten or fifteen years before I did. Bravo!

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