Friday, November 30, 2007

AMPTP Makes New Proposal

But the WGA doesn't seem overly enthralled with it:

"Thursday morning, the first new proposal was finally presented to us," the guild [said]. "For streaming television episodes, the companies proposed a residual structure of a single fixed payment of less than $250 for a year's reuse of an hourlong program (compared to over $20,000 payable for a network rerun). For theatrical product, they are offering no residuals whatsoever for streaming. For made-for-Internet material, they offered minimums that would allow a studio to produce up to a 15-minute episode of network-derived Web content for a script fee of $1,300. They continued to refuse to grant jurisdiction over original content for the Internet." ...

The LA TIMES doesn't think that the parties are close to an agreement, judging by the headline of Richard Verrier's and Claudia Eller's article: Secret is Out: Gap Still Big In Bargaining

... Writers view online entertainment as a new frontier and don't want to be shortchanged. Studios, however, say they can't compete in the new medium if they must pay union wages.

Furthermore, the guild said, the studios did not budge from their previous offer to apply an unpopular DVD formula to movies and TV shows that are sold online. Nor did the studios scrap an equally controversial proposal that allows them to stream entire films and TV episodes for promotional purposes without paying residuals ...

So it looks, despite the hooplah about "a new proposal" that there's a bunch of negotiating still to do. And the strike could go on awhile.

A couple of industry folks have mentioned that when the strike is six weeks old, the studios can exercise their "force majeur" clauses and start voiding personal service agreements they find too expensive. If that's true for a majority of PSCs, then the cynic in me says, the strike's gonna last at least six weeks...

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The fourth day of Ralph Hulett's Christmas

Ralph Hulett Christmas card 04
© by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

We now turn to a non-character Christmas card with a more religious theme: "the three wise men in the desert."

What's of interest here -- to me, at least -- are the hills behind the riders, sculpted with late-afternoon light.

When I was growing up, we lived in a mid-fifties style house, with open beams and lots of floor-to-ceiling glass. It was nestled in the high valley of La Crescenta. And outside the kitchen windows loomed high, rugged-looking mountains that resembled the mountains here.

Every afternoon the crests and ridges became burnished gold in the dying light, while the canyons lay in dark brown shadows.

Pretty clear where Dad got his inspiration for the look of those mountains.

Here are more Ralph Hulett Christmas cards.

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Disney Studios In the Wayback Machine

Click the thumbnail for a full-sized image

You know, like in a camera. Like in 1939.

I've never seen this shot of 500 S. Buena Vista Street before. It's looking west from an elevation (airplane?) above the studio, probably early fall of 1939. (Buena Vista would be off beyond the under-construction animation building. There are open fields visible beyond, since St. Joseph's Medical Center is several years away from initial construction...)

This photograph was given to me by a Disney TVA artist whose name I'm blanking out on. It was part of an article from a San Fernando Valley rag dated October, 1939:

San Fernando Valley -- Home of the Walt Disney studios! That's a statement thrilling to all resident of the Valley, and one that will become a reality about the first of the year, when the whole Disney organization will move into the new million dollar plant now being built on a fifty-one acre tract between Riverside and Alameda, in Burbank...

When the studio started "Snow White" in 1936, there were 300 people [at Walt Disney Productions.] In 1937, Walt leased a couple of old apartment houses next door, and into them he poured the story department, the casting office, comic strip, and miscellaneous people.

By summer of that year, the studio heads saw that, under the present set-up, it would be impossible to install the type pf studio organization they believed right, and it was then that dreams of a new studio began to crystalize. From around 600 employees in the summer of 1937, the organization had grown to almost 900 by the winter of 1938, and at the present time numbers over 1000.

In the new animation building alone, there will be room for 900 artists, and the animation building is but one of the twenty or so.

The new studio will be a regular little city, with paved streets, curbs, lights, storm drainage and sewage systems...

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Linkage of Toons

There's a new player jumping into the animated feature market:

New Line is venturing into the animation business for the first time in its 40-year history by acquiring Ilion Animation Studios' $60 million feature "Planet 51" from Handmade Films International ... Written by Joe Stillman ("Shrek"), the story is set on a planet whose inhabitants live in fear of an alien invasion. Their paranoia is realized when astronaut Capt. Charles "Chuck" Baker arrives from Earth ...

(My understanding about this flick is: it's being produced in Spain. The overall quality of the film? I guess we'll find out...)

Albert Hecht, formerly of Nickelodeon and Spike T.V., has picked up rights to Tom Swift and plans to make an animated feature and series out of the long-running book series:

...Worldwide Biggies, a digital studio recently opened by longtime Nickelodeon and Spike exec Albie Hecht, has acquired all rights to Simon & Schuster's long-running Tom Swift book series.

The company plans to introduce the franchise with a feature film and vidgame and follow with episodes for TV and the Web ...

Animation World Network has a nice piece on the National Film Board of Canada, which has funded cutting-edge animation for years, and still does:

"The kind of auteur animation that the NFB does is almost impossible to do in the private sector, because there is no financing or business model for such high-end creative work," Tom Perlmutter, government film commissioner and chairperson of the National Film Board, says. "The results have been and continue to be astounding. The form is constantly being challenged and redefined. In that way, it has the same value as a great symphony or sculpture or painting. The NFB is like a Renaissance artist's atelier that produces a stream of work that is consistently fresh, surprising, and breathtaking."

Dancing penguins, SpongeBob, and the Yellow Family triumph at British Academy Awards:

... Nickelodeon took two awards - best international programme for animation SpongeBob SquarePants and the short form award for Nick Big Green Thing. ... Happy Feet won the best feature film category, while The Simpsons Movie came top in a separate category in which under-16s voted for their favourite movie....

Aamir Khan Tarin, computer graphics artist for Blue Sky Animation (Rupert M.'s other animation studio), talks about projects past and present out of the New York Studio:

[Re the upcoming "Horton Hears a Who"] Horton is a very interesting and different project. Besides the story, the whole look has a unique palette of its own. Each and every inch of the movie was designed quite diligently to achieve the exact feel of the original art of Dr. Seuss without having to compromise within the technical boundaries ...

The Los Angeles Times speculates on the challenges faced by Enchanted during its second weekend of release:

... [T]his coming weekend has long been considered a moviegoing abyss ... Disney's challenge is to keep the film's second weekend grosses from plummeting faster than the historical averages.

Disney has started running new television spots heralding "Enchanted's" glowing reviews and No. 1 finish at the box office. Other TV advertisements, some of which started running before the film opened, are narrowly focused on selling the film's romance. "There's a much greater understanding now," Zoradi says, "of what the movie is."

With the film opening strongly not only here but also overseas, Disney is considering an "Enchanted" sequel. A domestic gross of $150 million or more seems possible.

Rupert Grint to play Tintin for Spielberg and Jackson in the upcoming mocap trilogy? That's the rumor out of Bulgaria ...

The first Tintin movie is due to be finished in production by the end of 2009 and rumours abound about who will play the famous Belgian boy detective. There have been many people linked to the film in the past but the latest story is that Rupert Grint of Harry Potter fame will get the nod for the Tintin role...

Me, I tend to wonder. But if you can't trust idle speculation out of eastern Europe, what can you trust?

Have a joyous end of the week.

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One Strike Down ...

... and one to go:

Broadway stagehands ended their 19-day strike late Wednesday night after officials for Local One of IATSE and theater producers agreed to a tentative deal.

The new contract provides an unspecified raise in wages and gives the League of American Theaters and Producers a reduction in the number of stagehands required for load-ins, the period in which a show is first installed and mounted.

"This is a good compromise that serves our industry," said Charlotte St. Martin, the league's executive director. "What's most important is that Broadway's lights will be shining brightly."

The strike in New York had a lot of momentum behind it for getting settled:

A) The theatrical producers were losing big money every night their shows were dark.

B) The holidays are the high-profit time of year and once those squares on the calendar are gone they are like, gone.

C) The IATSE and Disney were in the background, quietly twisting arms.

But whatever the ultimate lever was for reaching a deal, it's a good thing the parties hammered out a new agreement, yes?

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

"Best Picture"

Back in 1992, I thought Beauty and the Beast was easily the best picture of the year. But of course it lost out to Silence of the Lambs.

Big honking surprise.

As more than one animation veteran has said to me: "Animation is the bastard step-child of motion pictures." And no matter how much a given animated feature might deserve to be voted "Best Picture", there is just too much opposition among the live-action majority of the Motion Picture Academy for it ever to happen.

... studios’ reluctance to advance their animated wares as candidates for best picture is enforced by a perception that actors, the academy’s largest branch, with about 20 percent of the membership, are reluctant to honor movies without live performances. Additionally, the academy has a definite allergy to family fare, like the G-rated “Ratatouille”: 28 R-rated films have been nominated for best picture in the last 10 years, while only two PG-rated movies — “Finding Neverland” and “Good Night, and Good Luck” — have. And none with a G rating have made the cut ...

Color me cynical, but I don't think we'll see a feature without live actors pick up the top prize during this millenium ... or the next.

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"We Can't"

I've harped on this before, but since it recently came up again at one of our fine contract studios, I now reharp.

Many large motion picture companies today -- sub-sets of even larger conglomerates -- put policies in place that often tilt to their "corporate" (non-union) work force.

For instance, the corporate employee might get ten holidays to the union employee's nine. Or the corporate side gets a little extra vacation, or a cafeteria style health plan with varying levels of co-payments.

You get the idea.

So last week before Thanksgiving, I'm in a studio and a member asks me for the tenth time why they can't get a "flex account" for medical expenses (if you don't know, an f.a. is employee benefit that allows somebody to deduct part of her or his paycheck into a tax-free account for out-of-pocket medical expenses. The company doesn't kick anything in; it just sets up an account and deducts wages into it at the employee's direction.)

This might come as a shock, but if you're union, at many companies you can't have a flex account.

Now. There's nothing illegal about this. There's no law that requires the company to treat every group of employees the same as regards flexible accounts or many other things, but it's aggravating for union/guild employees nonetheless.

But what aggravates me the most isn't the denial of this or that perk, it's the pussyfooting that goes with it: "Gee, we'd love to give you blank, but the rules prohibit us from doing so."

Guess who makes the rules? The damn company.

But my favorite weasel is "The union won't let us ..."

The truth? A company can offer more vacation, flex accounts, or gold bullion at Christmas to all of some, or it can choose not to.

Sadly, few companies have the internal fortitude to state the reality: "Sure, we could give you what you ask for, but we don't wanna."

Far easier to fob the responsibility off on process ... or the union ... or an uncaring universe. God forbid anybody take actual responsibility for the policies they dole out.

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The third day of Ralph Hulett's Christmas

Ralph Hulett Christmas card 03
© by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

Mr. Hulett had himself a little mini-business painting cards with specific characters. His tall/short jesters were characters he painted every year in various activities. The jesters (or are they servants?) holding Christmas-type foods became a vertical card this particular year and a horizontal card in another year.

(You get a subject that enjoys robust sales, you do variations ...)

Here are more Ralph Hulett Christmas cards.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

On the Line

Back from my Monday off, I spent a bit of the afternoon -- an extended lunch hour -- picketing with WGA writers.

The group I was with seemed to be in pretty good spirits. The talk was about shows they're not writing, and how other people they know are doing. One scribe mentioned that the the tv series on which he was working is now in jeopardy of being canceled (apparently the network might jettison the balance of its show order. I told him I hoped his series didn't end up a casualty of the strike, he said "Yeah, me too. But I might be off at a bar tonight...")

The general hope that I overheard: That the negotiators reach an agreement soon. Writer-director Craig Mazin has some thoughts on that:

Victory requires the following.

1. Maintenance, at very least, of status quo for separated rights

2. A better-than-DVD rate for electronic sell-through on the internet

3. A reasonable formula for streaming reuse

... if we’ve gotten past some of the major stumbling blocks and boiled it down to the serious stuff at hand…and more importantly, if the AMPTP is ready to acknowledge certain basic realities…then we might be back to work soon ...

For everybody's sake, I hope a new contract everyone can live with emerges from the talks, and soon.

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Warner Bros. Animation Gets New Blood

Warner Bros. Animation has been pretty dormant lately, with not a whole lot of production going on over there. So this appears to be encouraging news:

Sam Register, the veteran animation executive behind the development of such hit animated series as "Ben 10" and "Teen Titans," and creator of "Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi," has entered into a multi-property development and production deal with Warner Bros. Animation, it was announced today by Lisa Judson, President, Warner Bros. Animation ...

"Sam has made his mark in both the business and creative ends of animation, and we believe he will provide an unique perspective for Warner Bros. Animation as we expand our horizons in the on-air and broadband arenas," Judson said. "We expect to take full advantage of Sam's animation and online experience, and we are excited to work with him."

What's always been a mystery to me is why Cartoon Network and Warner Bros. Animation, both Time-Warner companies, don't work in concert. I mean, synergy between two cartoon studios nestled inside one of the major entertainment conglomerates on the planet would be a GOOD thing, no?

It's a shame none of the top T-W execs see interlocking reinforcement between 'toon divisions as something valuable. But what can you do?

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Monday, November 26, 2007

Could the strikes soon be over?

That's the gist of two posts in the last twenty-four hours by Nikki Finke, LA Weekly entertainment business reporter, whose Deadline Hollywood Daily blog has become one of the most trusted news sources for information on the strikes by Hollywood writers and Broadway stagehands.

Finke quotes a "trusted insider" as saying that the groundwork for a settlement of the writers' strike was set by agents who have been working on both sides. Although she cautions against false hopes, her source thinks a settlement could be in place by Christmas.

And she quotes WCBS-TV in New York as saying that the Broadway theater owners are close to a deal with IATSE Local 1, to end a strike that has shut down twenty-seven shows since November 10.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, DHD started releasing "Speechless," a series of sometimes amusing short videos by various A-list actors and directors in support of the striking writers.

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On the Second Day of Ralph Hulett's Christmas

Ralph Hulett Christmas card 02
© by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

Munchkin Santas, from the 1960s.

Here are more Ralph Hulett Christmas cards.

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Ruthy Johnson

There aren't many Disney old-timers around today, but Daily Variety has a nice story on Ruthy Johnson, a 97-year-old resident of the Motion Picture and Country home. She went to work for Walt Disney Productions shortly after she met the boss at the Burbank Stables. Ruthy worked at the stables; Walt Disney used the place to train for polo.

All of a sudden this guy looks me in the eye and says, 'Ruthy Johnson, what are you doing here?' Disney suggested that she come work for him, and when sh told him she couldn't draw, he insisted. "You don't need to. We'll teach you." ..

Hard to get a job offer like that from Disney these days; it was obviously easier when the guy who had his name over the gate liked you.

Ruthy, along with Ollie Johnston, is among the oldest veterans who remain alive.

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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Breaching Contracts

The L.A. Times had a an article this morning about show runners (those are writer-producers of television series) and how conflicted some of them are:

... They feel torn between their dual loyalty to the guild and to their programs. Most aren't working but a few are doing otherwise, cutting and editing episodes written before the strike began ...

I think it's admirable that these folks are doing their best to honor their union and the people who work for them. And it can't be made easier by things like this:

[Showrunner Edward] Bernero, a former Chicago police officer and son of a union truck driver, has not worked despite receiving a letter threatening legal action from CBS for breaching his contract.

Ah yes. The studios are getting all nipply over contract breaches during a job action.

Let me tell you a little something about "breach of contract."

Eight or nine years ago, a major employer was cutting a bunch of animators loose despite the fact that each had six to fourteen months left to go on his or her term deal. Some employees knuckled under and went along. Others balked.

The studio rep I dealt with got kind of huffy at those renegades who didn't drink the Kool Aid. You know, there was something wrong with them for not agreeing to cut their throats economically and take the three or four weeks of buy-out on a twelve-month personal service contract like the corporate overlords wanted.

So pardon me about not being overly sympathetic to the studios' threats and brow-beating now that the roles are reversed.

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And at the Other Strike on the East Coast ...

Broadway is still shuttered, so the big box office for the four-day weekend has been blown to small bits. And how's it going now? Welll ....

Striking stagehands and theater producers agreed Saturday to return to the bargaining table, nearly a week after negotiations collapsed and kept most of Broadway dark during the lucrative Thanksgiving week - the second full week of no performances ...

"We are glad they accepted our invitation to negotiate," said Bruce Cohen, a spokesman for Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

More than two dozen plays and musicals have been closed since Nov. 10, when the stagehands walked off the job.

A settlement was believed to have been in the works last Sunday after a marathon weekend of negotiating, but the talks ended abruptly with producers walking out. No negotiations were held during Thanksgiving week, traditionally one of the best weeks for Broadway business.

Our information was Local One and the Producers/Theater owners were close to a deal before the strike happened when the theater owners balked at the final agreement ... And then were surprised when IA President Tom Short gave strike authorization to the stage hands right before the holidays. (Hey, if you're going to strike, do it when your leverage is at its maximum.)

Unlike most IA unions and guilds, Local One is the bargaining agent for its contract, not the IATSE. Word has come back to us that there's thorny issues that haven't been easy to wade through, but if a deal is going to be struck, it would be a fine idea to achieve it before the Christmas break has come and gone.

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Friday, November 23, 2007

Thanksgiving Linkage

As you digest the mounds of white meat you stuffed into your face yesterday, peruse the news from 'Toonland and related environments:

Three Dimensions are coming! Three Dimensions are COMING! Jeffrey K. talks about 3-D cinema down below, but there are more stereoptical features in our future than ever before! (well, at least the most since 1954 ...)

At least 5,000 3-D systems expected to be in place by 2009. DreamWorks Animation’s Jeffrey Katzenberg expects there to be 12 to 18 3D feature films by 2010. 3-D is clearly the future of cinema, at least for the near future. With the recent announcements of Tim Burton’s Alice and Wonderland/Frankenweenie, and today’s announcement of Final Destination 4 in 3D, we’ve decided to compile a schedule for the upcoming 3D movie releases.

If the Vancouver Sun has its facts right, then Canada is producing its first stop-motion 'toon:

Powell and Perfect Circle Productions partner Dean English have been at work on Edison & Leo for the last four years. Unable to raise the $10-million production budget alone (even with funding from Telefilm Canada), they hooked up with Vancouver production house Infinity Features, an Oscar winner for Capote, which invested in the film last December...

Disney Pictures Chairman Richard Cook answers questions:

Q: [On banning cigarettes in Disney movies]: Will you omit Pinocchio smoking in future releases?

Dick Cook: No. We're not taking away from anything that's already been done. We're not taking smoking away from Cruella in 101 Dalmatians—that's just a part of it and that's history. We're not going to have smoking in a Disney movie going forward.

Lotsa different studios are creating 3-D movies (as stated above). But until I read this interview with DreamWorks Animation's Jeffrey Katzenberg, this reason for creating them hadn't occured to me:

" ... 25% of our revenue is lost to piracy around the world today ... 90% of that is due to someone taking a camera into a movie theatre.

"You can't camcorder 3D. So the bi-product of this is that it will have some serious implications about that" ...

Actor Patrick Dempsey talks about how to pitch the performance of his lawyer character in Enchanted:

... [T]hat was the real challenge ... trying to find the right tone. How much humor can you bring with that as much as how much reality you will bring to it, and where does it get in the way? Sometimes that was a lot of fun and sometimes it wasn’t because everyone is having a blast around you and you couldn’t get caught up in their style of acting, which was too bad. And then you’re driving the plane but at the same time the reactions my character had is how the audience is going to react, and that was really important."

Walt Disney's Disneyland apartment -- directly above the firehouse -- might be open for tours:

"This was his home away from home," company spokesman J.D. Isip said as he ushered me into the tiny one-room apartment above the firehouse that Disney called his own. "After Walt built Disneyland, Burbank didn't see him much -- he was here every day."

Disney built the 500-square-foot apartment, outfitted with red crushed carpet and velvety Victorian decor, in 1954. It was the park's second structure after the opera house, which doubled as a sawmill.

Usually we're pretty mainstream around here, but let's get a litte more esoteric. The Goya Awards in Spain -- the "Spanish Oscars"-- have rolled out their animated nominees:

One of the favourites to win the award is “Perpetuum Mobile”, produced by Silverspace. It tells the story of a young Leonardo Da Vinci and recollects the events that motivated the young genius to dedicate his life to art and science.

My days of total immersion in comic books ended when Mom threw out eight years' worth of Superman, Superboy and Scrooge McDuck comics, so understand why the Snake King is not a muscular do-gooder with whom I'm familiar. But it's sold a hundred million copies in India, so it's nothing to sneeze at. And now it's (maybe) headed for the big screen:

Motion Pixel Corporation (MPC ... and Raj Comics, announced today that MPC has been granted licenses to develop, produce and distribute a theatrical film release based upon popular Raj Comics property – ‘Nagraj’. The announcement was made by MPC Chairman Manny Bains and Manish Gupta, CEO, Raj Comics. Production on the Nagraj Animated movie will begin immediately in a unique 2D Style format.

The multi-million dollar agreement will see MPC and Raj Comics share in certain revenues derived from the properties, with MPC funding development, production and distribution. Raj Comics will be handling all merchandising in connection with the films.

Cartoon Brew's Jerry Beck writes a think piece on the recently high-flying Beowulf, and what it means to animation. Animators and others chime in:

... Steve Mason at industry watchdog Fantasy proclaims “Beowulf is likely the future of the film business…”. He and several others who have been fawning over this film don’t even know what they are looking at. Far from being the future, Beowulf is a leap backwards into Gulliver’s Travels (1939) terrain ...

Enjoy your turkey casserole, turkey sandwiches, and turkey popsicles in the week ahead. And bon appetit.

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The first day of Ralph Hulett's Christmas

Ralph Hulett Christmas card 01
© by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett. Click on the thumbnail to see a full-sized image.

Another Yuletide season kicks off, therefore we'll put up another round of Christmas cards by Disney background artist Ralph Hulett. Starting with one more "court jester" card ...

For those of you new to the blog, my late father painted a ton of holiday cards over a span of thirty years. Many were done for a card company named named "California Artists," and in those quaint, long-ago days before giant, interlocking conglomerates ruled everything, many card companies paid royalties on the designs.

Such was the case with California Artists. And dear old Dad made almost as much money from his yearly Christmas cards as he did from background painting at Disney.

Nowadays, Hallmark and the like just want to buy card art outright. What a marvelous, corporatist age we live in ...

Here are more Ralph Hulett Christmas cards. (UPDATE: this search link is now fixed.)

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Box Office Holiday Bonanza

The Mouse House is expecting big things from Enchanted, otherwise they wouldn't be putting it into 3,730 theatres for the long Thanksgiving weekend.

Disney knows it's got a winner, and so why not swing for all the fences? It bops up the entire Disney/animation franchise:

... The movie references many Disney movies in obvious and subtle ways ... "I have a lifetime of references running through my head," [director Kevin] Lima said. "Fomr the time I was 5 years old and I saw Jungle Book, and my mom swears by this story, I turned to her and said, 'Mom, I'm going to be a Disney animator when I grow up ...'"

So we'll see what numbers this big new hybrid musical stirs up over the next four days.

Update 1: The holiday frame begins and Enchanted is off to a whiz-bang start with $8,150,000 in the till on Wednesday.

Bee Movie, the other animated film in the Top Ten, finds itself at #5 with $2,190,000. (And it's now within pollinating distance of $100 million.)

Update 2: Enchanted still rules the roost on Thursday (the day most people are away from the local AMC and fighting with family members over who has to sit at the kids' table, and who gets to inhale turkey and stuffing with the adults).

The Disney flick takes in another $6.8 million ...

Third place Beowulf crosses the $40 million marker (and my apologies for excluding it above) ...

While Bee Movie flies along in 9th place, taking a hit from the Disney entry but still crossing the $100 million marker.

Update 3: Enchanted works its magic for Friday, gathering $14.4 million for a $29.3 million total ( with two days to go).

Beowulf, hanging tough in the #3 position, takes in $6.5 million for a cume to $46.6 million.

And Bee Movie glides along in sixth place, with $3,760,000 and a $110, 177,000 total in the U.S. of A. and Canada.

Update 4: Late for the finals, but I was away yesterday. It appears the animated contingent did quite well over the holiday span:

Enchanted collected $49 million ...

Beowulf made $23.5 million (total: $56,633,821) ...

And Bee Movie gathered $15.8 million (total: $111,894,148).

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TAG and the Writers Guild Strike

Now that we're going into the third week of the WGA's job action, time for some clarity.

President Kevin Koch and I have both been on various writers' blogs, correcting some misstatements of facts (yes, IA-TAG writers get pension and health benefits; no, IA-TAG writers don't get prime-time WGA style residuals.)

You know, just pretty much defending The Animation Guild's position.

Sort of what you'd expect officers of The Animation Guild to do.

But it's good to clear a few things up:

TAG has taken no official position on the strike.

I, personally, support it.

I hope the WGA wins, since that's better for the Writers Guild and other entertainment unions. I have doubts that it will, but we'll know which side has prevailed when the picket signs come down and an agreement is ratified.

I oppose the WGA prohibiting writers who hold WGA cards from working under another union's jurisdiction (TAG's, in this case.)

There. Now everyone knows where we stand. And everyone's the richer for it.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Overtime Over Again*

At a studio this week I fell into a long conversation with a 25-year animation veteran.

He lamented that the industry had morphed from long-term employment to daily hire, short-term employment. ("Remember when everybody stayed at one studio for years, went from one show to another?")

I said I did.

He talked about how he got into the business because drawing waw what he loved to do, how the industry had changed, and not for the better:

"The show I'm on now, it's a nice project, but we're hitting a mid-season bump in the road and the artists are getting laid off for a few weeks. We think. The company doesn't want to give us re-hire dates, eve though most of us will be coming back. So nobody knows when they return. Or if."

I mentioned the unpaid overtime I see going on around town. He smiled sheepishly.

"Yeah, I'm one of those. I get the schedule and I make the decision to haul the work home, get it done. I just eat the overtime."

Like many, I said.

"So what's the solution?" he asked.

Getting people to push back as a group, I answered. Building a culture where artists don't let it happen.

How, he wanted to know.

I told him if I had the answer to that, I'd be in a higher pay grade. But in the meantime I just work to raise awareness and get people to stop doing it.

* This is another in our continuing series about uncompensated overtime And the animation business. Plus the people in it.

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Mid Week Links

Turkey day is almost upon us, but here's some toon-centric ... and labor-oriented ... intertubes linkage.

Enchanted is opening and the Hollywood trade papers go ying and yang on the feature:

Enchantment only goes so far in Disney's "Enchanted," a sometimes clever, other times grating mix of live action and animation that plays tricks with levels of move reality as the world of fairy-tale animation invades comtemporary New York..."

-- The Hollywood Reporter

"Enchanted" more than lives up to its title. A full-blown musical that commutes between Disney's patented cartoon universe and the "real" world with cleverness and grace, this splashy production reminds one of nothing in the Disney canon so much as "Mary Poppins," not least due to the "star is born" aura that surrounds Amy Adams here, just as it did Julie Andrews 43 years ago. Comparison between the two films will certainly extend to their popularity, as the new one will please nearly all audiences all the time on its flight to the place where B.O. dreams come true.

--Daily Variety

Winner of the worst book title in the current fiscal year? Cooking with Pooh. (We sh*t you not, and a h/t to Dave Barry. Particularly appropriate the day before Thanksgiving.)

If you haven't visited the striking writers blog, here's your chance. They detail yesterday's march down Hollywood Boulevard (as well as other things):

On a day when thousands of union supporters marched down Hollywood Blvd, the message was simple and most eloquently stated by Sandra Oh: "Writers want to write!"

Patric Verrone's remarks were short and to the point. We all know that we're headed back to the table, we all know the contract issues both sides have to face ...

And Futurama returns as four new direct-to-video features:

In 2003, FOX made the mistake of cancelling one of the smartest animated programs ever to grace television, Futurama. But thanks to DVD sales and the ratings of their [adult swim] reruns, everybody's favorite 31st century delivery crew is back… just for the time being in straight-to-DVD format.

For those that are late to the party, Futurama is in the midst of creating sixteen episodes of the program which will first be released as four DVD movies - which will eventually air on television as individual episodes ...

This just in! The always disappointing, always under-performing Ratatouille (the one that has Disney execs wringing their hands in despair, per a highly-placed and delusional Disney insider who unloads especially to us) has gone and done it again:

Nov. 20 Disney/Pixar's animated blockbuster "Ratatouille" passed the $600 million mark at the world-wide box office, U.S.-based Walt Disney Studios said.

"Ratatouille" also stands as the fifth most popular film released this year and the top grossing non-sequel ...

We can only hope that Bob Iger doesn't go and kill himself. ("That Pixar deal! What was I thinking?!")

But maybe there's something for Robert Iger to be glum about. Motley Fool says that Disney stock is currently one of the good bargains on Wall Street:

Don't you love findng brand names on sale?

That's what Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS) is today -- one of the most powerful and lucrative corporate brands in the world, trading at a discount to the company's actual value, any way you look at it ... Disney should be worth almost $110 billion right now. That's $46 billion more than the going market price ...

Have a festive Thanksgiving.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Back at Family Guy and American Dad

I spent a chunk of the morning at the Wilshire Boulevard headquarters of the Seth McFarlane shows....

Happily, nobody's been laid off.

More happily, the angry tension that I could have cut with a well-honed blade a week or so ago has now at least partially dissipated.

There are even hopes that the showrunners will be back after the WGA sits back down with the producers on Monday next and rekindles negotiations.

How realistic it is that there will be a new WGA-AMPTP agreement within the next fortnight I have no way of knowing, but at least a few hearts are higher. As one artist remarked:

"Hey, every day that we work is kind of a gift, you know? Management is giving us some updates, so we kind of have an idea of what's going on. Which is nice. And like, the deadlines have been loosened up because nobody has iron-clad schedules with the writers and show-runners out. So we just take it moment to moment..."

Me, I'm hoping for the best. What's the harm?

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Does David Geffen Know Something We Don't?

Or does he just need, you know, a little extra walking-around money?

DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. has entered into a deal to repurchase 357,000 shares of the company's stock from board member David Geffen, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Probably nothing, but still ...

I remain upbeat that Kung Fu Panda will be a blockbuster.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

The DreamWorks Screening

For some reason -- no doubt because I'm such a beloved personage in Animation-land -- I got invited to a screening of Shrek the Halls at the DW campus today...

Gary Trousdale directed to good results; Halls is a twinkly Christmas bauble wherein each of the sizable cast of characters -- Ginger Bread Man, Pinoke, Donkey, the Three Pigs -- have their individual moments to shine. It won't displace It's a Wonderful Life as the ultimate Christmas special, but it's pleasant, and the images leap vividly from the screen.

Most importantly, we learn some of Ginger Bread Man's sad back-story ... and why Christmas and Mr. Claus might not be among GBM's favorite memories.

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The Art of Blair

Not Preston, but Mary ... (She's the one in the middle there, standing in the WED parking lot in 1965 ...)

The Cartoon Art Museum, up on Mission Street in San Francisco, is having a gallery show of Mary's work. And why should you hop a plane to go look at it?

One of the first women to work as a concept artist for Disney, Blair was responsible for the look of some of the key Disney films of the 1940s and 1950s including Cinderella and Peter Pan. Her colorful, charming geometric designs, synonymous with 1950s style, appeared in advertisements and children¹s books. Perhaps her most famous creation, however, is the Disneyland attraction It's A Small World, which Blair originally designed for the 1964 World's Fair ...

The exhibit's no doubt worth seeing, because Mary's work is always worth seeing.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Animation Bops Along Overseas

Beowulf topped box office lists in foreign lands the same as it did here at home:

"Beowulf" conquered the overseas box office this weekend, with a solid (but hardly blockbuster) $17 million, followed by "American Gangster," which nabbed an impressive $14 million in fewer playdates.

Meanwhile, Disney-Pixar's "Ratatouille" continued to cook, "The Bourne Ultimatum" is still macho, but "Lions for Lambs" did a fast fade in its sophomore session (falling 61% in its second week in the U.K., for example) ...

Remy continues to under-perform his way to sizable grosses. Whether or not Beowulf turns a profit with its sizable production budget and advertising budget remains to be seen.

I think we can give up hope on The Ten Commandments.

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3 Things You Should Do

When I was thirty ... hell, when I was forty ... I was stupid as a sack of doorknobs about investing.

Of course, when I was forty, I didn't have any money. So it kind of didn't matter how stupid I was.

But time is an ever-flowing river, and now I have acquired a few shrinking dollars, and hedge fund honcho Barry Ritholtz has offered a short and handy guide about what I (and others) should do with our money:

1. Pay off your credit cards: Most people pay have much higher credit card rates than they realize -- they creep up over time, especially if you have any sort of a balance. Even a late payments to someone else will also send your rate higher.

Paying these balances off are the equivalent of a guaranteed return of 18% (or whatever your rate has become). RISK FREE, GUARANTEED. You wont get that deal anywhere else.

2. Max out your tax deferred accounts -- 401k/IRA: Putting money into these accounts gives you the equivalent of an extra 40% or so investment capital (depending upon your present tax rate), which then compounds over the decades until you take it. When you retire and withdraw these monies (which should have appreciated nicely) you will be in a much lower tax bracket.

3. Dollar Cost Averaging ETFs: The simplest investment thesis: Set your account up for dollar cost averaging for a few different ETFs. Each pay period (or monthly), but the same dollar amount of your choices. example: $100 of DIA, $100 of SPY, $100 of Qs, etc.

When prices are high, you buy less shares; When prices are low, you buy more. It's pretty foolproof.

I don't agree completely with the above. If you plan to Dollar Cost Average, do it with bare bones index funds (Total U.S. Stock, Total International Stock, a Real Estate Index, etc.). Otherwise, brokerage fees are going to eat you alive each time you purchase Exchange Traded Funds.

Buy ETFs when you have a big lump of money to invest.

One last thought: The markets are going to go up and down. Don't freak when they go down. Just keep Dollar Cost Averaging and ignore the falling prices. And concentrate on the face that you're buying at a discount.

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Making Models

In the early days of feature animation, maquettes were one of the small pieces of art that never found their way onto the screen or into the public consciousness. I used to marvel at the small sculptures produced for Fantasia and other Disney features.

But it's not a lost discipline, not by a long shot. Today there's a nice profile of model-maker Damon Bard in the L.A. Times

"I use different kinds of clay for different maquettes. If we are doing a fast sketch, I may make it out of a polymer clay, which can be baked and painted. It is semi-permanent -- it turns rigid. When we get a design we like and we want to evolve it ... I'll do it out of a clay that has to be molded because it's not permanent."

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

My Lousy Predictive Powers

I was in a college classroom Friday afternoon, blathering to some nineteen and twenty-year-olds about the animation business. Also about the Writers Guild Strike.

I said in my most authoritive voice that "the strike would be three to eight months long." So of course later on Friday this happened:

WGA and studio reps are headed back to the bargaining table. The parties put out brief statements at about 8 p.m. Friday, saying contract talks would resume Nov. 26...

So here's to my weak psychic abilities and the hope that the WGA/AMPTP negotiations are short, focussed and successful. Unsurprisingly, finanancial analysts like Fred Schruers at is a tad more jaded:

Close observers of the writers' strike, with its recriminatory and despairing overtones, might be excused for not turning cartwheels over the mutual announcement that the WGA and the AMPTP are planning to go back into negotiations on Monday. It's a step, but only that. It would seem that neither the writers nor the companies have suffered enough in these early stages to overcome the doggedness of their divergent agendas.

If one common estimate of seven or eight more months may be a somewhat inflated product of the current ill will, certainly there's not much hope of huge progress in the post-Thanksgiving session--though we're now seing the first of the companies' "force majeure" notifications, as they seize the occasion to shed talent (and paychecks) from their rosters as they've been expected to do.

Once the bottom lines get that useful haircut, the companies will have what some cynics say they wanted from the strike ...

Who know? Maybe Mr. Schruers is right. Now that the conglomerates have cleared away uwwanted brush, they'll be ready to tie a new agreement up with a pretty bow.

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Capturing the Performance

A few days ago, some reporter or other called to ask about this new "Performance Capture" thingamajig in the upcoming Zemeckis movie was all about. I said to him:

Well, it's sort of new, but animated films have been using a system called rotoscope for seventy or eighty years. Pretty much the same thing as performance capture now except in a lower tech kind of way ..."

I bring this up because Beowulf has landed at the top of the box office heap. And the New York Times has ruminated on that feature's performance-capture animation process:

The movie definitely pushes digital acting far beyond anything I’ve seen before — but it looks as if the last few yards of the journey toward convincing realism are going to be the really hard part.

Those "last few yards" are always going to be the hard part. Because no matter how you mo-cap, when it's transformed into an animated format, the thing's still looks a little strange to audiences' eyes.

Kind of like what TIME Magazine said about Walt Disney's "Carousel of Progress" at the 1964 New York World's Fair. "Carousel" presented the fine progress of American technology through the eyes of a "typical" American family that happened to be animatronic robots. As TIME put it:

"The Dad, Mom and adorable children in these tableaus talk and behave just like real people ... under the influence of drugs ..."

Walt had the same trouble with androids fifty years ago that mo-cap practitioners have now. Both come close to replicating flesh-and-blood performers, but when you look close, the end product seems just a little bit strange, out-of-kilter and, for want of a better word, creepy.

This doesn't mean performance-capture is a bad bet at the box office. Certainly Polar Express did well, and Beowulf is off to a rousing start. But how it stands up aesthetically? That is, of course, subject to ongoing debate:

"...whenever we stayed too close to the photostats (actors were filmed then the individual frames were used to trace over), or directly copied even a tiny piece of human action, the results looked very strange. The moves appeared real enough, but the figure lost the illusion of life. There was a certain authority in the movement and a presence that came out of the whole action,but it was impossible to become emotionally involved with this eerie, shadowy creature who was never a real inhabitant of our fantasy world.

Not until we realized that photographs must be redrawn in animatable shapes (our proven tools of communicating) were we able to transfer this knowledge to cartoon animation.”

--Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. p. 323; Disney Animation - The Illusion of Life

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Animated Weekend Box Office

If Beowulf is animated (and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences believes that it is), then two of the top three box office films on Friday were animated.

Who says non live-action features are in a slump?

Robert Zemeckis's latest collected $9.7 million on Friday, while American Gangster wrestled its way past Bee Movie to remain in second place.

Jerry Seinfeld's feature dropped to third during its third weekend...

Meanwhile, the brand new Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium -- live action but chock full of computer generated effects -- landed at #5 with a $2,650,000 Friday gross.

And The Ten Commandments? Don't ask.

Update: The weekend numbers are in:

1. Beowulf $9.9M Fri, $10.5M Sat, [wkd $28.1M], (cume $28.1M)

2. Bee Movie $3.4M Fri, $6.5M Sat, [$14.3M], ($93.8M)

3. American Gangster $3.8M Fri, $5.8M Sat, [$13.2M], ($100.9M)

4. Fred Claus $3.2M Fri, $5.7M Sat, [$12.5M], ($36.2M)

5. Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium$2.6M Fri, $4.3M Sat, [$10M], ($10M)

6. Dan In Real Life $1.4M Fri, $1.9M Sat, [$4.4M], ($37M)

7. No Country For Old Men $892K Fri, $1.2M Sat, [$3M] ($4.8M)

8. Lions For Lambs $825K Fri, $1.2M Sat, [$2.9M], ($11.5M)

9. Saw IV $715K Fri, $995K Sat, [$2.2M], ($61.8M)

10. Love In The Time Of Cholera $630K Fri, $770K Sat, [$1.8M], ($1.8M)

So Beowulf does okay but doesn't blow the doors off any multiplexes, and Bee Movie looks set to crack $100 million in the next few days. (We could be looking at a bump over the long Thanksgiving weekend, but of course Enchanted will be coming into the marketplace, and the newer family-oriented flick will no doubt displace the older family-oriented flick.)

The estimable Nikki Finke has her own box office analysis over yonder:

... a hoped-for Saturday matinee surge which worked for family friendly Polar Express ... never materialized for the PG-13 Beowulf.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

The Latest Linkage

What with the big seventieth anniversary, Disney has a lot of interesting "Snow White" art and newsreels up at the studio, but this looks to be even better:

John Lasseter marveled at handwritten notes next to pencil sketches of the wicked stepmother and watercolor backgrounds used only in the "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." ...

Even Lasseter previously didn't have access to many of the pieces in a Disney's California Adventure exhibit. About 90 percent of the 120 pieces were in a private collection that the Walt Disney Co. bought earlier this year in time for the film's 70th anniversary.

"You have to understand the significance of this," Lasseter said Friday as he looked at drawings. "Nothing like this had been done like this."

Seth McFarlane, he not happy:

Fox appears to be planning to air a new episode of the popular animated series this Sunday, but they’d be doing so without McFarlane signing off on it. The network is perfectly within its legal rights to do so, but it would be, as McFarlane puts it, “a colossal dick move if they did that. [The next three episodes] are relatively close to completion, but they have not had a final pass.”

So, is this feature animated?

On Friday, [Beowulf] arrives in IMAX and regular theaters nationwide, accompanied by 3-D glasses and the stamp of "animation" from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "Beowulf" qualifies under Academy rules — revised several months ago to require "frame by frame" work — to compete for an Animated Feature Oscar against the likes of "Ratatouille" and the black-and-white 2-D Iranian film "Persepolis."

But because of its hybrid nature, few in the animation world expect it'll actually become one of the three nominees.

That possibility distresses traditional animators.

"It's a little bit odd when they're being put in the category competing in the same way for awards," said Kevin Koch, a longtime animator of DreamWorks films like "Into the Hedge" and "Shrek 2." "Some of us are kind of scratching our heads a bit."

Gotham develops a ton of toonaage:

The Gotham Group, the leading management firm in animation, is making a major push into television with an ambitious development slate that includes a three-for-one pilot deal at Fox Broadcasting Co.

Under the pact with Fox, Gotham will develop three half-hour animated projects, one of which will be picked up to pilot ... Gotham, which represents more than 300 animation writers, directors, animators and animation studios, has been in business with the network for almost 20 years ...

Gotham's founder and CEO Ellen Goldsmith-Vein said she had been thinking for some time about "broadening the Gotham Group's footprint in network television" by tapping into the company's pool of animation talent ...

"We've barely scratched the surface in seeing animation flourish on television and we know our clients will continue to be front and center as the art form evolves," Goldsmith-Vein said.

Earlier this year, Gotham inked a $250 million deal with the Weinstein Co. to produce and distribute theatrical animated feature films. Gotham also recently signed a first-look deal with Yahoo! Studios to produce and distribute original animated content on the Internet ...

And it looks like two DreamWorks biggies will shortly be exiting their current business address:

Seeking a way out of an acrimonious relationship at Paramount, the DreamWorks principals — two Hollywood heavyweights, David Geffen and Steven Spielberg — have been negotiating to move their operation to NBC Universal, according to people close to the talks. But negotiations have hit a wall over financing.

Discussions have been going on since late summer, according to these people, who asked not to be identified because of the delicate nature of the negotiations.

Director Colin Brady talks about helming the new Astroboy feature:

AstroBoy is kind of a dark Pinocchio story, but unlike Pinocchio, Astro never can become real flesh and blood. Astro's journey of self discovery and acceptance is directly linked to the hardcore killer robot fights, and to the rejection by his creator, Dr. Tanner ...

Lastly, Tim Burton will be returning to his roots. At the studio of his professional birth:

Disney has signed Burton to direct 3D feature versions of the Lewis Carroll classic, "Alice in Wonderland" and of his own 1984 short film, "Frankenweenie."

"Alice" will combine performance-capture imagery with live-action footage, while "Frankenweenie" will be shot in stop-motion animation,

Party on.

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John Edwards and the WGA

Presidential candidate John Edwards showed up at the WGA picket in front of NBC this afternoon...

A large group of strikers crowded the sidewalk, listening to Edwards give a short speech through a bullhorn. Everyone was pretty pumped up. In addition to speechifying, Edwards worked the crowd, and talked to the milling press.

Yeah, I know the visit was a photo op, but it was still great of Edwards to show up and voice support. Local news covered it, complete with semi-snark:

"Striking writers, not only got a visit from a top Democratic Presidential candidate, they got a big morale boost from John Edwards. The former senator joined them on the picket line ... Edwards, a multi-millionaire lawyer, is a vocal supporter of unions.

-- John North on KABC

All photos -- Janette Hulett

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

At Disney, the Studio of Animation

A fully packed day, with office work, a large "new member" lunch for Imagi Studio employees (where I detailed the wonders of the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan), and finally an afternoon walking tour of Disney Animation Studios.

There were no WGA picketers on Riverside Drive, but near the gate to the main lot stood two honey-wagons. A Disney executive told me a few days ago: "We thought portable toilets were better than having picketers running over to St. Joseph Hospital to use the restrooms there."

Nice. Back in '82 during TAG's last strike, I just gritted my teeth and held it.

Upstairs in the hat building, I spent a fun-filled twenty minutes trying to locate a four-digit room number. The numbering system for cubicles and other spaces is eccentric. More often than not 2824 follows 2822, but 2826 is absent. (Half the time it's around the corner, down some other hallway.)

After a lot of tramping around I discovered what the problem was. The number I looked for was covered up with a poster. But it turned out not to matter. There was nobody inside anyway.

Three or four different artists told me that Bolt's story development is in good shape, and that Rapunzel and Princess and the Frog "look like they're going to be big deal, box office pictures." Said one artist:

"Rapunzel has really, really come together. Before it was a series of really nice moments, some really funny sequences. But now it has a real epic sweep to it. To me it has the feel of those early Disney features from the forties..."

Since I haven't seen much of the work for any of these features, we'll consider the above hearsay. Encouraging hearsay.

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On the Line

Walking the WGA picket line on Lankershim brought back memories.

Like "Hey, this is exercise."

Like "I need more sunscreen."

It also came back to me how you bond with the people around you who also hold picket signs...

The strike captain's name was Kevin, and a veteran of the '88 WGA strike where he was also a captain.

We joked that he should by now be a strike Colonel. Or perhaps a Major.

He told me that this strike has a different feel than the one in '88. "Then, they were out to bust us. It was the Reagan era. Unions were under attack. But we held it together."

This time, he said, there was a lot more support from other unions. "The actors are out here with us. They know if we don't win this, then they're next."

All in all, it wasn't bad out on the line. It wasn't August. A woman came by with a bag of fish tacos and handed them out. The moods and conversations were buoyant.

I understand that over at Disney, the company has put up portable toilets. A shame the Big Mouse didn't do that for the animators during their strike of 1982. We could have used them.

But what the hell. You take whatever progress you can get.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Fighting Letters, Fighting Unions

From comments down below:

What do you think of Tom Short's appalling letter (I guess it's clear what I think) to Patric Verrone, lambasting the WGA for the strike? Why not a letter to the studios lambasting THEM for failing to negotiate a reasonable contract with the WGA and instead offering only stonewalling and rollbacks -- thereby ensuring that the WGA's only possible and reasonable response would be to refuse such an offer and go on strike? So much for labor solidarity.

Would I have written the letter that President Short wrote yesterday to Patric Verrone?


Definitely not my style. (Verrone's measured reply is here.)

But having said that, it's useful to know not just the correspondence between Mr. Short and Mr. Verrone, but what's happened between the two labor organizations in the recent and distant past that's caused the hostility ...

The bad blood between the IA and the WGA goes back a long ways, long before Tom Short was President.

In 1983, after the animation guild's '82 strike, the WGA tried to claim animation writers as part of its jurisdiction. There was an arbitration on the issue involving the WGA, IA, and AMPTP. The WGA ultimately lost the arbitration, but the IA wasn't pleased with the WGA for what considered a "jurisdiction grab." It was ticked off, actually.

This was two IA Presidents before Tom Short.

Now, the WGA has every legal right to organize animation writers. The AFL-CIO has a rule (called Rule 20), that prohibits AFL-CIO unions from raiding one another's jurisdictions, but guess what?

The WGAw isn't a member of the AFL-CIO. So why should it follow the rules of an organizations to which it doesn't belong?

Nevertheless, the IATSE was and is ticked about it. (I'm putting aside here who's "right" and who's "wrong," and who has the "moral high ground." I've been around the biz for thirty years and think of those things as rhetorical flourishes that are often useful, but ultimately irrelevant. In the end what counts is the result achieved. Do you have the muscle and/or leverage to reach your desired end, or don't you?)

But the long jurisdictional battle over animation is old news. Way old news. So let's jump to the last year and a half, and look at a newer point of contention between the IATSE and the WGAw.

You might have heard of the reality show America's New Top Model, and how the WGAw tried and failed to organize the writers on it. What you might not know is that the WGA and the Editors Guild (one of the IA's larger unions) had a joint campaign to organize the show.

The Writers Guild was going after the writers (natch), and the editors were going after the editors.

However, after some months of joint effort, the Writers Guild told the Editors Guild: "Thanks so much, it's been fun, but we're pulling out of this dual thing and going our own way." (I'm paraphrasing here.)

Next thing the Editors Guild knows, the WGAw is circulating fliers and doing a campaign to organize the writers and the editors.

And the Editors Guild, along with the IATSE, is ticked at the Writers Guild.

Now, again, the WGAw has every right to organize editors. It's not in the AFL-CIO, the editors on Model are unrepresented, so whichever labor organization gets them under contract, wonderful for them.

But the Editors Guild didn't like what was going on, thought it showed minimal labor solidarity, and thought what the Writers Guild was trying to do "sucked." (The word an Editors Guild organizer used when he was telling me the story.)

Oh yeah. And this WGA grab for the editors? It caused Tom Short to become even more hostile toward the WGA.

So now we're up to the present. And the WGA has gone on strike, and the President of the IA is looking at seventy or eighty thousand IA members getting laid off for an undetermined amount of time, of the health and pension plan being drained, and there's nothing he can do about it, the levers are out of his hands, and he's even more ... well, I've beaten the word into the ground, so I'll stop.

And you're right, the letter that he wrote yesterday had a lack of civility to it, and certainly didn't show union solidarity.

But, you know, there's union solidarity on 8 1/2" x 11" bond paper, and there's union solidarity through concrete, real-world actions. I firmly believe this, and I try to act on my beliefs.

Which is why I was walking the WGA picket line at Universal this afternoon.

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An Overtime Tale With a Happy Ending

Just now there's so much gloomy news floating in the ether, I'm pleased to report on something good.

A few days back, when I was visiting one of TAG's fine, signator studios, an artist came up to me all smiles. "Your suggestion worked," he said. "I got the extra money I was owed."

Here's the back story. I had been talking to this artist off and on for a couple of weeks. He was upset because he'd been working lots of overtime, and the studio was not happy that he had -- on one particular day -- worked so many hours that he had gone into "golden time" (that's double the regular hourly rate.)

The studio, he'd told me, hated to pay double time.

He said they were putting pressure on him to shift a few of the hours around so that the gold showed up as silver -- time and a half. It was suggested that this would make the studio happy..

But the artist didn't want to make the studio happy, he wanted to be paid his money. So when he brought the subject up, I suggested that he go to his supervisor in wide-eyed innocence and say: "I'm a little confused about this, please help me out. You want me to move my hours around and falsify my time card, right?"

Because he was ticked, he agreed to try this approach. And the other day as he was reporting on its success, he added:

"... As soon as I asked them if what they wanted was for me to fake up my time card, they said 'Oh no, no! Put down the hours just the way you worked them!' So I did."

Last note: The artist is still working at his desk. Nobody has (yet) snarled at him that he's "hurting the show," nobody is giving him the stink eye in the hall. I'm not saying those things might not happen, but he stood up for Truth, Justice and What-Used-To-Be-the -American-Way and lived to tell the tale.

And there's your happy story for the day. With its happy ending.

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Mid-Week Links - Rats in the Belfry

Oh crap. Another problem for the under-performing Ratatouille. It's creating a run on pet rats:

[There's a] a rat fad in France, where sales of the pets have increased by 40 percent since the film's release there in July.

"Since the film came out, rats have become a veritable fashion phenomenon," said Gerald Moreau of the Apra Association, a group that promotes rodents as pets.

Hey ho. Jerry Beck is far more than Cartoon Brew or an animation producer of author of many animation books. He's taking his animated cavalcade of "Worst Cartoons Ever!" on the road! This week in Ohio!

"I'm not here to celebrate these films or look at them in a new context, I'm here to bury them. Or burn them, burn them into your brain actually," Beck said with a laugh, as he misread from his notes...

Martin Grove has a long piece on Disney's upcoming Enchanted with director Kevin Lima talking of the movie's preparation and shoot:

... There are approximately 12 minutes of animation at the start and conclusion of "Enchanted," which runs around 104 minutes altogether. "There's eight minutes of animation at the beginning," he pointed out, "and that animation has to remind you of all the things you love about Disney movies. I call it 'a can of condensed Disney.' If you added water, the movie would expand to be 80 minutes long. I just tried to cram every single piece of Disney iconic imagery into that first eight minutes so then I could riff on it through the rest of the film."

Lastly, The New York Times details the coming travails for Disney and Bob Iger as the economy slows and unions go on strike ...

... for the first time under Mr. Iger’s watch, Disney is sailing into some choppy waters. Two of the company’s four growth engines — theme parks and consumer products — turn on the health of the economy, which indicators suggest is slowing. Striking television and movie writers threaten advertising income at ABC, which Disney owns.

Hollywood’s union problems also afflict Disney’s film studio, which faces life without a new installment of its money machine, “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and could be dealing with delays on big-screen franchise films like “High School Musical 3.” ...

Stride on. You're halfway through the week.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Writers Strike -- Second Week

Earlier this week I ran into a bunch of union reps from different IATSE locals. They were a little gloomy.

"This writers' strike is going to last months not weeks" ... "What's going to happen to the pension and health plan?" ... "My people are getting laid off of their shows in droves" ...

I didn't have a lot to add to what they said, and didn't. They rep different live action unions, and their members are impacted more directly than most of TAG's. Besides, all I know is what I read on the internets:

One of the WGA's largest soap boxes is its newly added channel on YouTube: As of Tuesday, 22 videos have been posted, most of them featuring writers venting from the picket lines.

I've been a faithful reader of The Artful Writer, but it's gotten so many comments of late that it's suffered a meltdown. Owner operator Craig Mazin has taken a beating about his refusal to abandon the final weeks of his directing job to join the picket line (even though WGA strike rules allow it), but he bears up well. (Co-owner Ted Elliot, not directing anything, hasn't taken nearly as many hits.)

Sooner or later, I'll write some kind of think-piece here about TAG's efforts to secure residuals in the 1990s and again in the 2000 negotiations. Probably after the dust settles from the current strike(s).

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Paul Allen Sells More DWA Stock

So...wouldn't have Mr. Allen been better off waiting? Until after Shrek the Third sells millions of DVDs and the stock bounces up?

SKG Inc on Tuesday said Microsoft Corp co-founder Paul Allen sold 2.4 million DreamWorks shares, valued at $75 million, after unloading about 14 million shares this summer.

I mean, does this make sense?

A spokesman for Allen said the reduction in his Dreamworks Animation stake to now under 5 million shares was part of an ongoing effort to rebalance his portfolio.

Okay, I can get behind rebalancing, but isn't it just as easy to rebalance after the stock bounce?

There is going to be a stock bounce, isn't there?

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Half of a Golden Calf

Had lunch today with two veterans of the animation industry, one an artist, the other a producer. I've known both like forever. The producer, my age but far richer and now happily retired, mentioned this article about where Hollywood's money goes and observed:

Studios could probably pay the unions and guilds more, but they're already giving away millions to the talent. It's crazy, but nobody wants to go to the mat with the CAA or any of the other talent agencies and tell them "no." So they pay an actor or director first-dollar gross because if they don't, somebody else will..."

It's pretty much like two execs told me some years ago when they were in a breezy frame of mind: "Sure, the studios could afford to pay artists and writers residuals. But they've got the power to say no, so they don't."

Studios' spines may have stiffened toward labor unions, but they remain amazingly limber toward the heavy-hitting, "must-have" players. As the New York Times says: turns out, the pot of money that the producers and writers are fighting over may have already been pocketed by the entertainment industry’s biggest talent ... Much of the income — past and future — that studios and writers have been fighting about has already gone to the biggest stars, directors and producers in the form of ballooning participation deals. A participation is a share in the gross revenue, not the profit, of a movie...

So it appears that the studios are digging in their heels ... now that the thoroughbred horses and high grade cows have left the barn.

It wasn't always like this. Clark Gable made $4,000-$5,0000 per week at his box office peak, no back end. And author Robert Birchard relates that Charlton Heston made a flat $50,000 playing Moses for Cecil B. DeMille over six months time, also with no profit participation. (DeMille had Heston's services at a cut-rate fee because Judah Ben-Hur owed C.B. another picture under an old contract. And so, Mr. Birchard says tongue half in cheek, "There was never any question that Charlton Heston was the actor born to play Moses.")

But Johnny Depp is not Charlton Heston. And 2007 is certainly not 1956:

Even Disney’s strong corporate performance in the last year does not necessarily bode well. The company’s studio unit, which was profitable for the year, had essentially flat revenue, at about $7.5 billion. Despite a huge hit in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,”...

So what accounted for a lot of Disney's recent "strong performance?"

[M]uch profit, company executives said, came from the mining of its library with clever ploys like the “Little Mermaid” Platinum Release DVD, which sold nine million units without the burden of star participations ...

Maybe I'm a fuddy duddy, but it seems to me, if the entertainment conglomerates were not so busy throwing large chunks of the golden calf into the pockets of high-powered actors and directors who are already weighed down with bars of gold, maybe there would be more left over for the poor wretches further down the food chain. You know, those people working hard to get the picture ... or television show ... out?

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The OTHER Strike

As was mentioned in comments down the way, there's another strike going on just now.

The IATSE is on strike in New York. So there's two sets of picketers in the Big Apple right now. The stagehands on Broadway. The writers in and around 30 Rockefeller Plaza ...

Broadway stagehands are set to begin a strike on Saturday, darkening the majority of Rialto productions.

Timing of work stoppage has been ordered by the international president of IATSE, Thomas C. Short, who granted strike authorization to Broadway stagehands' union Local One after sitting in on contentious labor talks with Rialto producers Wednesday and Thursday.

... Without stagehands, more than 25 productions will not perform ...

Be interesting to see how these dual strikes go. And which one gets settled first, and on what terms.

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Son of Big Box Office Mo

Whoops. The Box Office Post went missing. Happily, I'm not a blogger stopped by technical malfunctions, so here's the astounding finale to the weekend b.o.:

Bee Movie whirs its busy wings and flies to #1, while American Gangster settles for #2. (This happens hardly ever.)

Reason? AG drops 44.2% while Bee declines a mere 31.6%. And the Seinfeld opus has now collected $72.2 million.

Fred Claus has to settle for a relatively tame $19,2225,000 and the third position.

(And let's not forget The Ten Commandments...)

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The Animation Biz Over the Next Eight Months ...

... which of course is a prediction based on facts currently known (and projected forward) ... my astounding powers of deduction and logic ... and my Aunt Alice's crystal ball ...

As I write, many smaller, mostly non-union animation studios are not exactly going full throttle. Over the past two months, various animation artists have called to say: "Man. Things are sloow out there! What's happening?! I'm usually picking up a lot of freelance, but man. There's no-thing."

Now. I'm not totally sure why this is, except that a lot of studios that usually subcontract from the majors aren't getting the usual number of jobs. One of the big studios, to cite but one example, had a CG feature being done by a sub-contrator here in town, but that show has now been pulled back for reworking and the crew has been laid off until further notice.


Why that part of the biz has been as slow as it's been I have no idea, since it's not my area of expertise. Maybe some 'toon markets are over-saturated. Maybe some co-production financing has dried up. Maybe suppliers expect to get rolling after the first of the year. I'll be an optimist here and say that all things equal, there should be a reversion to the mean after the holidays and business should pick up. But the honest answer is, I don't know.

Where signator studios are concerned I've got more solid information, so here it is.

Sony Pictures Animation is hanging onto staff as it retools some of the shows it has in the pipeline and decides where it wants to go as a production studio (the trades have reported that half of Sony Pictures Animation/Sony Pictures Imageworks is -- or soon will be -- up for sale.)

Warner Bros. Animation is as slow as I've seen it. Some of the administrative staff that's been there a long time has received pink slips, and I'm told there is one DVD feature in the pipeline with another possible.

DreamWorks Animation is cruising right along, hiring some development people, working to complete Kung Fu Panda, putting new projects into development.

Fox Animation and Starz Media are soon to shut down their four major Fox series because of the writers' strike. Artistic staff has not yet been laid off on any of them; some shows will keep crews busy into early next year ... but others not. A sizable number of people will be unemployed when all the shows shut down, and there's no way of knowing how long the enforced hiatuses will be.

Disney Toons continues work on the Tinkerbell direct-to-video features, with another couple of projects going into work. The crews on these features aren't large, but the work is steady.

Disney Television Animation has a half-dozen series. Late last week a staffer on Tigger and Pooh told me that he'd be working until next summer, and was delighted with that. ("Longer stretches of work are not a problem, believe me.").

Disney TVA is run by the Disney Channel -- which is currently red-hot because of its slew of live-action series. Trouble is, live-action production will come to a screeching halt as live-action scripts run out. Which causes me to speculate whether more animation projects will be put into work to fill the gap. (Speculation is a fine thing. Doesn't mean schnay, but it's a fine thing.)

Disney Animation Studios will be hiring crew to work on The Princess and the Frog sometime in the first half of next year. Bolt -- due for release at holiday time in '08 --has a lot of footage to polish to a high, digitized sheen, so I'm guessing it hires more people next year as well.

Universal Cartoon Studios has shuttered the long-running Land Before Time and continues with the popular Curious George, delighting the tots on PBS.

Summing up, more staffing at congloms like Disney, layoffs of indeterminate lengths on the Fox shows, and hopefully a pickup at smaller studios and sub-contractors as 2008 rolls forward.

The caveats here: Nobody knows how long the writers will stay out (and that affects animation at two studios), and nobody knows if SAG hits the bricks next summer.


Addendum: And what's happening at Nick and Cartoon Network? (Since somebody asked.)

Cartoon Network is slow right now, but as a manager told me mere minutes ago: "We had some live action slotted for next season, but if the writers are out a long time, who knows? Maybe animation will go in there ..."

Right now CN has a partial second season order for its successfully-launched Chowder, it's wrapping up the Class of 3000 Christmas special, and Flap Jack, Ben 10 and Foster march onward. Outside of that, the pantry is somewhat bare ...

At Nick? The place has seven series* in various stages of work, a couple of new pilots, and Avatar might come back after some retooling ...

There now. I've overcome my earlier brain fart and covered most of the bigger studios.

* Mighty Bee, Fairly Odd Parents, TAC, El Tigre, Penguins, Mi Hao Kai Lan, Sponge Bob.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

The results of the Animation Guild election ...

... are in:


  • Kevin Koch



  • Steve Hulett



  • Earl Kress



  • Jeff Massie



  • Jan Browning



  • Bronwen Barry
  • Nicole Dubuc
  • Bob Foster



  • Bronwen Barry
  • Russell Calabrese
  • John Cataldi
  • Nicole Dubuc
  • Bob Foster
  • Janette Hulett
  • Karen Carnegie Johnson
  • Cathy Jones
  • Karen Nugent
  • Matt Wayne
  • Stephan Zupkas

* the three highest vote-getters in the Executive Board race serve as Trustees in addition to their Board duties

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