Saturday, June 28, 2008

It's Only Business

The past week, I've gotten e-mails complaining about salary cuts at Disney, along with the question: "Can they do this?"

The answer is, sure they can.

Salary decreases happen all the time. Over the years I've seen internal memos from studios that say: "Hold down wages!" I've watched higher-priced employees laid off for months, then brought back at union scale. Employees don't like it, but they accept the job and work at the lower rate, because they're not in a position to say no.

And the studio knows it, and acts on the knowledge.

There is nothing inherently evil or vindictive in this, because (mostly) it's "only business". Companies strive to pay no more than they have to ... for acquisitions, outside services, or employees.

"Companies," as honest CEOs like to say, "are not charities."

A dozen years ago, when studios were bidding against each other for talent, weekly salaries went into the stratosphere. Companies weren't crazy about this, but for a moment they were unable to prevent the sky from being the limit.

I remember the time well. Artists came through my office, gleeful about the salaries they were getting. Many of them thought the flush times would last the rest of their careers, but it was over in fifty or sixty months. The lesson I took away from the mid-nineties boom and the animation depression that followed was:

Everything is temporary. Plan accordingly.

What employees need to wrap their heads around is that, as it's only business for companies, it must also be business for employees. Know what your rights are under the collective bargaining agreement, know labor regs. Know the phone number and address of the California Labor Commissioner. Share wage information. Build a support network. Improve your chops.

And don't fall into the "we're one large, huggy family" sedution that companies often spin. Despite what department and division heads might say, they're not looking out for your interests. Companies are focused on the bottom line. They are Fox or Warner Bros. or Disney or Viacom, not the Red Cross.

In the end, it's business, and always will be. Companies decide what they need to do, and then do it.

Note: This post was down briefly because I'm as manually nimble as a greased pig on ice. Hit the "save as draft" button instead of "publish," and poof! away it did vanish.

25 comments:

CG guy said...

This is what I don't understand. We are living at a time of virtually unprecedented success in feature animation. Multiple studios are having blockbuster successes, from Pixar to Blue Sky to Dreamworks. The successes are far more widespread than either the first golden age of the 30's, or the second in the 90's. In both those cases, success was limited to only one studio.

With the huge successes we've seen from multiple competing studios, WHY AREN'T WAGES GOING UP???

To me, there can only be one plausible answer. The studios are either implicitly or explicitly engaging in illegal collusion. (Or correct me if I'm wrong--would that kind of collusion be illegal? I don't actually know, please inform)

I believe it is obvious that, in an effort to avoid the large wage increases of the 90's, closed-door agreements have been made to set wages, and not compete too hard against each other for talent. I know for a fact that several feature studios have made an unofficial agreement not to poach employees (something that would drive wages up). It stands to reason they have gone several steps further.

We've seen a number of new studios open up. Laika just announced an ambitious slate of projects. WALL-E is looking to be Pixar's biggest openning ever. By all accounts, this should be a renassaince for feature animators. But pay-wise, it isn't. The union survey backs this up as well.

I get absolutely glowing performance reviews. They tell me I'm among the upper echelon in my department. But here I am stuck at union minimum, and if I try to get any kind of meaningful increase beyond a measly 3% "merit" increase, they essentially laugh in my face. They wouldn't do this if they felt there were viable external competitive pressures that forced them to respond financially.

Thoughts?

Anonymous said...

The animation studios aren't shy about admitting the fact that they share wage information with each other. They openly admit that they tell each other exactly what everybody they employ is making. It's in their own interests to keep salaries down, so even though they may hate each other, they engage in collusion to create a ceiling for our wages.

I can't find any evidence that this is an illegal practice, but to me, it's definitely unethical.

Anonymous said...

Ouch !

Is this in addition to the arm twisting to get leads and supervisors to work "on call" with no over-time ?

Is this an across-the-board belt-tightening measure for everyone , management included , or just the artists ?

(Duh ... what am I saying ?! What a dumb question. Of course it's just the artists. "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss").

CG Guy said it well:

"Multiple studios are having blockbuster successes, from Pixar to Blue Sky to Dreamworks. The successes are far more widespread than either the first golden age of the 30's, or the second in the 90's. In both those cases, success was limited to only one studio.

With the huge successes we've seen from multiple competing studios, WHY AREN'T WAGES GOING UP???"


Oh well, look on the bright side: maybe if you make your quota again this week they'll send around a cute lil' PA with cookies or ice cream bars. That makes it all better , right ?

Anonymous said...

Don't you know how much it costs to fertilize a vineyard these days? Ungrateful whelps! Smithers, fetch my bullwhip!

Robiscus said...

I hope Steve doesn't get touchy wth me about this, but I think it is the unions duty to work towards raising the industry minimums if indeed studios are freely sharing information and working together to keep them low.

The studios would be in direct violation of anti trust laws for stifling competition when they share such information with each other, BUT because it is a union work force that they employ, they are allowed to.

the case of "Reed v. Advocate Health Care" may be applicable.
http://tinyurl.com/64wmp3

...but I'm not a lawyer or an expert on labor, so what do i know....

Steve Hulett said...

With the huge successes we've seen from multiple competing studios, WHY AREN'T WAGES GOING UP???

Look to our old friend, supply and demand. A decade ago, studios were scrambling to find qualified c.g. employees.

I was told by a Disney exec during the production of Dinosaur that it took the studio 1 1/2 years to find people with the experience the production wanted.

The talent pool is a LOT bigger now. And when you have lots more people chasing relatively fewer jobs, wages decline.

Why does Will Smith get a huge salary for agreeing to be in your movie? Because if you want Will Smith, really want him, there's only one.

Steve Hulett said...

I think it is the unions duty to work towards raising the industry minimums if indeed studios are freely sharing information and working together to keep them low.

Me, too.

Send me your e-mail address, and when we go into our next contract negotiations, I'll contact you so you can be on the committee and help us get them.

I'm not kidding or being sarcastic.

cg guy said...

Whelp, sucks for me then, I guess.

Anonymous said...

CG guy said...
This is what I don't understand. We are living at a time of virtually unprecedented success in feature animation. Multiple studios are having blockbuster successes, from Pixar to Blue Sky to Dreamworks.

yes. but the topic is about Disney who have had a string of lackluster films since Stitch showed up and made money. Im sure there are a lot people, Pixar leadership included, that are desperately trying to make the Disney animation division profitable again.

Jeff Massie said...

From Steve's OP above:

"Know the phone number and address of the California Labor Commissioner."

State of California, Dept. of Industrial Relations

Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE)

320 W. Fourth Street, Suite 450
Los Angeles, CA 90013
(213) 620-6330
Info recording: (213) 576-6227

6150 Van Nuys Blvd., Room 206
Van Nuys, CA 91401
(818) 901-5315
Info recording: (818) 908-4556

Here's the statewide list of DLSE offices

Here's the complaint form for:

* unpaid wages
* late wages
* unpaid overtime

This form is good whether you're working at a Guild or non-Guild shop, and whether you're on staff or an at-home freelancer. If you're working for a Guild shop, contact the Guild office before filing this form.

cg guy said...

quote: Im sure there are a lot people, Pixar leadership included, that are desperately trying to make the Disney animation division profitable again.

I don't doubt that, and if that's all it is, then fair enough. My question is whether it seems that there is an industry-wide effort to hold down wages, spanning all the major feature animation studios.

From various accounts, even at Pixar, their incredible successes have not translated into particularly high wages. Apparently, if you were there early, you did great from stock options. If not, well, they often don't seem to do much better than the equivalent of about union minimum, sometimes not even that.

I dunno, maybe I'm just complaining too much. It's not as though union minimum isn't enough to live on. But it does seem odd that we're not undergoing a third golden age, given the megasuccesses of Blue Sky, Dreamworks, Pixar, et al. Free market economics would suggest that demand (rival studios, new startups) would be exceeding supply (animators), looking to get in on the action. No?

Anonymous said...

when it comes to the trenches, pixar has not been known for its big salaries. people work there because they either want to get it on their resume and move on or truly want to be spending their hard working time on a project they can believe in regardless if they cant buy a house in the area. both of these can allow Pixar a good position when it comes to dictating their rates.

Anonymous said...

"It's not as though union minimum isn't enough to live on."

Up north in Pixarville it isn't. It's a good thing John loves Japanese animation so much because it won't be long before his employees are living like Japanese animators and having extremely long commutes to work

Anonymous said...

When I worked at Disney we were told that our wages were higher than at Pixar. Disney is now trying to bring down the wages to "Pixar level" instead of bring UP the Pixar workers to Disney's level.
I have also heard that the next film Disney does, there going to a 50 standard hour week instead of a 40 hour week.....and several people over there think there wages will not go up with that. They will still get paid there 40 hour week on a 50 hour week......

Anonymous said...

Isn't that Pixar way of working great!!

Anonymous said...

its hard to argue with success.

Anonymous said...

Check this out, the three major animated films of the year so far, in descending order of production costs:

Wall-e: 180 million
http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=wall-e.htm

Kung-Fu Panda: 130 million
http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=kungfupanda.htm

Horton Hears a Who: 85 million
http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=hortonhearsawho.htm

Granted, the offices in white plains arent as expensive to maintain as, say, Pixar's compound or Dreamworks oasis, but I'm pretty sure the lower salaries at blue sky comes into play.

(FYI, based on the most recent surveys, the cost of living in white plains NY is actualyl higer than Alameda county, CA. No joke)

Anonymous said...

I suspect that salaries at DW are much better than at Pixar so where'd all the money go?

So if you can't argue about success then why doesn't that ever trickle down to the employees - or is working on art enough for them (and why isn't enough for John?)

Chris Battle said...

"I have also heard that the next film Disney does, there going to a 50 standard hour week instead of a 40 hour week... They will still get paid there 40 hour week on a 50 hour week"

Ha! That's the old Klasky-Csupo pay rate style :D

Anonymous said...

I'm sure Pixar executive management is glad the studio is up in the bay area and not in L.A.

Anonymous said...

have also heard that the next film Disney does, there going to a 50 standard hour week instead of a 40 hour week.....and several people over there think there wages will not go up with that. They will still get paid there 40 hour week on a 50 hour week......

That would put Disney below union minimum. It can't happen, unless it is a negotiated rollback with the union. Which would really suck. Don't let it happen, Steve!

Anonymous said...

What's Steve gonna do? Read the 'leverage' post.

Justin said...

With all of the overtime that Disney is paying for Bolt I'm willing to bet the cost for Bolt is going to be over $200 million. Do you think Bolt is going to pull in the same kind of money that Wall-E is going to?

I think not.

Anonymous said...

You kidding? Yes it will. Dont under-estimate the effect talking furry animals, and characters voiced by Miley Cyrus has on the American public

Anonymous said...

Just saw the Bolt trailer...suckiest trailer ever!

Not an ounce of interest in seing the movie!

R.

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