Thursday, January 31, 2008

Pixar and Brad Bird Robbed?

Here we go:

[Ratatouille's] five nominations rank as the most ever for a computer animated film and rate second among all animated films, only surpassed by the six received by Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." That picture, done in the traditional Disney style in 1991, stands as the only animated film to ever be nominated for best picture.

If not for the best animated feature category, it's safe to say "Ratatouille" would have been strongly considered for best picture ....

So the press speculation begins: Was Ratatouille denied its just rewards?

I'm one who thinks that Beauty and the Beast was the best of '91, but I was also realistic. I thought then and I think now that there was no way an organization composed largely of live-action workers was going to reward a feature from one of the more disdained corners of show biz with a "best picture" statuette. You'll see the head of the Motion Picture Association of America become President of the Industrial Workers of the World first.*

So Ratatouille will have to settle for its "best Animated" award and be content with that. Because there's one thing I'll stake my next Thanksgiving turkey on: the big R won't be taking home the "best screenplay" Oscar. Brad wrote an animated screenplay, you see. And a non-WGA screenplay at that.

* This is an obscure capitalist/socialist reference, if you're wondering.

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Where Did You Go, Filmation Library?

In early 1989, I was hard at work at Filmation, turning out scripts for a series called Bugzburg, also doing development work. Then, abruptly, Filmation was shut down. And 150 people got to box up their their personal belongings, carry them out to out to their cars, and drive home.

A long time later, a former Filmation executive told me that crates filled with Bugzburg art, boards, and scripts were gathering dust in a San Fernando Valley warehouse, forgotten, unloved and unproduced. "What happened to all the other shows they made?" I asked. He confessed he didn't know.

As of today, I know:

In March of 2004, the Filmation library of programming was purchased by London's Entertainment Rights PLC, and by January 2005 a deal was struck between ER and BCI Eclipse for the first rights to a show in the library, He-Man ...[C]ertain titles -- where the rights were co-owned by another entity -- did not get attached to that deal ...

Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids was a Filmation project that originally went elsewhere ... We have learned from reliable sources that [Entertainment Rights, PLC] has regained control of the property, and will begin producing DVDs themselves later in 2008 ...

Few remember that Filmation was -- in 1985 -- the largest animation studio in Los Angeles. Fewer still remember that Filmation prospered, for years and years, as CBS's major supplier of animated product. From its small beginnings in 1962, it became a powerhouse in teevee animation, pioneering the business model of product tie-ins and syndicated animated series that was subsequently raised to a high art by Disney Television Animation.

Filmation closed its doors almost exactly 18 years ago. Though the studio is long gone, the shows it turned out over twenty-six years continue to be sold and re-sold, making new distributors new batches of money, and proving the industry adage:

"Live action comes and goes, but animation marches on forever."

You don't believe it, just go to a discount toy mart and look at the bins of DVDs featuring public-domain Fleischer cartoons. Popeye is ever-green ... and ever-lucrative.

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One Million

A ho-hum milestone but we'll mention it anyway. TAGblog passed the 1,000,000 mark in page views a short while ago.

We click along at around 25-30,000 visits per month. Not earth-shattering. And the million views took 23 months.

To fill you in, Kevin and I started the blog to communicate with members better. Did it on a whim, after we held a panel on "Blogging Animation Artists" at a union meeting. A group of animation artists from Disney, DreamWorks and other places recounted their adventures in blogging.

Afterwards, I said to Kevin: "Hey, why don't we do this?" And Kevin said: "Yes! Great idea!"

It's been fun. It's been educational. Also time consuming.

And political blogger Duncan Black is right. Blogging is easy. But blogging for a long time?

Less easy.

So thanks for the page views (also visits). We appreciate it.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Sleeping Beauty Deux

The question down below:

I read that it was one of the most watched film of that year, isn't it?

It grossed $5.3 million in its initial run. Good, but hardly great. (Spartacus, a year later, made close to $20 million.) ...

What did the critics say?

The critics, by and large, weren't bowled over. (There are mixed reations, even today.) Certainly there were plenty of positive reviews, but there wasn't a consensus that SB was some kind of Great Leap Forward that reinvented the genre.

And I read also that Disney overlooked the project because he was busy with his next project, Disneyland.

The gripe I heard from old-timers in the seventies was that Disney wasn't around a lot when the film was being made. He was spending a lot of time in Anaheim, on live action, and his availability was limited.

The production had a number of hiccups. Eric Larsen, a veteran animator promoted to SB director, was demoted before the feature was completed. Reitherman, until then a directing animator and director on television projects (he had his own unit), was brought in to rework and punch up the climax. Why? He was considered an "action specialist." Based on the results in the film, he fulfilled that role in spades.

When I sat with Woolie in sweatboxes way later (the '70s and '80s), it was obvious he had a keen editorial eye. He knew how to pace, how to cut action. I think his work on Beauty catapulted him to the forefront of studio feature directors. By the time of Sword in the Stone, he was flying solo.

The picture was expensive because it was way complicated and difficult to do. Lots of large field, detailed backgrounds. And the characters were complex, stylized, hard to clean up and keep on model. Bernie Mattinson told me that crewmemebers were doing 1-2 drawings per day. Joe Hale recounted a funny story of a breakdown artist going to a lead for help with drawing, the supervisor laying down a new piece of pegged paper and going over the lines, then crumpling up sheet after sheet and throwing each on the floor as he struggled to get the character right.

Me, I'm blown away by Sleeping Beauty's craft and artistry, but I find the story slow-going in stretches, and the characters somewhat distanced and cold. But it's always a pleasure to look at.

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401(k) Freak Outs

The L.A. Times highlights a problem that 401(k) Administrators (including us) see all across the fruited plain: The stock-market has gotten real roller-coastery of late, and participants are understandably nervous ...

As Americans increasingly link their well-being to financial markets, the possibility of recession and a slump on Wall Street has taken on new meaning for the middle class, including baby boomers who are approaching retirement age.

Some 50 million workers now participate in 401(k)-type savings plans, a number that has shot up since 2000 as employers increasingly stop offering traditional pensions.

Similarly, 46 million households hold a stake in the tax-advantaged savings plans known as individual retirement accounts, according to the Investment Company Institute.

The result is a historic linkage between the fortunes of the public and Wall Street, just as older baby boomers -- now past 60 -- focus more seriously on the living standards that await in their post-work years.

We've gotten calls here at the office from a few TAG 401(k) participants who are angry they can't pull their money out of 401(k) accounts because they're still working (Reality: most 401(k) Plans don't allow participants to remove account funds while they remain employed.)

But this shouldn't be a problem if the goal is to preserve capital. All that needs to be done is shift the bulk of invested money into bond and stable-interest accounts. You won't lose any big bucks. (You also won't make big gains, but that's another story.)

The Times points out another reality that smacks an increasing number of Americans in the face:

... for millions of workers in medium and large companies, the reality is that retirement benefits increasingly are skewed toward personal investments. That shift puts added pressure on individuals to try to take care of themselves, rather than rely on a traditional pension, and it raises the stakes of wrong decisions.

What I tell people over and over is, diversify. You need to have domestic stocks, foreign stocks, and bonds in your investment mix. You have to resist the urge to load up on stocks in the "hot" corner of the market, because by the time you've caught on that it's going like gangbusters, it's most likely slowing down already. The diversification thing -- sometimes known as finding the "efficient frontier" (most gain for the least risk) boils down to knowing investment returns over time:

100% Bonds

Historic Risk/Return (1926-2006) Average Return: 5.5%

Best Year: 32.6% (1982)

Worst Year -8.1% (1969)

Years with losses: 13 of 81 (16%)

50%/50% Stocks and Bonds

Average Return: 8.5%

Best Year: 32.3% (1933)

Worst Year: -22.5% (1931)

Years with loss: 16 of 81 (19.8%)

100% Stocks

Average Return: 10.5%

Best Year: 54.2% (1933)

Worst Year: 43.1% (1931)

Years with a loss: 24 of 81 (29.6%)

Happily, for most longer-term unionized entertainment workers -- and I'm here referring to people laboring under IA, WGA, SAG, or DGA contracts -- they end up getting the best of multiple worlds. They'll collect monthly pension checks, they'll collect Social Security, and they'll have IRAs, Roth IRAS, and whatever 401(k) Plans they've participated in over the years.

As more than one financial advisor has told me: You have annuities working for you on top of personal savings accounts, you've got it licked ..."

Addendum: TAG's end-of-month 401(k) enrollment deadline looms up. You miss it, you'll have to wait until March 1st to hop aboard. (And sure, the way the market is bouncing around, you might be saying: "Who the hell wants to do this?!" But if you've got a long time horizon -- twenty-five or thirty-five years -- volatility works in your favor. You're buying low ... buying lower ... buying higher.)

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Look For Shrek ...

...on large numbers of Blu-ray disks quite soon:

One week after Warner Brothers Entertainment announced that it was abandoning its support for the next-generation HD DVD format in favor of the Blu-ray high-definition format, consumers abandoned HD DVD.

What was a 50-50 market split in 2007 for the high-definition players shifted sharply in Blu-ray’s favor in the new year. For the week that ended Jan. 12, Blu-ray hardware captured 90 percent of the market, according to data collected by the NPD Group, a market analysis firm ...

Oops. DreamWorks Animation and Paramount, six months ago, backed the wrong horse:

Paramount Home Entertainment said today that it will exclusively support HD DVD beginning with Aug. 28 release Blades of Glory.

Paramount said that all movies from Paramount Pictures, DreamWorks Pictures, Paramount Vantage, Nickelodeon Movies, MTV Films will be released in high-definition on HD DVD only worldwide. Films from DreamWorks Animation, which hasn’t yet released any films on high-def, also will debut on HD DVD only ...

“We decided to release Shrek the Third and other DreamWorks Animation titles exclusively on HD DVD because we believe it is the best format to bring high quality home entertainment to a key segment of our audience—families,” [Jeffrey] Katzenberg said ...

Ah well. Everybody places bad bets from time to time. And it's simple enough to switch steeds, of course. You just start releasing your stuff on the format that wins.

My condolences to any tech-heads out there who ran out and bought the HD-DVD format. Hope the player wasn't too pricey. As time goes by, it's going to get harder and harder to find any movies to play on it.

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The More Things Change ...

Not.

The morning mail brings an old union newsletter into our hands. Long-time member Annie Guenther sends along an April, 1972 Pegboard which has the following snippet from Variety:

Writers Guild of America, West, seeking jurisdiction of scripters in the animation field, has withdrawn petition for jurisdiction of scripters at Filmation and Hanna-Barbera Productions. However, guild has filed a new petition with National Labor Relations Board in which it seeks jurisdiction of scripters working for all member companies of Animated Film Producers Assn.

New petition embraces not just H-B and Filmation, but also DePatie-Freleng, Walt Disney Productions, Walter Lantz, MGM and Warners.

Jurisdiction is currently held by International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes, Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists, Local 839 ...

Cartoonists Local, in turn, is contesting action by Writers Guild, claiming animation writers should be under its jurisdiction ...

And so on and so forth.

Not one hell of a lot has changed in thirty-six years. We'll see where things stand in 2044.

And while we're on the subject of dates and the general passage of time, let's salute the 49th anniversary of Sleeping Beauty, released on this date in 1959. The opus cost six million bucks and was one of the reasons Disney cut loose 80% of its animation staff when production was over.

Dave Michener recounted to me how, as a young assistant, he saw Walt walking out of the studio theater after it was finished, shaking his head over the costs. The studio didn't make its expenses back during Beauty's initial run.

Regardless, the picture was festooned with firsts and lasts.

SB was the first feature that Woolie Reitherman directed. (He was one of three credited directors, if memory serves.)

It was the first animated feature to be filmed in 70mm.

It was the last Disney feature to be inked.

No wonder the flick cost $6,000,000. Until The Rescuers eighteen years later, it held the record for dollars spent on an animated feature.

The PB masthead up above is the handiwork of TAG Prez emeritus Tom Yakutis. And it's a masthead from the middle 1970s, not 1972.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

DreamWorks and Time Bandits

Spent a segment of my morning at DreamWorks Animation, where a number of animators are down to their last several weeks on Kung Fu Panda.

KFP was a topic of conversation down below, both pro and con. But I can tell you what the consensus of the crew that I've talked to is about the picture: they think it's tight, they think it's funny, they think the designs are good and it will do well at the box office.

Now, artists could be blowing smoke up my large intestine (it's been known to happen), and people working for a long time on a picture get so close to the project that they know individual trees well but can't tell you the true quality of the forest. Even so, I think it's interesting that everyone over there seems to be positive about Panda. (We'll know how accurate they are in June.)

One other point. There are times when I've walked through studios and gotten blank looks and strained greetings (it happened most memorably at a studio years ago when everyone was about to get laid off. I walked in and got large doses of stink eye. Moods were not ... ah ... sunny.) Happily, today at DWA many were in a buoyant, chatty mood. A couple of animators had a poster for Time Bandits pasted on their door and we fell into a conversation about the picture. It's one of their favorite.

I told them how, back in the early eighties, Walt Disney Productions had a large contingent of animation staff look at this indie film it was considering for acquisition. Apparently the flick had already been turned down by almost every major in town, and it had now made its way to the Mouse House.

Management wanted our opinion about whether they should make a deal to distribute it or not.

So a bunch of us traipsed into the studio theater one afternoon and watched this quirky, amazing comedy about a British kid traveling through time with an outlaw band of dwarfs. We all thought the flick was original, entertaining, in places downright hysterical, and we voted for the studio to acquire it.

Naturally, Disney passed. Avco Embassy ultimately picked it up, and made a nice piece of change putting it in theaters.

A quarter century later, I don't know how many people even recall Time Bandits. (Probably more than I think.)

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A special invitation from the Geena Davis Institute

Calling all story artists, writers, directors, and anyone else interested in a dialog on new research on gender and children's entertainment. On Thursday, January 31, from 9:30 AM to 4:30 PM, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is sponsoring a day of panels and discussion between the academic and entertainment communities. TAG members are especially invited, and the Geena Davis Institute has set aside 25 tickets for interested animation pros. These tickets include all the panels as well as a VIP breakfast, lunch, and the exclusive closing reception. To RSVP, go to the end of this post.

Many of you came to the See Jane panel we sponsored in Oct. 2006 with Geena Davis, or you might have attended See Jane discussions at some of the studios, so you'll be familiar with the efforts of the Geena Davis Institute. They would love to have further participation from animation's creative community. Here are the details (scroll down to the Thursday portion of the event).

Note that there's no obligation to be there all day. If your schedule only allows you to come for only part of the time, you're still welcome. I'm not sure if anything like this has been done before, an event that brings together people from the academic and the creative/entertainment communities, to share information and to dialog. I think it's a great idea, and I wish my schedule allowed me to go. I encourage any of you with an interest to attend.

Note that there is also a panel discussion Tuesday evening from 7:00 to 9:30 PM that is free and open to the public (unfortunately for me, this is during our General Membership meeting, but then most of you aren't committed to that). I don't believe that part of the event requires any RSVP. Check out the above link for details.


FOUNDER GEENA DAVIS and other special guests extend a personal invitation to you for a day of panels and discussion about gender and children's entertainment.

TOPICS INCLUDE:

  • New research on gender & children's entertainment
  • Entertainment industry perspectives
  • International perspectives on gender in kids' TV
  • The toy-product-media-marketing connection
  • And special feature speakers from the entertainment and academic communities

THE GEENA DAVIS INSTITUTE ON GENDER IN MEDIA OPEN FORUM
8:45 AM - 4:30 PM
Thursday, January 31, 2008
Town & Gown Ballroom
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA 90089

REGISTRATION BEGINS AT 8:00 AM
Space is limited.
Please confirm your seat today.


The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media Conference 2008: Children and Gender in Film and Television has been made possible by a generous grant from the Annenberg Foundation.

RSVP

THE GEENA DAVIS INSTITUTE ON GENDER IN MEDIA OPEN FORUM

8:45 AM - 4:30 PM
January 31, 2008
Town & Gown Ballroom
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA 90089

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Last Act For WGA Strike?

The trades and omnipresent Nikki Finke seem to imply that it is:

... With no advance fanfare, CBS Corp. supremo Leslie Moonves broke bread with WGA leaders Patrick Verrone and David Young on Friday. The trio, along with CBS labor relations chief Harry Isaacs, had dinner at a private dining room inside the Four Seasons Hotel.

Both the Moonves dinner and the off-the-record chats are being interpreted as hopeful signs that the two parties will restart formal talks soon ...

... the informal writer-mogul meetings are going "in a positive direction" enough so that it's beginning to look possible for the Academy Awards to proceed normally. Friday's was an especially productive session, I've learned. "I feel optimistic. In my opinion, today was productive and collaborative and respectful. I thought it was a very good day," an insider told me ...

Me, I think there's a 65-70% chance that the WGA reaches an agreement in the next few weeks. The studios/AMPTP will give the scribes a slightly different deal than the DGA, but the overall bucket of money will be pretty much the same. (The way it mostly works is, AMPTP says: "Here's the amount of cash we have to work with, how do you want it divvied up?" Then the parties go into side bar and commence divvying.)

Assuming current talks don't blow up, the WGAw/e reaches its deal by February or early March. Then the tub-thumping to sell it will start, one faction grousing about "cave-in" and "selling out", another group saying "Let's ratify this pup and go back to work." And the Screen Actors Guild will have minimal leverage for any job action it might be contemplating.

Even now the Directors Guild is trumpeting its own sweet deal:

"This has been a great achievement for the DGA," said DGA president Michael Apted. "Ten days ago we reached a tentative agreement with the studios and today the Board approved it unanimously. We achieved our three primary goals: jurisdiction in new media, which was absolutely essential; compensation for the use and reuse of our work in new media; and significant gains on issues of real importance for our work in traditional media."

I'll be ecstatic when the town is fully back at work, a sentiment no doubt shared by a lot of unemployed film workers.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Negativity

The New York Times cites analysts who think DreamWorks Animation will be encountering a bump in the road:

In forecasting a negative surprise for DreamWorks, StarMine heavily weighted the views of Drew E. Crum, a Stifel Nicolaus analyst who recently lowered his quarterly estimate of DreamWorks’ earnings to 66 cents a share, versus a consensus of 86 cents a share. Reached by telephone, Mr. Crum said the studio’s “Bee Movie” has had “disappointing” domestic box-office figures, estimating revenue of $127 million versus his earlier expectation of $155 million. And DVD sales of “Shrek the Third” will also disappoint, he said. He expects that shipments of the DVD in its first four weeks of availability will be just half the number for its predecessor, “Shrek 2,” in the comparable initial period in 2004.

Despite lowering his forecast, he kept a buy recommendation on the stock, citing what he called reasonable valuation.

My thinking has always been that a company -- any company -- constructs itself a challenging business model when the basic math requires that the co. hit a home run ... or at least a triple ... everytime it steps up to home plate.

The fact that Bee Movie is "disappointing" after taking a domestic gross of $127 million is a reality to ponder. Few films make it to $100 million. (And yeah, I know that the break-even is high because the budgets of DreamWorks' cg films are high.)

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All Hail Alvin!

A lacklustre Friday in terms of box office, but there was one signature event ...

The wondrous Alvin and the Chipmunks -- at #13 -- hit the $200 million domestic box office mark. They're doing high-fives down on Pico, as the old franchise burns up the turnstiles.

Update: Comedic young muscle heads and super-annuated serious muscle heads take the top slots as Meet the Spartans and Rambo finish 1-2.

Elsewhere on Your Hit Parade, Alvin and the Chipmunks falls out of the top ten with a total of $204.1 million to date. Pirates Who Are Lazy have now collected $10.3 million after three weeks, and Enchanted has now made $125 million ...

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Friday, January 25, 2008

The Starz Media Experience

Mr. Kirkland.

An afternoon at Starz Media showed me that the WGA strike continues to take its toll of artists. About half the staff has now been laid off from The Simpsons, and a higher percentage than that from King of the Hill.

Staff reductions going on at Starz and Fox Animation (Family Guy, American Dad) are roughly the same. By March, most everybody will be on hiatus (a kinder word-substitute for "layoff.")

How long the hiatus will last is, or course, the $20,000 question ...

I was told Simpsons episode #21 is just now going into production. It's the last one to be put into work, since episode #22 -- pre strike, the last half-hour of the season -- was only partially scripted and so won't go any further than the (half) written page.

One last point: Episode twenty-one is director Mark Kirkland's sixtieth episode. An amazing record by any standard.

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The Weekly Linkage

The Rolling Stones soon to do for animation what Stokowski did for Fantasia?

[Screen writers Dick Clements and Ian La Frenais] have a planned animated feature that will incorporate The Stones' music much the same way Across the Universe did with the Beatles music. It's entitled Ruby Tuesday...

"We wrote an animated film before the strike that features the music of The Rolling Stones ... The film was supposed to start next month. ... It is going to be CGI. It will be interesting. The animation is actually going to be done in Paris. It will be some pretty hip animation ...

Toy Story will be getting the 3-D treatment in the next couple of years. (Nobody can ignore those big grosses that stereo viewing pulls down...)

[Dick ] Cook, [ chairman of the Walt Disney Studios], said, "We are committed to bringing moviegoers the best and most exciting 3-D movie experience ...

And equally committed to seeing the big box office grosses roll in.

And then of course, there's this year's Oscar nominations (and hopefully the ceremony will be held):

Penguins that surf, a rat that cooks and an Iranian girl growing up in the midst of a revolution will compete for the Academy Award for best animated feature film of 2007.

Nominations for 25 awards, also called Oscars, were announced yesterday. PG-rated "Surf's Up," G-rated "Ratatouille" and PG-13-rated "Persepolis" were nominated for best animated feature.

"Ratatouille" ... compared well with the live-action best film nominees. Only four other films this year had more nominations. "I'm just thrilled," Bird said. "It's particularly gratifying to get five. That was really wonderful. We felt we had a pretty good chance of a nomination in the feature animation category, but to get nominated for screenplay and sound and score, I was thrilled about that ..."

DreamWorks Animation rolls out details regarding its Bee Movie video release (I'm ... ah ... guessing it won't be in the non-Blu-Ray high def format for very long, now that Sony's system has pounded its rival into the ground):

Exclusive to the HD DVD will be several additional features, including "The Animators' Corner" a picture-in-picture storyboard reel that runs the length of the film, "Barry's Trivia Track" pop-up fun facts and "My Menus" which allow users to customize the disc's navigation based on their favorite character.

I'm still sniffing Blu-ray in Bee's not-distant future.

I thought about giving this its own post, but since others have noted the death of animation vet Brice Mack, I put it up here. There are fewer and fewer artists still around who remember what it was like to work on Snow White, Pinocchio and other early features. Now Mr. Mack has departed and reduced that small population even further:

Brice Mack, who painted animation backgrounds for Walt Disney and later produced and directed commercials and films, died Jan. 2 in Hollywood. He was 90.

Mack painted backgrounds for "Fantasia," "Pinocchio" and other Disney films including "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Cinderella," "Alice in Wonderland," "Peter Pan," "Song of the South" and "Lady and the Tramp."

He also painted backgrounds for short subjects including the 1942 Academy Award winning "Lend a Paw." ...

Lastly. As newspapers get strangled by the internet, Newsday (in New York) has battled back by increasing its online presence, doing this with animation. (Crude animation, but hey. The content is pretty funny.)

The huge jump [on Newsday's site] was in large part attributed to the popularity of an animated cartoon by Walt Handelsman, an editorial cartoonist at Newsday who has won the Pulitzer Prize twice.

One cartoon that recently attracted viewers featured a baby boomer couple coping with aging problems like knee replacements, using the song lyrics “Bored, tubby and mild” sung to the tune of “Born to Be Wild.”

Have a non-soggy weekend.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Animation on Paper?

Animation desks. Pegboards. Hole-punched paper.

I saw all those things with my very own eyes inside the Disney hat building. Also actual animators, holding pencils and flipping paper. There's a bunch of test animation getting done on Princess and the Frog, and it was a rush to see pencil drawings moving, as if by magic.

The character designs are appealing but still evolving. One animator said: "Nothing is locked down, we're still tweaking characters. And nothing gets locked until John Lasseter signs off on final designs."

But it's sweet seeing the old disciplines back in action.

Up on the third floor, I fell into conversation with one of the board artists who groused about being categorized a storyboard person when he's a writer too. "The script writers get called writers, the rest of us get labeled something else, even through we write dialogue and draw action ..."

The long-simmering rivalry between feature animation script writers and board artists once more bubbles up. A tale as old as ... April, 1985.

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The Chops of Seasoned Citizens

Mr. Jones.

Will Finn has a nice think-piece on the long-term skills of animation veteran Chuck Jones: Did he hang onto his creative edge into old age? Or did he lose it?

Will has gotten lots of traffic and comments with the piece, and I don't have much to add about Charles M. Jones's pluses and minuses. But the post got me thinking about what I've seen and experienced with long-timers over the past thirty-plus years.

Good animation artists who last are like cagey big-league ball-players. The best ones cherish and nurture their skills, and keep learning curves on upward trajectories. When they find a stimulating creative strategy or approach, they pull it into their repertoire and make it their own ...

Years back, I knew an artist at Disney who briefly worked with Ken Anderson and adapted his storyboard style. (You're going to steal, steal from the best). At the Mouse House today, story artists have Bill Peet story panels pinned to their walls.

Emulating the masters never goes out of style. And it's a fine starting point when you're developing your own style.

But like professional athletes, most of us lose speed and agility as we age. Joe Grant might draw elegantly at 95, everyone else is pretty much dead. And even for those still breathing and willing to work, the eysight fades, the hand shakes, and the ability to concentrate for long periods of time recdes out of reach.

I first experienced this when a 75-year-old animator called me up in the early nineties furious that some "snot-nosed kid" had rejected him for a job at one of the studios that was then doubling its staff. As a courtesy, I went to the studio and tried to track down what the problem was. One of the recruiters finally leveled with me:

"Bill has a hell of a resume, but the test he did wasn't pretty. His line quality isn't there. He did great work for Joe Barbera at MGM, but forty years later he's lost it ..."

There's no rejoinder you can make to that.

The maddening part is, some artists do crackerjack work well into their eighties, but others don't. The ones who draw every day, who keep their eye-hand coordination sharp (and are blessed with excellent genes) will often be picking up work at eighty-four and turning down jobs.

The artists who stop? Put it this way. You stop throwing your hard slider, you probably aren't going to get it back when you pull on the uniform for the old-timers' game.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Over At Imagi

Once-Upon-A-Time Warner Bros. Animation, now the home of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. The AMPTP moved into its new digs on Tuesday.

Spent part of the morning at the new-and-improved Sherman Oaks Galleria, where Imagi is forging ahead on Astro Boy and doing more work on Gatchaman ...

Astro boy, I'm told, has been moved up on the production slate (possibly for a 2009 release). In the meanwhile, the studio has added square footage and staff on the c.g.i. side, reduced staff (temporarily) on the story side.

A couple of hundred feet down the gallery, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers have now moved into the department-store space formerly occupied by Warner Bros. Animation. I ran into Nick Counter as I walked to my car. He let me know that the Writers Guild had taken its animation jurisdiction proposal off the table.

I replied that it seemed like an inevitable move, if the writers expected to move negotiations forward. "Non-starters gotta go sometime."

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The First Toon Strike - Circa 1937

Seventy years ago, the first animation strike happened. It was in New York City, in 1937 and 1938, against kindly old Max Fleischer, the producer of Popeye, Betty Boop, and other animation icons. Does any of this language sound familiar?

Your employer -- who for 21 weeks has attempted unsuccessfully to discredit the Union and discourage the strikers; who boycotted the legal election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board -- has now displayed the most convincing evidence that he has not now and never acted in good faith, either in his representations to the Union, or to you who are not on strike.

After the Union had made very reasonable concessions and an agreement had been reached between Fleischer and Paramount on the one hand and the Union on the other, Fleischer has now repudiated that agreement in a last stand to break the strike ...

What resonates with me is how the underlying issues between companies and artist employees never change very much:

... we are forced to work at less than even a factory wage...

... Our employer ... fired 18 of us for joining a union ...

... we do not get sick leave ...

... our wages were cut more than half ...

You go back to Renaissance workshops, the same problems crop up. Technology changes. Fashions go in and out of style. But human aspirations for a better life, and other humans' desires for larger profits are always with us, century after century.

Thanks to President Emeritus Tom Sito for giving us a heads up about the document above ...

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Encouraging, Unsurprising

The last few days I've wondered when the WGA and AMPTP would get down to brass tacks. Now I know:

In order to make absolutely clear our commitment to bringing a speedy conclusion to negotiations, we have decided to withdraw our proposals on reality and animation. Our organizing efforts to achieve Guild representation in these genres for writers will continue. You will hear more about this in the next two weeks.

Every negotiator understands that there comes a moment when you have to take your non-starters off the table and begin the serious discussions that will end in a new contract agreement.

Maybe I'm overly starry-eyed, but it looks like that time has arrived. Good luck to the two Presidents of the WGA. And may there be a swift conclusion to their talks, for everyone's sake.

And Closer They Come ...

... so now we're to the "informal talks" stage:

Hollywood writers will meet with representatives from film and television studios to set ground rules for new talks to end the 11-week-old strike.

The groups announced plans for the discussions yesterday in e-mailed statements. The Writers Guild of America withdrew demands for jurisdiction over animation and reality television shows that had previously been rejected. Neither side said when the meetings will take place...

What we've got here, despite some posturing from SAG, is the "pattern bargaining minuet."

Think of it as a kind of beach volleyball: The WGA set things up for the DGA by pulling an earlier-than-expected strike. Then the Directors Guild leveraged the set up and got a better-than-average deal from the producers (who were anxious for an agreement).

So now the WGA gets its turn to spike the ball. And the AMPTP's game here is to give the writers a better deal than its last proposal of December 7 (the agreement with the Directors decrees it), but not sweeter than the "good and responsible" DGA's deal.

The question now is, does the Writers Guild make a deal and shut down SAG's leverage? Or does it roll the dice and wait for the actors to walk?

I'd put better odds on a deal, but it's a close thing.

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A Few Words About Salaries

Salaries in animation land.

What a lot of people don't realize is, historically they were never high. Take the 1930s, for example. Entry level positions at Disney started at $15 a week, pretty low even in the midst of a Depression.

Dave Michener, a Disney animator, story artist and director who started at the Mouse House in the mid-fifties, told me he had to keep his night job managing a gas station when he began work as a Disney in-betweener to make ends meet...

My father was once berated by a short-lived Disney employee: Why do you people stay here at such lousy salaries year in and year out?! I don't get it!".

The reason for many was "loyalty to Walt", also the country-club atmosphere of the studio. It certainly wasn't the gargantuan wages. Woolie Reitherman once allowed as how he'd gotten rich from Disney stock-options, not the company's weekly pay-check.

But with weekly pay-rates in mind, let's take a short trip back through animation wage minimums in TAG contracts through the years (and remember, most everybody's weekly salaries were pegged to these collective bargaining agreements, particularly before the go-go '90s):

WEEKLY SALARY - Animator - Background - Layout - Story

1976 -- $351.56

1980 -- $501.48

1985 -- $764.84

1988 -- $848.84

1994 -- $1,043.44

1996 -- $1,107.00

2003 -- $1,341.76

2008 -- $1,489.96

It's difficult to remember, but in 1976 $351.76 was more than enough to live on. Rents were a couple hundred bucks a month; houses could be bought for fifty or sixty grand. Seems like almost another universe.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Axium: the blowback begins

Today we got our first call from a member whose paycheck bounced because of the Axium bankruptcy.

That member is (relatively) lucky -- he works for a company that's directly signed to the TAG collective bargaining agreement, so that company is directly responsible for making good on his paycheck. If they don't, they're just as liable under the contract (not to mention state law) as if Axium hadn't been involved.

Assuming you deposited your check the day you got it, it would probably take you about this long to hear back from the bank with the bad news. If you do, contact us immediately, by e-mail or by calling (818) 766-7151.

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I think it's great when we can all agree on something

I don't think I've ever had that many comments on one of my posts. I will be very happy when Steve gets back ;)

Seriously, is this any better?

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Do animation execs make too much?

Interesting conversation over at Cartoon Brew ...

Bob Iger and Winnie-the-Pooh

... accompanied by the above portrait of Bob Iger and his agent, which was too funny not to appropriate.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

The new look

Steve has been after me for a while to change the look of the blog, and just before he left for Orlando he gave me my marching orders, design-wise. (So blame him ... ;P)

It's taken me a few days to figure out how to get the Read More links to work, and you should note that although they're functional, they now appear directly below the post title and not above the poster's name the way they used to ...

The list of previous posts is now hierarchical and integrated with the post archive, and it appears above the TAG member blogroll. (And by the way, don't forget to e-mail me if you're a TAG member with a blog or website you want on the roll.)

UPDATE (Monday morning): Fixed the Read More links positions. Just spoke to the Head Blogger by phone to tell him how everybody loves the new colors and design ;P He'll be back tomorrow, and there will be changes made ...

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"Don't tell anyone what we're paying you!"

Have you ever heard this from a supervisor or HR rep? Has an employer (union or non-union) ever made you sign a contract saying you agree not to reveal your salary, or made any comments related to keeping your salary a secret?

Last week we sent out our annual wage survey questionnaire, which went out to everyone listed as having worked under our jurisdiction in the last year. Every year, we hear from a few people who say they just can't fill it out because they agreed to keep their salaries secret.

Did you know that this is illegal?

Yes, the California Labor Code prohibits employers from:

  • requiring as a condition of employment that any employee refrain from disclosing the amount of their wages [Section 232(a)];
  • requiring an employee to sign a waiver of their right to disclose their wages [§232(b)]; or
  • discharging, formally disciplining, or otherwise discriminating against an employee who discloses the amount of their wages [§232(c)].

The language of the state code can be found here.

In short, the law is clear -- you have the right to disclose and discuss your wages with anybody, or to choose of your own free will not to disclose. And no, they're not allowed to "drop hints" or other subtle coercion. If you want to stand up for your right to share wage information with others, including the Guild or other employees, report any such threats to the Guild office at once.

Our annual wage survey questionnaire is anonymous and confidential, it should take you less than three minutes to fill out, and it even comes with a postage-paid return envelope. The information we get from it is critical, especially in these uncertain times, for everyone to know what the going rates are in the animation biz. (The 2007 wage survey is here, in PDF format. The 2008 survey will be posted here and on the TAG website in early March and will be published in the March Peg-Board.)

If you worked under our jurisdiction last year and you don't get a copy of the wage survey in the next few days, e-mail me or call me at (818) 766-7151 and I'll make sure you get one.

Addendum: Long ago, I tussled with ananimation studio over personal service contracts that it claimed were totally confidential. (This included the salaries listed therein.)

I kept pointing out to studio administration that this was in conflict with state labor law (shown above). They allowed as how maybe it was, but in their words: "As long as nobody takes us to court to litigate it, we're okay ..."

Eventually they took the confidentiality provision out, and life went on its serene way. But one thing I know is, studios never want wages revealed. It helps companies to keep the info under wraps, but less than nothing to assist employees.

So I'm asking you, when you get the wage survey, fill it out and send it back. We'll be putting the results up on line.

-- Steve Hulett

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

B.O. From Florida

Hand-held video cameras predominated at the box office as Cloverfield burned up the turnstiles with $16,750,000 on Friday. (And there is a CGI alien in there somewhere, so I'm told. Animated, too.)

The number two flick, 27 Dresses, doled out a generous helping of Katherine Heigl and collected $7,650,000.

Alvin and the Chipmunks remains in the Top Ten with $1.5 million and $191 million total

And Veggie Tales' Pirates AWho Don't Know Anything remains still-born with $5.4 million (at #16).

Update: Video cams and monsters from outer space rule! Cloverfield collects a small ransom to break a box office record:

Paramount's modestly budgeted and stealthily marketed monster film "Cloverfield" opened monstrously indeed, with an estimated $41 million over its first three days, blowing away the weekend record for the long Martin Luther King holiday frame.

Similarly cashing in on what's become a key winter boxoffice session for the industry, Fox's wedding-themed romantic comedy "27 Dresses" put $22.4 million into its gift purse, bowing in second place ...

The newbies placed one and two, but the hold-overs did pretty well.

The ever-amazing Alvin collects another $7 million and is now within spitting distance of $200 million.

The Pirates Who are Thinking About It (#13) now totals $7,700,000.

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DreamWorks' First Theme Park

DreamWorks is going to be building its first theme park ... in the Las Vegas of the Middle East, Dubai:

Dubai, UAE - 19 January, 2008: Tatweer, a member of Dubai Holding, today announced it has formed a strategic alliance with US-based DreamWorks Animation SKG, Inc. (NYSE: DWA) to develop a diverse portfolio of tourism and leisure projects in DubailandTM, the world’s most ambitious tourism, leisure and entertainment destination.

A highlight of the alliance will be the creation of the world’s first DreamWorks Animation branded theme park in Dubai. The outlay at the 5 million sq feet theme park project is a multi-billion AED investment.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation, said: “We are thrilled to bring the first DreamWorks Animation dedicated theme park to Dubai through our alliance with Tatweer for DubailandTM. This relationship will allow us to create an exciting destination where families and tourists will enjoy the unique opportunity to interact with DreamWorks branded content within DubailandTM.”

This is excellent news for Middle-eastern Shrek fans, wouldn't you say?

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Outsiders and insiders

Saturday's New York Times features a profile of Patric Verrone and David Young, the two "outsiders" who have led the Writers Guild of America, west in its current conflict.

It occurs to me that only in Hollywood could someone who began his career writing for Johnny Carson be labelled as an outsider.

As was noted in an earlier comment, Mark Evanier (who isn't an oustider either) has weighed in on the DGA deal.

BREAKING NEWS: The Los Angeles Times is quoting Verrone as saying that the WGA will be meeting on Monday, not with the AMPTP, but with News Corp. President Peter Chernin "and other studio chiefs".

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John Wells likes it

This morning I pored through articles in the Los Angeles Times, Hollywood Reporter and Variety, researching a comprehensive review of the details of the Directors Guild's deal with the AMPTP ...

... only to find this afternoon that John Wells had beaten me to the punch.

Depending on what circles you hang in, John Wells may be best known to you as the producer/head writer/"showrunner" of such TV series as ER, Third Watch, The West Wing, China Beach, and The Evidence. Or he may be better known as a past president emeritus of the Writers Guild of America west. In either capacity he is respected and listened to by a lot of important people on both sides of the labor-management wall.

John Wells has read the DGA agreement. And he likes it:

I think the DGA deal is good. Very good. For writers, for directors, for the future ...

While the DGA richly deserves our thanks and appreciation for negotiating a terrific deal that will serve as a template for all three creative Guilds, none of this would have been possible without the blood, sweat and sacrifice of WGA members during this very effective strike. The Companies made a deal they didn’t want to make because of our resolve. They clearly understood how important these issues were for our members and stepped up to resolve them.

Our Negotiating Committee has numerous issues that are specific to writers that must still be resolved with the AMPTP: the term of our next contract, pension and health issues, separated rights on new media, and jurisdiction for material written for derivatives that will not be filmed (show blogs, web-only stories, etc). But this is a historic deal. We’ve won. The strike was necessary to win it and I can only assume our Negotiating Committee will be sitting down with the AMPTP by early next week to resolve these last, final issues.

It’s a very good day for all of us.

Craig Mazin has promised his own analysis of the DGA deal by the end of today. If you haven't already done so, bookmark the Artful Writer and check out what he has to say when he puts it up.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

DGA and AMPTP Got Contract

It took them six days to lock down a contract, but the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers and the Directors Guild of America now have an agreement:

The Directors Guild of America said in a statement that its negotiators had reached preliminary agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers on a new three-year contract, to take effect when the directors’ existing deal expires on June 30 ...

The agreement achieves a breakthrough for union members in several digital areas. It roughly doubles the residuals rate that was paid for decades when films and television programs were resold on cassettes or DVDs. And it requires Hollywood studios and production companies — for the first time — to pay a residual when advertising-supported programs are streamed for free over the Internet,

So now it's up to the WGA to determine if it's willing to shape its own deal to the contours of the DGA's agreement, but I'll make book that the AMPTP isn't going to give them more than the directors.

The $64 question: Will the percentages and terms the Directors Guild achieved be good enough for the scribes? I honestly have no idea, but I'm guessing that various writers will be giving their input to Patric Verrone and David Young.

And I'll go out on a limb here. Based on what I've seen and heard this past week in Orlando, the IATSE will be doing its next contract on the DGA's template.

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Eye Opening Uni Conference in Madrid

Today's morning session of the IA Executive board had a fascinating report from a delegation of IA labor reps who journeyed to the Uni conference in Madrid Spain and gathered with world film makers and labor organizations. They reported that they had their eyes opened to various global realities ...

Although global film piracy is a big deal for American film companies and entertainment unions, for movie producers elsewhere ... not so much.

* Lots of foreign film directors and producers think it's okay that piracy goes on, striking a blow against the cultural and economic "imperialism" of large American conglomerates. Said one foreign film producer: "Piracy is the only way poor people have to access filmed entertainment."

* The U.S. has, by far, the largest amount of film production in terms of money spent. Average American film budget -- $30 million. India, with 1000 film produced each year, has average film budgets that total $100,000.

* One Japanese director confided that he was disappointed his film wasn't pirated, because it meant that fewer people worldwide saw it.

* Eastern European movie makers hate labor unions because of their longtime experience with unions under Communist governments. Labor as a ways to go to changer their points of view.

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Persepolis and the Oscars

Persepolis, the acclaimed French animated feature directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi based on Satrapi's graphic novel about life under the Iranian fundamentalist regime, has failed to make into the final round of consideration for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

Persepolis remains one of the finalists for a nomination for Best Animated Film*, and some (but not all) in our community consider it a front runner for an award in that category. The proprietors of the Cartoon Brew website, Amid Amidi and Jerry Beck, have been agreeing to disagree as to whether the Best Animated Feature Film category has been a good thing, or whether it has "ghettoized" films that might otherwise have been contenders, not only for Best Foreign Film but possibly even for Best Picture.

Eighty years from the start of the Academy Awards and eleven years after the institution of the Best Animated Feature Film category, Beauty and the Beast remains the only animated feature ever to receive a competitive Best Picture nomination†. So the question is: is the feature animation biz better off with or without the separate Oscar category?

* This year's finalists are Alvin and the Chipmunks, Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters, Bee Movie, Beowulf, Meet the Robinsons, Persepolis, Ratatouille, Shrek the Third, The Simpsons Movie, Surf’s Up, Tekkonkinkreet and TMNT.

† In 1938, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs got a non-competitive Special Award.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Orlando - Day Three

We all sat down in the meeting hall promptly at 10:00 ... and just as promptly were asked to leave as the IA Executive Board went into closed session (usual this means that the board is adjudicating a dispute between two -- or more? -- IA locals. But I didn't ask what the closed session was about, so never found out.)

The most pertinent report for IA Los Angeles locals in this session was the organizing that has gone on non-stop over the past fifteen years, and that the IA now has wall-to-wall contracts with cable producers, HBO, commercial producers, and a spate of music videos. And the IA has signed its first contract for an internet series ...

All these various contracts have given the IATSE a lot more leverage than it had when I started business reping in the early nineties. In those days, the IA had minimal coverage in cable ... also low-budget features ... also commercials. And high-end features like Driving Miss Daisy and Dances with Wolves were "non-union" features, as far as the IATSE was concerned.

Disaster.

Today, the IA has regained its grip on movie and television work, which means that a lot of health and pension hours have flowed into IA pension plans. Why is this important? Because television series on the east and west coasts are now shut down, so no hours into the plans. IA President Tom Short noted: "If we hadn't had all those hours most of last year and the years before, we could be in deep trouble."

The Writers' strike hangs over the proceedings. It's what IA reps talk about out in the hall, at lunch, at the hosted party last night in the hotel. Several reps think the the WGA strike will end (or unravel) two to four weeks after the DGA makes a deal. Everybody seems pretty confident the Directors Guild will nail down a new contract, and soon.

But -- unless I've missed the story in Wednesday's news -- it hasn't happened yet.

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Axium: the lawsuits begin

If the latest revelations are any indication, you're going to be hearing a lot more about dirty doings at what was, until a week ago, the largest payroll company in the entertainment business.

From a article in today's Los Angeles Times business section:

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Los Angeles, investment firm GoldenTree Asset Management said Axium's former principals, John Visconti and Ron Garber, treated the company "as their own personal piggy bank to finance their extravagant lifestyles."

Visconti and Garber, according to the suit, used Axium funds to lease private jets and ultra-luxury cars, including Rolls-Royces and Aston Martins, for personal use; paid for personal gifts and vacations using corporate credit cards; made personal political contributions with Axium money; maintained secret bank accounts; and spent the money "without any apparent business purpose."

GoldenTree said it extended $130 million in financing from 2004 to 2007. Last week, GoldenTree swept $22 million from company accounts that had secured the loan on which Axium defaulted, said Howard Ehrenberg, the court-appointed bankruptcy trustee who oversees Axium's finances.

New York-based GoldenTree said it was unable to determine the precise amount of monetary damages but believed them to top $87.5 million.

A juicy article on Defamer.com goes into some details that the Times probably decided weren't appropriate for a PG-13-rated newspaper:

... We got our hands on PDFs of the court filings. We read through the 35-page document and picked out the juiciest moments for your enjoyment. We're talking multiple identities, cash payments to former supermodels for "consulting" and all sorts of other general shadiness not seen since the halcyon days of Enron. Trust us, it's GOLD.

Given that this is a PG-13-rated blog, we'll leave it to the curious to follow the above link.

The Times article interviewed former Axium employees who have been left jobless by the sudden closing of the company, and probably far down on the list of debtors with claims to be settled. The IATSE has already staked its claim on behalf of its members, and as a large labor union will be higher on the creditor list than individual, non-union claimants.

So far, it doesn't appear that any TAG members have had bounced paychecks (if you have had any problems related to the shutdown, contact us immediately). If the worst has happened, of course, the Animation Guild and the IATSE will go to bat for affected members.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Again??

I donno, maybe it's because I'm at freaking DisneyWorld and my brain is mushier than usual. But crap. Do we really need this?

...now these white-capped, blue dwarfs are getting set for the silver screen: Paramount Pictures is currently developing a CGI 3D Smurf feature through its Nickelodeon Films unit which would bring the mischievous creatures to a whole new generation...

TIME is talking about the Smurfs. The g*ddamn Smurfs. It's not like they weren't fine in their time, or that kids didn't love them. But sweet mother of Mosesthey've been beaten into the ground already, haven't they> And we've had Alvin and the other Chipmunks. We've had Rocky and Bullwinke (with DeNiro, no less). We've had Scooby Do and those other freaks he ran around with.

Can't we go do some new property now? One that doesn't have those short blue people, or Yogi, Booboo and Ranger Smith in it?

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If it’s Tuesday, it must be Orlando

The IATSE’s quarterly General Executive Board meetings are an excellent way to catch up with doings in the world of labor. Day 2 played out as follows:

  • Here’s a big surprise: The Bush administration is doing everything in its power to make it as difficult as possible for labor unions to survive and organize. The National Labor Relations Board, set up during FDR’s New Deal to help unions, now serves to hinder it. Their latest set of regs were written by big business with that very goal in mind.

  • The IATSE and AFTRA have been meeting to coordinate organizing and contract negotiations.

  • Movie piracy has cost the entertainment business billions of dollars, thousands of jobs, and millions of health and pension contribution hours. The Bush administration has been indifferent to defending intellectual property rights.

I wonder what the Bush administration would do if Wal-Mart or Goldman-Sachs had six billion dollars stolen from them, rather than from us.

-- Steven Soderbergh

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Patience

That's what screenwriter Craig Mazin counsels, in his latest post on the Artful Writer blog about the writers' strike.

His Sunday posting predicted that the Directors Guild might reach an agreement with the producers as soon as Monday. Well, that didn't happen, but the trade papers have reported that the DGA and the producers have met daily since formal talks began on Saturday. And as a veteran of innumerable contracts talks, I can confirm that talking is always better than not talking.

Mazin, who has written several movies produced by the Weinsteins, was involved in the negotiations that led to the Weinsteins signing an interim WGA contract last week. Today's trades report that the WGA has also signed interim deals with Spyglass Entertainment and Media Rights Capital (MRC). The latter deal is especially interesting as MRC has a deal for online distribution of original Web cartoons developed by Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy).

What neither I nor Mazin can confirm is whether a quick DGA settlement will make any immediate difference in the stalemate between the producers and the Writers Guild, which have not talked since mid-December.

Finally, I have followed Mazin's blog since long before the strike began, and there have been some issues on which I've disagreed with him. But nothing compares to our agreement that this is stupid.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

My Monday report from Orlando

If you’ve never been to the Executive Board meeting of a large union (and you probably haven’t), the two things to know are:

  • They’re usually pretty informative about what’s going on in the House of Labor, and
  • The seats inside the meeting hall are almost always hard and uncomfortable.

This week’s IATSE Executive Board meeting has so far followed both of those norms.

Today I found out that the Axium shutdown has affected not only the payrolls of a number of smaller employers but that the settlement money for a large grievance is in limbo with the rest of Axium’s funds. The good news: Larger companies for which Axium served as a “secondary employer” are stepping up to replace bounced paychecks.

Weekday-afternoon soap operas, a form that goes back to the days of radio, are teetering on the brink of mass extinction, which will result in the loss of some of the steadiest jobs in the entertainment industry.

The loss of health and pension contributions caused by the layoffs from the WGA strike will soon begin to affect our benefits. Everyone is looking to the DGA negotiations to break the logjam, but crystal balls are cloudier than ever.

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  1. Call the unemployment office.
  2. Wait for them to say "Thank you".
  3. Hang up.

Now that we no longer have to drive to an office and stand in line, there are three ways to get in touch with the state of California's EDD (Employment Development Department) about unemployment insurance, and they each have their pluses and minuses ...

  1. You can apply by fax or mail by going to http://www.edd.ca.gov/uirep/uiapp.htm and downloading the form, then faxing it to (866) 215-9159 or mailing it to: EDD, P. O. Box 5007, Buena Park, CA 90622-5007. The advantage it's that it's relatively hassle-free; the disadvantage is that it takes it takes the longest time for your claim to be processed.
  2. Apply online by going to https://eapply4ui.edd.ca.gov. Advantage: relatively hassle-free; disadvantage: little or no feedback.
  3. And then there's calling them on the phone. If you have questions this is just about the only way to get them answered promptly, but it means you have to deal with the EDD's phone system from beyond hell.

At a recent seminar I heard a presentation from an EDD with some refreshiningly practical advice on dealing with their phone system:

The toll-free phone number for California unemployment insurance is (800) 300-5616 -- en EspaƱol: (800) 326-8937. The system is open weekdays from 8 am to 5 pm weekdays and is closed on state holidays.

It may be very difficult to get through to apply or to have questions answered in person, and you will have the most luck if you treat the phone call as if you were trying to win tickets on a radio station. Callers will get one of several voice recordings when they call the 800 number but only one will allow you to file a claim or speak directly to an EDD rep about a specific problem.

If the recording begins, "Thank you ..." then hang up.

If the recording begins, "Due to the number of callers ..." then hang up.

Only if the prompt begins, "Welcome ..." should you stay on the line. Once you hear this prompt, and you would like to apply for unemployment insurance, dial the number 12117 and begin.

If you would like to follow up on a claim you have already filed, dial the number 1242.

It will likely take you 10-15 minutes to get through using this method.

Does this beat the "good old days" or standing in line at an office? Maybe yes, maybe no. But it's a good tip on beating the odds to get direct service.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

What to do if you're an Axium victim

As Steve said in his last post, I'll be filling in over the next week with some extra posts while the Chief Blogger attends the IATSE quarterly meeting in Orlando.

Along with the ongoing writers' strike, the big news in town has been, and continues to be, the collapse of the entertainment industry's biggest payroll company.

There's no question that a lot of below-the-line people in Hollywood, already hurting because of the writers' strike, have been royally shafted by Axium's sudden collapse. I've spoken to several union reps whose members' paychecks bounced after Golden Tree Asset Management, Axium's primary lender, seized $22 million from Axium's bank accounts.

A brief lesson in movie payroll economics: Payroll companies function in one of two ways, either as primary employers or as secondary employers. When a company such as Cartoon Network Studios or Crest Animation signs a contract with the Animation Guild, they will sometimes use a payroll company such as Axium, Entertainment Partners or Cast and Crew to handle their payroll business.

Because CNS and Crest are signed to the TAG contract, the payroll company is the secondary employer; CNS and Crest are the primary employer, and they are directly responsible for the payroll. Bothe Cartoon Network and Crest have already assured us that they will have no problems meeting their obligations, and Susan Gelb of Crest was quoted as such in this Los Angeles Times article.

Indeed, we have not yet heard from any TAG member whose Axium-issued paycheck has bounced, and those union-shop animation companies that were using Axium have already arranged with other payroll companies to handle their business. If your check has bounced, or if you're having any problems related to the Axium collapse, be sure to notify us immediately. This page on the IATSE website has information on what to do if you don't receive a W-2 form for a job that was handled through Axium.

If you read the Peg-Board, you're probably as sick of hearing me talk about the importance of saving your pay stubs as I am of writing about it. But this situation is a textbook example of how simple record-keeping can make all the difference. The IATSE (and, if necessary, the Animation Guild) will be taking legal action to reclaim its members' lost wages and benefits, but we'll only be able to help you if you've saved your stubs and can prove that you're owed what you're owed.

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IATSE Executive Board Meeting, Winter Edition

By the time you read this, I'll be winging my way to Orlando and the IATSE's Winter Executive Board Meeting.

I don't go to a lot of IA e-board meetings -- although I have plenty of union reps telling me I should -- but this winter meeting is different. The WGA is on strike and a lot of I.A. locals have been pushed into a "no work" stance along with it ...

Talking to a union rep over at Local 80 (studio grips) Friday, I found out that 40% of its membership is now laid off. "Not as high as I thought it would be by now," the rep said.

Still in all, that's a considerable amount of people who aren't gainfully employed, and if the strike goes on a lot longer, the unemployment numbers will go way up. Like they'll be going up at Warner Bros. in the not-distant future:

The clock is winding down on a 60-day layoff notice issued Nov. 12 by Warner Bros. studios to 1,000 studio-facilities employees shortly after the Writers Guild of America went on strike Nov. 5.

It is unclear how many of those will be enforced, if any. If layoffs do occur, they could come as early as next week. "There have been no decisions made," a Warner spokeswoman said.

So, next week, I'm be in Orlando, posting updates when I can, trying to find out what's going on with all the other Hollywood (and other) IA locals. Hobnobbing with other reps as I try to scope out progress with the DGA negotiations (which are entering their second day now

Back in North Hollywood, my faithful assistant Jeffrey M. Massie will maybe put up posts that I miss.

Blog at you soon.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

The B.O. of January

Grosses fall back to earth as the Christmas-New Year's holiday comes to an end, and a new crop of Pretenders to the Throne push the old crew out of the top spots...

For Friday, Jack and Morgan rule the roost with Bucket List, which goes wide after a few weeks at Select Theatres. The AARP members take in $6.1 million.

The debuting First Sunday blams past miserable reviews and comes in #2 and a $6.1 million Friday take dragging right behind.

And Ellen Page and Juno finds itself in the third slot, with close to $62 million in the bank.

As for animation, the miracle titled Alvin and the Chipmunks stands at #7 and $180.5 million.

The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything debut at #11 ... and apparently don't do anything. ($1.1 million on their first Friday.)

Meanwhile, Enchanted is probably at the end of a profitable domestic run with $121 million in the till.

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Blue Sky Packs Up

Blue Sky Animation is pulling out of White Plains New York and moving next door to Connecticut, where the tax breaks are as high as a Horton the elephant's eye:

A digital animation studio known for its production of "Ice Age" is leaving its suburban New York site and moving to Greenwich.

Brian Keane, chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Blue Sky Studios, cited Connecticut's new tax credits that were enacted to boost film production in the state. Production companies are eligible for tax credits up to 30 percent on production expenses or costs in the state.

"The state has taken the lead to create the necessary economic environment to make itself attractive to businesses like ours," Keane said.

I went through the White Plains studio a bunch of years ago. Bue Sky was tucked away on several floors of the IBM building on Broadway. Nice digs, but I'm sure it was a pain going up and down in the elvator to get to people.

And of course, New York doesn't have those spiffy tax breaks.

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DGA and AMPTP Advance to the Starting Blocks ...

So here they go:

"(W)e would not enter negotiations with the AMPTP unless we were within shouting distance of an agreement on our two most important issues-- jurisdiction for our members to work in new media and appropriate compensation for the reuse of our work on the Internet and other new media platforms," ... DGA president [Michael Apted] wrote. "We've spent the last few months discussing these and related issues with the studios, and we've been doing intensive research on these points for the past year and a half. Now we believe it is time to move forward with the goal to hammer out an agreement."

Formal negotiations between the Directors Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers start later today. How long do they last? I'd say somewhere around a month. But of course I've got no thorough-going knowledge of the complexity of all the issues through which the two sides must churn, so we could say I've got my head up my large intestine and not be wrong.

But a month seems to be about the norm.

However much time it takes, if and when the two sides reach an agreement, it changes the dynamics of future negotiations for the WGA and SAG. Whether the other guilds like those new dynamics or not.

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Family Guy and American Dad Layoffs

Fourteen artists were laid off today from Family Guy.

The staff had taken its particular script as far as it could. And with no revisions by writers on the immediate horizon, it's off to hiatuses of indeterminate length ...

I found these things out when I walked into the studio this morning and talked to FG crew.

Lots of stoicism, black humor, and gritted teeth all around. One staffer asked me who I blamed for the long strike. I said: "The AMPTP, mostly. But there's probably blame that can be ladled out on both sides." I brought up, as I usually do, the subject of leverage, and having enough of it to get what you want. (An old theme.)

The crews of Guy/Dad are departing at about the same rate .. and pace ... as The Simpsons and King of the Hill staffs over the mountains at Starz Media. Some left in December, others depart in January and February, and the final groups exit in March. An artist scheduled to bail out in March said: "I was lucky enough to get on the last show written before the writers went out. Won't be very many people in here when we finish."

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Axium's Ugly Ripples

Had a call from a long-time Axium employee today, who gave me some of the ugly details of the collapse of the company on Monday.

Apparently, nobody except Axium's golden circle (the gents at the top) knew that the plug was about to be pulled. The ex-Axiumite said:

"Mid-level execs had no idea the company was folding until an e-mail went out Monday afternoon. It was news to them. The company was as busy as it had ever been, and was turning a profit. It was other parts of the business, like Ensemble Chimes Global out in the mid-west, that were the problem ... The L.A. Times had most of the facts right."

The Times covered this story yesterday (along with other papers), and the reality -- macro and micro -- isn't pretty:

Axium's largest creditor, Golden Tree Asset Management, a New York investment firm, seized $22 million from company accounts that had secured a $140-million loan on which Axium defaulted ...

Fallout from the company's abrupt closing stung entertainment industry workers suddenly holding worthless paychecks, as well as about 400 Axium employees who were fired ...

Arci Silva-Thomas was working for Axium in Los Angeles when she moved to Troy, Mich., in March for a job with ECG's finance department.

The single mother of three said she was barely making ends meet on her $60,000 salary even before she was fired Monday. Now she's "stranded" in Michigan with no job and little hope for the future ...

The guy I talked to (who's found other work) was calling to see if we knew of any job openings out there:

"I've got a lot of friends who are hurting, and they can't use COBRA to pay for medical benefits. One friend has cancer and has just lost his benefits. Since the company's bankrupt there is no COBRA. I'm just trying to help them find work ..."

I told him I wished I knew of something, but I didn't. "There's a bunch of animation employees out there looking for work, and I don't have a lot I can do for many of them."

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

At Nick the Lodeon

I spent a chunk of my day at Nickelodeon, where a bunch of teevee series are chugging right along:

Ni Hao Kai Lan 20 episodes

Dora (the ever-popular explora) 20 episodes

Diego 20 episodes

Avatar (now wrapping up, maybe more at a later date?)

Fairly Odd Parents (a new round of 20 episodes ...)

The Mighty B 20 episodes

Tak 26 episodes

Fanboy 26 episodes

The Penguins of Madagascar 26 episodes

The studio has more artists busily working in offices and colorful cubicles than most, but many studios just now are not exactly bursting with activity.

Disney TVA is wrapping up some series and, at the moment, not launching new ones; Cartoon Network is at a low boil as it digests management changes in Atlanta; Universal Cartoon Studios has Curious George. Period. Starz Media and Fox Animation are laying off artists due to the writers strike.

From what I've gleaned from various sources is, studios appear to be reluctant to launch a bunch of new shows when the Screen Actors Guild could be going on strike in less than six months. The various congloms don't want to be stuck with a bunch of development that they can't get recorded by actors due to a possible job action.

So ... we might have a slow patch up ahead. Just saying.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

01/2008 Linkfest

Here's a mid-week overview of animation news bites ... starting with SPA's Surf's Up -- which didn't light any bonfires at the box office, but is now receiving awards kudos:

... On Monday, Sony Pictures Animation’s Surf’s Up became the first fully animated film to be nominated for Best Single Visual Effect of the Year by the Visual Effects Society (VES). The surfing penguin flick’s CG waves were impressive enough to put it up against the more traditional vfx-driven films Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Spider-Man 3 and 300. The award will be presented during the 6th Annual VES Awards on on Feb. 10 at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood ...

Original artwork from Fantasia (1940 edition) turns up decades after getting swiped from a New York art museum:

Nearly 20 years after they were stolen from a New York cartoon museum, two original Disney watercolor pieces were recovered last week thanks to a Florida antiques dealer ...

The paintings - which depict Mickey Mouse in the 1940s Disney classic "Fantasia" - were among five stolen in 1991 from the Museum of Cartoon Art in Rye Brook, New York ...

Yet another story about the Indian animation industry growing like topsy:

..."[T]he Indian animation industry, which is now pegged at $550 million, is expected to grow over 30 per cent annually in the next couple of years and reach a level of $15 billion by 2008. India has the world’s largest entertainment industry, a robust software industry and also skilled manpower, all essential ingredients for the growth of the animation industry.”

“While the domestic market is still very nascent, analysts predict there is tremendous growth opportunity for animated content in television and movies.”

It's always nice to see new and better opportunities for animation artists:

The creators of ABC.com's animated news series "The Quick Draw" have joined CBS News, where they will produce a similar version of the three to five-minute interstitials.

"The Fast Draw," from Josh Landis and Mitch Butler, will explore and explain the major stories of the day using a combination of live action and cartoons, CBS said. It will air on a variety of CBS news broadcasts including "The Early Show" and "CBS News Sunday Morning."

How's this work again? An animated tie-in for Terminator?

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles premieres next week and with it comes a renewed interest in the franchise.

Consulting Producer James Middleton and star Lena Headey ... revealed a few details about the series as well the upcoming films and an animated tie-in akin to the Animatrix.

The animated tie-in (currently called Termination) will be released sometime after the new film hits the big screen in late summer 2009. It will feature a number of short animated features from different areas of the Terminator universe.

Whoops. Looks like the high def format wars are close to being over. Warners went with Blu-Ray along with most of the other majors, leaving DreamWorks Animation and Paramount the only group aligned with Toshiba's high definition format. But now there's this:

Paramount is poised to drop its support of HD DVD after Warner Brothers’ recent backing of Sony’s Blu-ray technology, in a move that will sound the death knell of HD DVD and bring the home entertainment format war to a definitive end.

Paramount and DreamWorks Animation, which makes the Shrek films, came out in support of HD DVD last summer, joining General Electric’s Universal Studios as the main backers of the Toshiba format.

However, Paramount, which is owned by Viacom, is understood to have a clause in its contract with the HD DVD camp that would allow it to switch sides in the event of Warner Bros backing Blu-ray ...

So that's the ballgame then, innit? And Sony is already partying .

Have a really fine rest of the week.

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