Tuesday, March 31, 2009


A few mid-week piffles for your linky pleasure.

Man, this 3-D thing appears to be catching on. Something to do with the $59 million weekend a certain studio had? Naaah..

Walt Disney is going 3-D on a lot of future films — and some from its past.

The studio says 3-D versions of the computer-animated tales "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2" will be released Oct. 2 for a two-week run as a double feature. Disney also is preparing a 3-D version of its hand-drawn animated musical "Beauty and the Beast" for release Feb. 12, 2010.

No doubt this announcement was coming anyway. Still, the time and place for making it is ... ah ... interesting.

[John] Lasseter said, "The 'Toy Story' films and characters will always hold a very special place in our hearts and we're so excited to be bringing these first two films back for audiences to enjoy in a whole new way thanks to the latest in 3D technology ..."

For immediate release, wouldn't you say?

A fine exhibition of Japanese comics and animation is unspooling in New York City:

... [A] couple of teenage girls crouched down to get inside a small tea house-like enclosure lined with hundreds of manga, some the size of telephone books.

Elsewhere, six anime were being simultaneously projected along a long wall in a room with cubicles where visitors could sit comfortably and watch the same excerpts on smaller screens ...

The exhibition, "Krazy! The Delirious World of Anime + Manga + Video Games," has been drawing large and diverse crowds — young, old and in-between — since it opened March 13.

Reese Witherspoon on cartoon voice acting:

... The hardest part of the movie, for me, was to get the voice right for an action hero. They (the filmmakers) kept saying to me ‘say this line like Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger’, that big action movie tag line - ‘I-AM-GINORMICA!’ (laughs) and I just couldn’t do it! They kept saying ‘no, that just sounds like a robot’.’ ...

The Wrap, in an over-heated commentary, examines the business side of Stereo Viewing:

... There are 40 3D features scheduled for the next three years, including 17 from Disney -- which, through Roy Disney's Shamrock Holdings, has invested $50 million in RealD, the company that pioneered the new process -- and every release from DreamWorks Animation. And though the credit crunch has slowed the installation of 3D projection systems in theaters, RealD's revenue nearly doubled in 2008 ...

Theaters that lease the RealD process (for about $5,000-$10,000) have to pay the company 50 cents for every ticket sold. But even allowing for that and, it's fair to guess, allowing for the manufacturing cost of a pair of plastic glasses, the studios are obviously making money off the surcharge.

Katzenberg, John Lassetter at Pixar, and the other studio heads who will release movies in RealD are simply indulging in the carny barker tradition of squeezing whatever money they can out of the public who flocks to their attractions.

(Hey, you don't like the price of the 3-D version, don't go to the 3-D version. It won't be the end of civilization as we know it. And here's a report on the Show West reaction to DWA's 3-D epic.)

British comic thesp Simon Pegg discusses his character in Ice Age 3:

"[He's] a slightly unhinged, swashbuckling weasel ..."

You can never get enough swashbucking weasles.

Lastly, the Animation Archive has a nice sampling of caricatures by Miguel Cavarrubias.

Al Hirschfeld studied under Covarrubias and shared a studio with him in 1924. He spoke of Covarrubias' talent in the same breath as Daumier and Hogarth ...

Clark Gable and Prince Edward ... by Miguel C.

Have a fine, midweek work experience ... if you can.

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A Decade of Animator Wages

What follows are data points over ten years of time.

We began doing TAG wage surveys in the mid-nineties, at the suggestion of a background artist working at Warner Bros. Feature Animation. We've pretty much done them ever since, with the exception of a couple of years.

So below you will find what the mid-point animator salaries were from 1996 onward. The median, as you can see, went up in the late nineties as long-term Personal Service Contracts kicked in and required higher payments, then declined as big industry lay-offs occurred.

Soak them in and draw your conclusions. (The one I draw is: "The laws of supply and demand have weight and meaning.")

Wage Survey Animators Medians (40–hour week)

(CG Animators averages were not broken out in the first survey in 1996)


Character Animators $1,750


Character Animators $2,057

CGI Animators $1,850


Character Animators $2,000

CGI Animators $1,850


Character Animators $2,050

CGI Animators $1,800


Character Animators $2,120

CGI Animators $1,938


Character Animators $2,200

CGI Animators $1,882


Character Animators $1,963

CGI Animators $2,000


Character Animators $1,785

CGI Animators $2,011


3D Animators $1,809

2D Animators $1,425


3D Animators $1,672

2D Animators $1,530


3D Animators $1,745

2D Animators $2,080

Notes and addenda: In the early years, "character animators" mostly meant "graphite animators," but not always. This is because returned forms were not always clear; however we did detective work.

The numbers are snapshots in time, based on a return rate of between 18%-23% of survey forms. (Would we have liked a larger flood of mailed-back forms? You betchya. But they are what they are. Based on written and anecdotal evidence, as far as we can tell the wages aren't too far off.)

You will note that there is a jump in hand-drawn salaries in 2008. We attribute this to more hiring of traditional animators.

(Supply and demand ... supply and demand ... supply and demand. And then there are those pesky union minimums.)

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Shallow Musings

If you listen to a lot of critics and some commenters around here, DreamWorks Animation's features just aren't as good as the Pixar product.

Most of those [DWA features] are OK films, some a little racy for kids, some just plain bland. Biggest disappointment: There’s no progress.

On the other side of the CGI coin, Pixar has been steadily evolving on both visual and story lines: “Toy Story,” “A Bug’s Life,” “Monsters, Inc.,” “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles,” “Cars,” “Ratatouille,” and the sci-fi masterpiece, “Wall-E,” which should’ve been nominated for Best Picture instead of just Best Animated Film ...

This is similar to critics' comparisons between Jay Leno and David Letterman over the years: "Jay's all right, but David is the zesty, cutting edge comedy guy ..."

But of course, Leno consistently beats Dave in the ratings. Sort of like .... well, you know.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Correcting Myths

Down below, there is a snark-fest going on about c.g. animators versus graphite animators. Who's better? Who's more skilled? Who deserves more respect? ... and so on.

Me, I think both sets of artists are talented, and should get our praise and our thanks for all the entertainment they've provided us. But that's not what I want to get into here. Rather, it's observations like these:

…I agree about CG animators being mostly button-pushers compared to the artistry of 2D animators like the Nine Old Men …

...I think long gone are the days when animators were considered "super stars" or even "actors". With schools pumping out animators at a record pace...animators are becoming acknowledged as little more than button-pushers by the big studios. …

... 2D had many artists who produced the girth of the animation with their single hand. They got higher salaries because they could not be so easily replaced ....

Judging from the above comments, people seem to think that:

A) Disney's vaunted "Nine Old Men" were animation stars who made lots of money, and

B) Artists who drew hand-drawn animation earned bigger salaries than others in the field.

Actually, no.

Woolie Reitherman, who climbed to the summit of the Disney empire running the company's feature animation department, told me:

"I didn't get rich from the salary they paid me around here. It was never very much. The reason I'm well off is because of the stock options. It's the reason all of us are doing better than all right."

A veteran Disney layout artist ... who worked at the studio for three and a half decades ... said to me at one of TAG's award banquets honoring fifty-year veterans:

"Animation is the part of the movie business where you work fifty years because you have to ..."

My father, a Disney background artist for decades, was once screamed at by a talented but disgruntled short-timer on his way out the door:

"I don't know what's wrong with you people! You work here year after year, and for next to nothing! Why do you put up with it?!"

Dear old Dad, at the time of his death, was making $500 per week. After thirty-six years of employment.

Please don't misunderstand me. Nobody was chained to their desks at Disney. Nobody slept under their desks (at least, not in the modern era). The place was considered the "country club" of animation studios, with ball fields, ping-pong tables, a pleasant commissary, and a work schedule that (usually) wasn't soul-crushing.

But high pay? It wasn't part of the equation.

And while many Disney animators were known inside the profession, nobody on the far side of Monrovia knew who they were. It was only in later years that wider recognition arrived.

There was really only one ten-year span where animators' fame and salaries grew geometrically, and that was the 1990s. For one brief shining and unsustainable moment, animators made fairly ginormous salaries and got their names and pictures in glossy magazines. But it didn't last. Animated features didn't make the mountains of money the conglomerates expected, and after a little while supply of talent caught up to demand.

At which point, weekly paychecks fell back to earth.

So let's stop hallucinating over wage levels that never were. With the exception of the nineties, animation salaries have never been exorbitant. Even for the Nine Old Men.

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I've got to tell you, this one slipped by me:

Electronic Arts Inc. and Starz Media's Film Roman announced today the start of production on an animated movie based on the immortal epic Dante's Inferno. The feature-length project will expand on the story in EA's new game coming out ... in 2010.

"This is like nothing else out in the marketplace right now - a visually stunning project based on one of the most powerful stories ever told," notes Jay Fukuto, Head of Studio for Film Roman. "It could only happen with a partner with the vision and creativity of EA. They were great collaborators on 'Dead Space: Downfall,' and we expect another very rewarding experience with this new feature."

"The animated feature will be a great companion piece to the game," said Jonathan Knight, Executive Producer and Creative Director for Dante's Inferno. "The feature will explore aspects of the poem that the game does not, and will provide more insight into the characters and the unique story adaptation that the game has established." ...

I've roamed the halls of Starz Media/Film Roman for some time now, and not a word did I hear about this project.

And today I called a Starz exec to ask about it, and got the reply: "New one on me."

So there you are. A new full-length 'toon explodes across the internets, and I'm pig-ignorant about it.

Meanwhile, I asked a couple of Simpsons staffers when they thought the Yellow Family would get themselves a second theatrical feature and was told:

"Not for awhile. Gracie Films says Jim Brooks is off doing a live-action movie, and won't be even thinking about a Simpsons movie for at least a year. And that means they won't have a script for probably two years."

Two freaking years. But maybe that would be pretty good timing, because the teevee series is supposed to be finishing up its new two-year order around then, so artists could jump over to the feature.

I dream.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Oncoming Cavalcade of Cartoons

Sitting in a movie theater watching the usual half hour of trailers, you get the idea that there are a poopload of animated features coming soon to your local AMC, because there are a whole lot of animated trailers touting them.

Ten years back, the Mainstream Media got it into its large, dim head that the Second Golden Age of animated features happened during the decade that straddled the late 1980s through the bulk of the 1990s. Disney, Bluth, DreamWorks Animation, Turner, Warner Bros., all of them were turning out bright, hand-drawn cartoons of the ninety minute variety.

But as impressive as it all seemed at the time, the numerical output and quality is but small potatoes compared to the animated features coming at us in the soon-to-be future ...

Let's do a little inventorying, shall we? First, the olden days, and the tally of animated feature created in the U.S. of A. when Franklin Roosevelt ruled with a benevolent hand.

The first "Golden Age of Animation," -- 1937-1942 --saw exactly six full-length animated features made. (I'm not counting the two Fleischer P0peye featurettes, nor Fanatasia or The Reluctant Dragon, since those were compilation features.) Here's the list:

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Gulliver's Travels



Mr. Bug Goes to Town


And that's it. A paltry half-dozen, after which the production of same stopped dead for twelve-plus years, until Cinderella rolled into neighborhood Bijous during the age of Milton Berle. Thereafter, Uncle Walt pretty much had the feature playground to himself for the next few decades because nobody else was making them. (Oh sure, there were occasional pretenders to the throne like Yellow Submarine and the Magoo Arabian Nights feature, but by and large it was Disney, Disney, Disney.)

Then in the 1980s, Don Bluth decamped from the House of Mouse and began producing a long string of animated features on his own, and Katzenberg/Eisner arrived at Disney where they ended up revitalizing the basic hand-drawn program. After that, of course, there was the frenetic nineties where huge grosses for the newer Disney product had everyone and his Aunt Tilly opening animation studios in their own quest for big pots of gold.

Which brings us to the 21st century ... and now. And take a look at the animated extravaganzas that are in theaters as I write ... or will be over the next thirty-three months:


Monsters Vs, Aliens

The Battle for Terra


Astro Boy*

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

The Princess and the Frog

How to Train Your Dragon

Despicable Me*

Shrek Goes Fourth

Ice Age 3

Toy Story 3

Master Mind

Kung Fu Panda 2

Cars 2


Crood Awakening

Green Eggs and Ham

The Bear and the Bow

If I'm adding correctly, that's nineteen features over thirty-three months, the seventeen without asterisks produced wholly in Aux Etats Unis. (No doubt I've left a few specimens out, but this is a damn blog post, not an article for the Atlantic Monthly.)

And if you include the features in release between January 1, 2009, and December 31, 2011, the total bumps up to include Bolt and the French feature The Tale of Despereaux. A grand total of twenty-one.

Now. Compare that number to the first dozen years of cartoon features, when a big six got made. Another wrinkle to that first Golden Era? Way more live-action features were being ground out by Hollywood then than get made today. Way more.

Which makes the current rate of output even more amazing, at least to me.

So if you want to talk about Golden Ages for longish cartoons, in a commercial sense there is one that towers over the rest, and we happen to be living in it.

Add On: Then there's Christmas Carol from Disney/ Image Movers Digital at Christmas.

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Overseas American Animated Feature

From time to time we discuss "Is It All Going to India?".

I keep saying no, it isn't. But of course, I'm no more a soothsayer than anybody else. I take what knowledge I have and make educated guesses.

Like any guesses, they could be wrong.

But since a commenter offered the prognostication that Southern California animation was going to go away in the next several years, let me tee up -- again -- the reasons why it won't ...

It's not just a matter of cost, you see. It's also a matter of producing a feature that will make lots of money at the box office. Thus far, that means "Do it stateside," because it does no good to create something for $30 million if all it makes if $40 mill. Much better to spend more money and grab at those hundred million grosses.

The reason that so much of the animation industry lives in California is: cartoon studios are here developing talent, which causes more studios to spring up, the better to partake of that talent, which causes more talent to grow here ...

And so on.

This is, after all, about talent that creates value, about critical mass and gravitational pull. Obviously that pull is tested all the time. In fact, it's being tested now. Currently there are two animated features scheduled for American releases that are being (mostly) produced overseas. One is Astro Boy from Imagi. The other is Despicable Me from Chris Meledandri's new studio Ilumination Entertainment, bankrolled by GE/Universal.

Now here's the nitty gritty: If Astro Boy hits a three of four bagger box office-wise, heads might look up in Hollywood's front offices, and small light bulbs might wink on. But it will take a sizable hit to make the wattage power up to where attention starts to be seriously paid.

Despicable Me is getting produced in France by Mac Guff Ligne. Why? Mac Guff has talent, and France has tax rebates. As Meledandri explains:

"I came to France because of the extraordinary talent of French artists working in animation," says Meledandri. "They have one of the very best animation schools in the world, Gobelins, as well as a great cultural tradition of animation."

But of course, there is also that tax thing:

... [T]hanks to the 20% tax rebate plan approved by the French parliament in December, foreign CG and toon producers doing business with Gallic houses will be able to seek tax breaks worth up to €4 million.

My best estimate is that both AB and DM will do respectably at the world box office. But neither will do the kind of jaw-dropping numbers that cause the Masters of the Cinema Universe to put down their I-phones and rejigger their business models in any large and meaningful way.

Naturally, I could be in error here, but it takes a long time to turn an ocean liner around. So too conventional wisdom about animation business practices. And it's going to take more than a brace of mega-hits from outside the U.S. to bring sizable change. Even those numbers might not be enough.

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Monster Box Office

With flavorful Add On.

To nobody's surprise, Monsters Vs. Aliens has a very pleasant Friday opening of $16.7 million.

The Nikkster provides interesting data:

[MvA] could have a $57 million weekend. This would make it the 2nd biggest non-sequel for DWA, behind 2008's Kung Fu Panda. And it's not even a summer or Easter weekend. That's high compared with two past March releases of toons aimed at kids: Ice Age, which opened to $46M and ended up earning $173M, and Horton Hears A Who, which debuted to $45M and went on to take in $154.

The Nikkster also slops out a generous dollop of snark, calling the flick "Review Proof," even though Rotten Tomatoes pegs MvA at 69% favorable. Go figure.

Meanwhile ... and this is a shocker ... Coraline has dropped out of the Top Ten.

Add On: Monsters Vs. Aliens lands at the top end of estimates, collecting $58.2 million for the weekend, a huge amount of that take coming from 3-D screens. (So ... whatever you think of stereo viewing ... Is it a temporary gimmick or the Next Big Thing? ... It's proven itself in the marketplace thus far.)

And Coraline gets slammed with an 85% market drop. Yeowch.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Today's Animation Writers

Not very long ago, I had lunch with a television animation writer who lamented that his studio was, more and more, hiring sitcom weriters to turn out scripts on their half-hour projects, leaving him with a smaller playing field on which to work, since he had never written sitcoms but only standard-issue television cartoons.

I understand how he feels. The days of 'toon writers who haven't had their tickets punched on higher-profile projects are like, mostly gone:

The 'Slumdog Millionaire' writer Simon Beaufoy, who walked away with this year's Oscar for adapted screenplay, is reportedly wielding his pen for DreamWorks Animation film, 'Truckers'.

Beaufoy isn't the first screenwriter to work for animation after winning the Oscar. Michael Arndt, who won the original screenplay Oscar for 2006's Little Miss Sunshinee, ... worked on ... "Toy Story 3".

I've occasionally mused how there's no way I would be hired off the street in 2009 to write on theatrical animated features. The 1970s are a looong time ago, and that sort of thing just isn't done anymore.

Not that it matters to me at this point in my checkered career. I not only have the wrong resume, but I'm way too elderly for any self-respecting animation producer to even halfway consider for a job.

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California in Double Digits

Whichever UC unemployment prediction you buy, both are pretty damn grim.

California's unemployment rate will soar to between 12 percent and 15 percent by next spring and remain in the double digits until at least the beginning of 2012, according to forecasts released by two teams of University of California economists.

The state's unemployment rate has not reached those heights since the Great Depression.

The projections – one released today by UCLA's Anderson Forecast, the other last week by UC Santa Barbara's Economic Forecast – paint a grim picture of declining economic growth, lower retail sales, a troubled housing market and falling office prices lasting through much of 2010 ...

I don't know which dire prognostication up above is more accurate, but since California had one of the largest real estate bubbles .... and steepest real estate crashes, these high unemployment numbers are not real surprising.

On the micro and anecdotal level, I've noticed the grimness seeping into the animation studios. Everybody knows it's rugged out there in unemployment land, and behaving accordingly.

Even as employers lower salaries and tighten schedules, employees are keeping a stiff upper lip.

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Still more Cartoon Network.

I spent part of yesterday afternoon at the studio. An artist filled me in on the cartoon side of Turner's cable network:

"There's some newer cartoon shows coming. Out of the shorts program, I'm hearing there's going to be two cartoons from the new crop greenlit into series. And the brass is thinking of okaying new episodes of Chowder.

"One of the problems is, the executives in Atlanta okay a series order of like, six half-hours, and then waits to see how it does before ordering more. And all the people who worked on it have been laid off and gone someplace else.

"And all the focus groups that look at new 'toons and vote on them? Doesn't work all that well. And all it really does is help management not take responsibility for its decisions ..."

There's a lot of live-action rolling onto Cartoon Network (as the media has pointed out), but there's ... still ... a goodly amount of animated product. A staffer steered me to a CN press release that I had missed.

• Adventure Time with Finn and Jake: Finn, the human boy with the awesome hat, and Jake, the wise dog, are close friends and partners in strange adventures in the land of Ooo. The 30-minute series is from Cartoon Network Studios, created by Pendleton Ward and executive produced by Fred Siebert and Derek Drymon.

• Ben 10: Evolutions (working title): An all-new animated series follows 16-year-old Ben Tennyson as his secret identity has been revealed to the world and he’s now an international mega-star super hero ....

• Sym-Bionic Titan: From creator Genndy Tartakovsky (Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack) comes an exciting hybrid of high school drama and giant robot battles ...

• Generator Rex: Infected by microscopic molecular-altering nanites, 15-year-old Rex has the ability to grow incredible machines out of his body ...

• Scooby-Doo – Mystery, Inc.: A sleepy little village, Crystal Cove, boasts a long history of ghost sightings, poltergeists, demon possession, phantoms and other paranormal occurrences. The renowned sleuthing team of Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and Scooby-Doo arrive to prove all of this simply isn’t real ...

One of the CN veterans marveled that the Big Dog is still trucking right along. "You believe it? Scoob has been around since '67. And here's another series being teed up. Amazing."

Me, I'm praying that Scoob's fifty-third incarnation outstrips CN's Othersiders. And I'm delighted that Time-Warner, in its infinite wisdom, is finally putting another series produced by Warner Bros. Animation on its Time-Warner cable network.

It only took these folks about ... oh ...sixteen years to stumble across the concept of synergy. Well done!

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Quantcast Analyzes El Bloggo

How quantcast.com knows that TAG blog viewers are 74% male and 66% college educated is a mystery to me. But there you are:

It's an interesting web metric that signifies ... uh ... not very much, but we throw it out there anyway.

We gotta get more female high schoolers involved. All there is to it.

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Jeffrey Katzenberg Tells All to the Vatican

Father Guido Sarducci Luca Pellegrini of L'Ossevatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, interviewed DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg about ... well ... this, that and the other thing:

Disegnare mostri per parlare di tolleranza

Ammettiamo che l'abbia realmente proferita dal suo doloroso esilio. La citazione renderebbe Napoleone grande e singolare anche come uomo capace di una modernissima intuizione ...

Oh, wait. This is Italian. Lots of people here don't speak Italian ...

Through the magic of Google's special translating machine, we can make the interview crystal clear.

Draw monsters to speak of tolerance

Admit that the actually uttered by his painful exile. The summons would make great and unique Napoleon as a man capable of a very modern idea: The imagination gouverne le monde. He, who has ruled the world with armies, puts the fantasy at the heart of his machinery of power. The Count of Las Cases drafting the famous Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène perhaps only heard the whisper, this sentence seems so harmless. So enough. Jeffrey Katzenberg could remember where and when she wrote her, memories. Why did the imagination a real film industry, profitable course before working on the Walt Disney Pictures, then founded with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, the DreamWorks (name and program perfectly identical), directing the field of so-called animation, namely that which deals with designing and producing the cartoons. Among his creatures: the green ogre, and good heart Shrek or fish Oscars of Shark Tale.

And then, the penetrating questions and Jeffrey's fine answers:

There is much truth to what was said by Napoleon, is not it?

I do not know if the fantasy is precisely the source and secret of my power or only the essence of what it means to do animation today. The fact is that each image created on the screen for DreamWorks comes the imagination of someone for the fun of many ...

And so on. Here is the original, and here's the full Googley translation.

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Happy Birthday

Guess who's past Social Security age?

Tweety is sixty-seven.

Sylvester, by contrast, is a young sixty-four. But trust me. You don't want to see a picture of the cat ....

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Cartoon Network Skews Live

I met with a bunch of Cartoon Network Studio staffers recently, and discovered some long faces because the cable network of the same name is chasing a variation of the Disney model.

... The net is diversifying into live-action ... Chief Content Officer Rob Sorcher and Turner Animation prexy Stu Snyder unveiled a 6-skein reality show slate.

In addition to the reality shows, CN is beginning a partnership (announced last week) with the NBA, repped by a short-form entry into the network's slate: "My Dad's a Pro," starring Jalen House, son of Celtics player Eddie House.

"If I were a buyer, I would buy," joked NBA commish David Stern to the aud of potential advertisers.

The move is likely a response to Disney XD's much-publicized partnership with ESPN ...

Many of the net's live-action series appear to be tween-friendly versions of adult reality fare, like "Head Rush," a "Cash Cab"-style game show set on a roller coaster; "Survive This," an outdoors adventure show that focuses on teamwork instead of backstabbing; and "Dude, What Would Happen," a "Mythbusters"-esque series of answers to oddball questions like, "What would happen if you attached 350 helium balloons to a sumo wrestler?" ...

High quality, high concept stuff, to be sure.

Me, I wish the boys and girls at Cartoon Network would stick more to cartoons and less to cousins of the Disney Channel's flesh-and-blood line-up. But then, I'm prejudiced toward funny animals and wacky kids drawn on paper and Cintiqs in two dimensions.

I just hope the day doesn't come where Cartoon Network doesn't morph into plain old Network.

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A Brief, Fifty-eight Year History

It might be semi-useful -- since the subject has recently come up -- to briefly reiterate the history of TAG ... how it came to be, and how it came to be chucked out of the IATSE West Coast bargaining unit in 1985.

(This was partially covered in comments down below ... but we add useful, baco-bits of information that many sentient beings don't know ...)

1951 -- TAG founded (starting life as The Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists) wins industry-wide election to represent animation employees.

(The opposition Screen Cartoonists Guild, led by animator Bill Melendez, banished to repping various commercial animation houses until the early sixties. Bill was miffed about it ever after.)

January 1952 -- TAG officially chartered, begins operations.

(And the Charter Members listed on the charter? Lots of different folks; lots of Disney personnel, some of whom were true union believers and some of whom supported the local because Walt told them to.)

1958 -- TAG organizes Hanna-Barbera.

1972 -- T.V. animation starts to be sub-contracted out of the country.

1979 -- TAG strikes television animation studios, wins guarantees regarding staffing levels before work can be subbed out of the country.

1982 -- TAG goes on strike to preserve "runaway clause" in its contract; loses ten-week strike; loses clause from contract.

1983 -- WGAw (Writers Guild of America) files claims with the National Labor Relations Board for animation writers because of lengthy strike and no contract. NLRB rules against WGAw. Television Writers stay with TAG.

1985 -- AMPTP tells the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes that it will no longer negotiate on behalf of the studios with TAG (Local 839) in the IATSE bargaining unit, in punishment for going out on two successive strikes. IA bargains for a new Basic Agreement without 839 as part of the Bargaining Unit.

1991 -- TAG attempts to organize Film Roman. Loses the NLRB election 5-1.

1995 -- TAG achieves a 401(k) Pension Plan to supplement the two pensions of the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan.

1995 -- TAG signs contract with DreamWorks Animation.

1998 -- TAG organizes Sony Adelaide.

2000 -- Nine-month contract negotiation fails to gain individual residual for writers, but results in improved freelance rates for scribes.

2003 -- TAG organizes Nickelodeon Animation Studios.

2004 -- TAG organizes Film Roman. This time wins the NLRB election 5-1. (We don't like to rush things too much ...)

2007 --TAG organizes Imagi Animation Studios.

For a definitive look at unions in the animation industry, you can't do better than Tom Sito's Drawing the Line. And Tom always has lots of labor history -- and every other kind of history -- on his excellent blog.

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Pirates of the South China Seas

A few years ago, a Disney animation staffer who'd just return from Thailand said to me:

"You know, I was in Bangkok the day Chicken Little opened in Thai theaters. And the same day, I walked through a city shopping bazaar and bought this."

At which point, he held up a dvd box with Chicken Little artwork on it. "Ah," I thought to myself. "A pirated dvd."

Which, of course, it was.

So it's not surprising that this is going on now:

The 3-D animated movie "Monsters vs. Aliens" will release in China on March 31 on more than 200 screens -- all 3-D equipped, making it all but impossible to pirate the film with a video recorder, DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg said Wednesday ...

"China is the only market in the world where it will be shown 100% in 3-D," Katzenberg said, adding that after successes across the region with "Kung Fu Panda" and "Madagascar" animation, Asia and the combination thereof is increasingly important to DreamWorks...

Lim Han Seng, regional director of sales and marketing for distributor United International Pictures Asia, put at 180 the number of screens on which "Monsters vs. Aliens" would show in China, mostly in Beijing and Shanghai.

China, which caps at 20 the annual number of imported films allowed to screen on a revenue-sharing basis, has allowed 3-D pictures to skirt that limit.

The reason that piracy is a big deal and ongoing cancer ... I mean beyond the money the multi-nationals lose ... is that it impacts the amount of work and amount of money that film workers ultimately get.

Less revenue equals less work plus smaller paychecks.

Not to mention the nasty way it impacts the level of residuals that flow into health and pension plans and film workers' pockets.

Every guild and union has been screaming about movie piracy for years. (A while back, IA reps were royally bugged by the "who cares" attitude of various representatives from foreign governments at a couple of overseas conferences, so it's not like government entities in far-away lands necessarily worry about this, or that they're going to waste much money, time and energy enforcing international copyright laws.)

My take is: theft of intellectual property will always be with us. The best we can hope for is to diminish it some. It's good that 3-D is slowing down the pirates. But they'll find a way around the impediments placed around them. They always do.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Studio Merry-Go-Round

I made my usual spins through some of our fine, Southern California cartoon factories the last few days, to wit:

Over at Nick, there might not be as much production as at other points in the studio's existence, but hands down, Nickelodeon has got more projects going on ... and more artists bent over their Cintiqs ... than any other teevee toon factory in town.

And what projects are percolating in the Viacom pot? Fairly Odd Parents, Dora the Explorer, Go Diego, Go, Barnyard, Fan Boy and Chum Chum, Sponge Bob Square Pants, The Might Bee, MiHao Kai Lan and Penguins of Madagascar.

Added to which, there are three or four future series in early development, plus a few specials.

Am I getting complaints about compressed production schedules? About uncompensated o.t.? About workloads? Noooo. Not now.

At Film Roman/Starz Media, The Simpsons crew got the word yesterday from Gracie Film's Richard Sakai and Richard Reynes that Fox is cutting the budgets of all their television series and The Yellow Family is no exception.

"The directors met with Sakai and Reynes earlier in the day, design crew later in the day. They tell us the plan is to hold salaries flat for overscale people, and hang on to as much of the crew as they can.

"The show's more complicated now, what with the high-def format, but we've got to somehow do more for less. They said they were going to honor union contracts, bump up people making scale minimums when they had to.

"It was nice that they came out and had the meetings in person instead of some memo going around. Sakai and Reynes answered questions people had, but there weren't many questions, to tell you the truth. The facts were pretty straight forward. Leaving the meeting, people weren't upset, weren't angry. Just kind of ... resigned."

The crew on King of the Hill has now departed. But when I was over at Fox Animation's The Celveland Show last week, I was pleasantly surprised to see some of the Hill staffers working on Cleveland. Nice to see that at least some artists are landing on new job perches after the older roosts collapse out from under them.

An artist asked me today: "So how many studios you visit a day?"

I told him the answer was usually one, but occasionally two ... and very occasionally three. I also said that I drive to two or three only when I'm feeling completely insane.

Click here to read entire post

Image Movers Acquires

Which is good news, as far as we're concerned.

"The Stoneheart Trilogy," a young-adult fantasy book series by Charlie Fletcher, is moving towards a big-screen adaptation, with Robert Zemeckis' production company, ImageMovers, and Walt Disney Pictures in negotiations to pick up film rights to the material.

Here's the program: Anytime a studio employs a lot of folks whom you represent, you want that studio to prosper. Because you want that studio to go right on employing a lot of folks.

So the fact that IM Digital and the Walt Disney Co. are going to have more projects lined up on the tarmac, ready to lift into the Wild Blue, is a very good thing.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Filled Out Your Wage Survey Yet?

If you've worked under the Guild's jurisdiction in the last ... oh ... twelve months, then you should have gotten our annual wage survey questionnaire in the mail. And you may have read the cover letter, in which Kevin and Steve discussed exactly why it's important for EVERYONE who's received the survey to reply.

The good news is that last year, we had an increase in the percentage of survey response. Even so, the rate of reply is still below where we'd like it to be. So. To insure a meaningful and accurate look at where wages are ... and where they've been trending, fill out your form tonight and get it back to us pronto.

We know you have questions; herewith are my replies:

Why is it so important that you know how much I make? What business is it of yours?

Outside of a situation where we might have to go to bat for you -- like, if you're being paid less that the contract minimums -- it probably isn't any of our business how much you make. But we don't want to know how much you, the individual artist earns each week. Really

What we want are big gobs of data so the wage survey has weight and meaning to your workaday life.

Which is why the survey is anonymous.

I'm afraid if I tell the union what I make, the word will get out.

Which is why the survey is anonymous. (Sorry for repeating ourselves, but we hear this one a lot.) Nobody will know. There's no place for your name on the envelope of form. Honest to Betsy.

Why don't you publish what people make broken down by employer? Why not just publish the raw data?

We've looked at the raw data from past surveys, and we realized that if we published it as is, or in a less generalized format than the one we've been using, it would be too easy to "play detective" with ... uh ... certain results. And the bottom line is, we want the survey to remain anonymous. (That word again.)

(By the way, if you are looking for specific numbers broken down by department and employer, send Jeff Massie an e-mail at jeffm@animationguild.org, or call him at (818) 766-7151 ext. 104. He can bringup his magic spreadsheet and give you meaningful numbers, without revealing anything that might jeopardize anyone's privacy.)

When I got hired, my employer told me I had to keep my salary a secret.

We've said it before and we'll say it again -- this is illegal.

Section 232 of 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)].

Of course, that fact that it's illegal doesn't prevent certain employers or employer reps from pulling it, or trying to phrase it in a "nice" way: "Gee, we sure hope you understand it could get embarrassing if everyone found out what a great salary we're paying you ..." (this, invariably, to the artist who doesn't realize the "great" salary being offered is hundreds per week below the going rate.)

And anyway, the survey is anonymous (yawn), so there is no way any employer will know that you ratted them out to us. (Which is legal.)

Why don't you publish a survey of non-union wages?

Because we have no way to accurately poll non-members ... who are the ones who largely make up the workforce at many non-union employers.

However, many of the survey results we get from members show what they are being paid at non-union shops. In most cases, these are the numbers that show up at or near the survey minimums. In our experience, those Guild members who work at non-Guild shops are typically more experienced than their non-member fellow workers, and thus tend to be among the higher-paid.

If you want to know what it's like out there in non-union-land, there are several online surveys that show what the going rates are in non-union areas:

So why don't you publish the wage survey questionnaire online or in the Peg-Board so that non-union members can fill it out?

We go out of our way to make sure that the survey is conducted fairly and impartially, which is why we only accept the colored survey forms that have been mailed to us by members. Otherwise, we lose control over the accuracy of the results.

It would be easy, for example, for a non-union employer to fill out multiple forms to drive down the medians ... or for others to submit inflated numbers to drive the numbers over the actual going rate. Bottom line: the survey is only as valuable as its credibility.

Things are terrible in the business nowadays ... I don't think the Guild should publish a list that shows everyone how bad the wages are.

This gets to the #1 reason why an accurate wage survey is very important:

This is information that your employer already knows. So you and your fellow members deserve to know it as well.

Lower wages are not a secret, and if the survey results reflect that, it's not as if we're the ones who have broken the news. If you're looking for work in this atmosphere, it's important that you do so with your eyes wide open ... and you can't do that with an unrealistic view of what your talents and skills will fetch in the marketplace.

I worked at a union shop last year, and I didn't get a wage survey. (Or maybe I did, but I lost it.)

So E-mail Jeff Massie at jeffm@animationguild.org, or call him at (818) 766-7151 ext. 104, and he'll get one out to you.

One last thing. If you really, really feel it's important to get more wage survey forms out there, then drop a comment below. We can, if there is enough of a demand for them, put up a web version on the TAG website. But be warned: The last time we offered this thrilling option, we got eight (8) web forms back.

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Monsters March on Moscow

The new DreamWorks Animation extravaganza won't open stateside until Friday, but it's already tearing up the wickets elsewhere.

DreamWorks Animation/Paramount's "Monsters vs. Aliens," made its overseas debut in Russian and the Ukraine a week before to its domestic bow. The 3-D animated film finished at No. 1 in both markets, registering a total of $6.9 million from 632 spots.

At 755 screens at 560 sites in Russia, the tally was $6.6 million, the fourth-largest market opener for an animation title. The gross was, per Paramount, 15% ahead of last year's "Kung Fu Panda" and 80% bigger than that of Oscar winner "WALL-E." Ukraine tally was $350,000 from 72 screens.

The 115 3-D screens played in Russia produced a $17,000 per-screen average, "well ahead of the $6,700 average for conventional 2-D screens," Paramount said. All "Monsters vs. Aliens" showings at three Imax venues were sold out. In all, 32% of the total business came from 3-D venues, which comprised only 15% of the total prints ...

So this 3-D thing, it looks like it might catch on, yes? And DreamWorks Animation appears to have yet another hit on its hands. We'll know what kind of hit by next Sunday ...

Meanwhile, the continuing takes of other 'toons in overseas venues is not half shabby.

Disney Animation's "Bolt" -- $177 million

Universal's "The Tale of Despereaux" -- $32.7 million

Universal's "Coraline" -- $8 million

DreamWorks Animation/Paramount's "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" -- $406 million

Let's review, shall we? The French entry Despereaux approaches the $100 million marker; Madagascar Deux is a runaway smash hit, clocking in at over half a billion in total international moolah; Coraline is either just beginning to roll out ... or underperforming (methinks the former),.

And The White Doggie is closing in on $300 million ($177 million overseas plus $114 million domestic equals $291 million and change.)

All in all, animation seems to be doing nicely in this time of trouble and woe.

Click here to read entire post

Weekend Mini-Link Carnival

When you have nothing useful to say on a Sunday afternoon, what better time to throw a small linkfest?

Chuck Jones (you remember him, don't you?) gets profiled next Tuesday on Turner Classic Movies.

The documentary is not so much a biography as it is a joyful exploration of an artist's childhood. Jones, who died at 89 in February 2002, sat down at his drawing table for lengthy interviews in 1997 with filmmakers Peggy Stern and John Canemaker.

These interviews were fashioned into "Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood." And the greatest compliment you could pay this documentary is that it's the type of work Jones would have loved.

It's very touching, but it's also very clever, very crafty and very funny. Sharing the antic Jones' sense of humor, Stern and Canemaker package these marvelous memories with witty splashes of animation and musical flourishes. A black-and-white sketch or colorful graphic represents a distinctive Jones memory, then animation brings these images and memories to life ...

The music score for Monsters Vs. Aliens is analyzed by Blogger News.

... [F]rom the sound of the tracks here, it appears that [composer Henry] Jackman has been paying attention on all his assignments. He’s able to pull together the action sensibilities of The Dark Knight and Hancock - check out the intensely pounding “Do Something Violent!” with its super-fast-paced tempo and full orchestral involvement - with the cartoonish elements of The Simpsons Movie and Kung Fu Panda - “Meet the Monsters” is a hip, quirky piece that feels like an extended, spruced up sitcom introduction with jazzy Lilo Schifrin elements thrown in for good measure. Monsters vs. Aliens is a thrilling score that mixes dark superhero themes with childlike wonder, at times sounding like John Williams’ Superman score - listen to the opening of “Oversized Tin Can” and tell me I’m wrong - and at other times sounding like a goofy kid pleaser - okay, now check out the second half of “Oversized Tin Can.” ...

And Cristy Lytal of the L.A. Times profiles Phil McNally, the master of MvA's three dimensions.

... To avoid eye strain, McNally's depth scripts confine the most extreme 3-D to certain scenes, such as the climactic battle in "Monsters vs. Aliens." "Obviously, we want to ramp up this big event at the end of the movie with all this big action," McNally says. "There's a great shot where Susan's diving off the top of an exploding platform with all the guys and she's falling into this huge space. There are explosions, and there's stuff flying out past us as well."

Racking their brains: 2-D techniques such as the rack focus -- in which the focus is shifted between the background and foreground to direct the audience's attention -- are not as effective in 3-D filmmaking. "In 3-D, if you just do a rack focus without anything else changing, half the audience will be left looking at someone who just went blurry because there's a strong desire to look at what's closest, and there's less desire to look at what's farther away," McNally says ...

Computer Graphic World's Barbara Robertson discusses a variety of c.g. shorts.

... When Pixar wanted a new short film to show with its then upcoming CG feature Wall-e, animator Doug Sweetland jumped at the opportunity. The result is a five-minute ’toon called “Presto,” a short film about a rabbit that pulls a magician out of its hat. It’s different from anything Pixar has produced in the past, and it’s the first short Pixar has produced on a rigid deadline.

“Normally, shorts are not primary projects,” Sweetland says. “When a feature needs resources, the short goes on hold. But, one of the tests with ‘Presto’ was to see if we could do the film without interruptions.”

They did, but it took some clever tricks on the part of the production crew to make it happen. “Our original schedule had us finishing before the peak usage of labor on Wall-e occurred,” says Richard Hollander, producer. “We lost that battle and became lock-step to Wall-e ..."

Have yourself a useful workweek in the days ahead,

Click here to read entire post

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Early Spring Box Office

Coraline hangs onto the tent (or should I say tenth) spot in the B. O. Hit Parade, pulling in $630,000 for a total domestic gross of $71,340,000.

Further up the ladder, Nicholas Cage like, Just Knows he'll land in the top spot, and Male Bondery takes the #2 position, while Julia Roberts has a well-reviewed but under-attended comeback film with Duplicity.

Overseas, Variety notes that Slumdog Millionair, Marley and Me and Gran Torino are doing big business in various markets.

"Slumdog" placed No. 3 overall at the international box office for the weekend of March 13-15, grossing roughly $13.1 million from 1,800 playdates in 23 territories. "Slumdog" may not reach the $300 million mark at the worldwide B.O., but it will likely come close.

Sadly, there's not a word about the white doggie.

Add On: Coraline ends up at #10 and another $2 million to nudge up against $73 million in total box office. (Coraline ended up with the lowest percentage drop of any Top Ten movie -- 21.2%. This will probably change when Monsters Vs. Aliens blows into the neighborhood A.M.C. next week.)

As for the rest of the field, Knowing came in almost exactly where the prognosticators thought it would, I Love You, Man made off with $18 million, and Duplicity underperformed projections with $14.4 million.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

But ... What About 839? ...

A commenter on Deadline Hollywood Daily asks (in regards to the ratification of the IATSE Basic Agreement):

Hey, how did IATSE 839 vote on this union wide contract?


How is that even legal? What a joke.

Comment by iatse 839 — March 20, 2009 @ 4:20 pm

And Biz Rep Hulett replies:

Funny thing about TAG 839 not getting a vote inside the IA bargaining unit.

From 1952 until 1985 TAG was one of the IA locals in the bargaining unit, getting to vote on each Basic Agreement as it was negotiated.

But in 1985, kindly old Nick Counter told then IA President Walter Diehl that the AMPTP would no longer be negotiating on behalf of the studios as regards Local 839. In other words, the Alliance was kicking us out of the bargaining unit because we had been overly frisky in 1979 and 1982 with job actions. (In other words, we went on strike.)

Although the IATSE authorized the strikes, when we were pushed out of the bargaining unit, the IA contested the expulsion, but not strenuously. And so, ultimately, we were out. (These things happened while I was a feature animation writer at Disney and serving on the TAG executive board as Vice President. But I didn't participate in the 1985 negotiations.)

From that day to this, we have negotiated contracts all by our loneseome, separate and apart frmo the IA Basic Agreement. Generally, we negotiate the same deal that the IA locals inside the bargaining unit negotiate.

Disadvantages? You're not part of the larger body, and so you have to fend more for yourself. (In recent years, the International has become a more active participant in our local negotiations. They were less involved in the early and middle nineties.)

We have lsee input regarding the Health and Pension benefits that are negotiated under the Basic Agreement, not under our local agreement.

Advantages? Because we're out of the unit, we've been able to negotiate a 401(k) Plan ... in addition to the Motion Picture Health and Pension Benefits that we've had since the fifties.

Happily, members vote on ratification for each and every Local 839 agreement.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Nikki commenter. Since Nikki F. has blocked TAG comments on her blog in the past, I take the liberty of answering you here.

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The IA Basic Agreement Ratified

My faithful assisting companion Jeffrey Massie and I journeyed to the IATSE West Coast Office this morning to witness the ratification vote tally of the IA Basic Agreement. The results:

Despite the unhappy comments and posts about this contract that was posted on various sites on the web, the Basic Agreement was ratified unanimously by the fifteen IATSE bargaining-unit locals, by percentages ranging from 56% to 97%. The contract ratification is done by a sort of Electoral-College-type system with each local union casting votes based on their delegate counts from the last union convention.

The Basic Agreement is the umbrella under which most IA West Coast Studio Locals negotiate their terms and conditions, including health insurance and pension. For historical reasons, TAG isn't in that bargaining unit, but we have traditionally had our health insurance, pension and minimum rate increases modeled on the IA agreement.

As one business representative said:

This was a tough contract to negotiate, and a lot of members had questions about why we ended up where we did. But once we gave them all the information, they came back and voted in large numbers, and voted favorably. To be honest, I was surprised by the size of the positive vote that we got. But they processed the information and made up their minds.

My lesson from all this is: Don't be faked out by the complaints and anger you hear in some places, because that is a very small sample of union members, and is a pretty lousy indicator of people's mindsets.

Click here to read entire post


One thing about Jeffrey Katzenberg. He gets out there and sells the product.

"There were two major developments in cinema during the 20th century. The first came in the Twenties when silent movies became talkies. The second came in the following decade, when we went from black-and-white to colour. Now, 70 years on, we're in the third great revolution: the new generation of 3D ..."

"Sure, it's even more expensive, but I think everybody will go this way eventually. People will demand this kind of experience. It's an experience you simply can't have at home on DVD."

As we've noted here previously, Jeffrey is a showman. P.T. Barnum, Darryl Zanuck, and David O. Selznick are his (figurative) ancestors.

He supervises the making of the movie, he pushes the selling of the movie, he gives copious interviews for the movie. The last two things are sprinkled with flavorful bits of hyperbole.

Which makes sense. If you don't wax enthusiastic over your children, how are you going to engender enthusiasm in the people you want to rush out and buy tickets to view your children?

More power to him.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Beware the Links of March

Toonish Links for a Spring day ... (watch out for French sprites ...)

Apparently there is blow-back over having Dora (the well-known explorer) grow older:

Many parents were up in arms recently when Nickelodeon announced plans for a new-and-improved Dora the Explorer. Specifically, an older, more sophisticated, 10-year-old Dora for tweens.

"As tweenage Dora, our heroine has moved to the big city, attends middle school and has a whole new fashionable look," the press release stated, showcasing a silhouette of the new Dora that looked to be wearing a micro mini skirt, long hair swinging sexily below her shoulders.

...With images of Bratz dolls pole-dancing in their heads, many parents took to the internet to protest the change. "What, little girls don't have enough fashion-obsessed trash idols?" one commenter quipped over at CafeMom.com. "The outrage is powered by pent up outrage over the sexualization of our daughters, of their dolls and their clothing," ...

These people don't seem to appreciate that in conglomerate land, it's anything for a smooth buck. And if enlarging the franchise makes Viacom more money, then the franchise gets enlarged, capice?

Pixar's Ronnie Del Carmen explains his passion for drawing comic books.

... I gravitate towards books that have a controlling idea behind them, no matter how slight. I think it makes the editing process easier but more than that it makes the book about something. The question I deal with in my day job as story supervisor is: "What is--insert project here--about?" So, rather than just having a series of images that can run the gamut of drawings and scribbles I have in my sketchbooks I thought about what I was experiencing over time with my sketchbooks. What could a compilation of my drawings be about? ...

It's been noted elsewhere in more than a few places, but we still note the passing of Millard Kaufman, co-creator of Mr. Magoo.

A former newspaperman who launched his screenwriting career after serving in the Marines during World War II, Kaufman quickly made a mark on pop culture by writing the screenplay for "Ragtime Bear," the 1949 cartoon short directed by John Hubley that introduced the near-sighted Mr. Magoo.

The character, which was voiced by actor Jim Backus, was modeled in part on Kaufman's uncle.

"My uncle had no problem with his eyes," Kaufman said in a 2007 National Public Radio interview. "He simply interpreted everything that came across his way in his own particular manner, and he could at times be a little bit difficult, but he would only see things the way they existed highly subjectively to him."

The Nikkster projects Monsters Vs. Aliens opening, domestic and worldwide grosses, citing a box office specialist:

Media analyst Rich Greenfield of Pali Research today writes (registration required) that his prediction for Monsters vs. Aliens' worldwide box office estimate of $483M is "conservative ($186 domestic, $297 international), given the recent strength in domestic movie attendance trends (consumers escaping from the gloomy economy) and the benefit the movie should see from premium 3-D" pricing ...

(Nikki's commenters write of their disdain for DreamWorks animated product, forgetting the old Hollywood axium: "A good movie is a movie that makes a lot of money.")

Not to rest on its laurels, Disney/Pixar's Up will get the big launch at some French resort or other:

Disney-Pixar announced that a 3D presentation of its coming animated feature “Up” has been selected as the opening night premiere of this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

But speaking of the country that helped launch our own ... the French film business is on a roll:

French filmmaking powered up in 2008, with budgets and production levels rising for the second year running.

The number of French-nationality pic productions rose to 240 last year from 203 in 2006 and 228 in 2007 ...

French investment in domestic pic production skyrocketed 28.6% to 1.22 billion euros ($1.6 billion).

Much of it was driven by two high-bracket animation features from EuropaCorp, both directed by Luc Besson: "Arthur and the Two Worlds War" ($89.3 million) and "Arthur and the Revenge of Maltazard" ($82.0 million), plus Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud's docu "Oceans" ($64.7 million).

Have a glorious Friday.

Nikkster Add On: Nikki F. is now hyperventilating over DreamWorks Animation's tie-in with B of A for movie tickets:

Though I suppose it was just a matter of time before the Hollywood moguls figured out a way to get their hands on some of that U.S. goverment bailout money, albeit indirectly. But why in the world are American taxpayers helping foot the bill to promote a big-budget 3-D DreamWorks Animation movie? Well, it appears the reason is because the president of the Jeffrey Katzenberg-led Hollywood animation studio just happens to be Bank of America's former Vice Chairman and CFO.

It took respected media analyst Rich Greenfield of Pali Research to uncover this staggering scheme...

A scheme! A nefarious scheme! Quick! Pass a bill in congress!

Click here to read entire post

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

At the Hat

An afternoon spent breezing through the hallways of Disney Animation Studios, and nothing much to report, except ...

The PATF artists to whom I spoke think that this "black princess, white prince" semi-controversy is silly:

"Black/white isn't what this movie is about. It could be anywhere or anybody in this story. The race thing just isn't a factor ..."

Staffers feel that some of the jobss that management eliminated doing this new hand-drawn feature has cost the studio more money than it's saved.

"Older style, made-by-hand cartoon features are not the kinds of movies the new management is used to making ... or knows real well ..."

Everybody is working hard and with satisfaction over the quality of the movie they're making. Rapunzel moves steadily into production. (It's ... ah ... changed some over the six or seven years it's been in work.)

Click here to read entire post

Questions and Answers

So let me share actual recent questions I've been asked in the studios and on the phone, and the actual answers I've supplied.

(Happily, they're better than my "I've got no idea" of a couple of days ago ...)

How's the animation business holding up? (Often phrased as: "What's going on out there?")

The theatrical side is fairly robust, the t.v. side fairly depressed. The brighter area in television land is prime time animation. Fox owns the concept, and others are trying to get in on the act. But by and large, bread-and-butter kid cartoon shows are going through a rough patch because live-action has encroached on the usual ebb and flow of half-hour, animated product. Other studios are chasing the Disney model (live-action half hours), even though it's expensive. This has hurt staffing on the television side of animation.

The biggest gainers in animation have been on the theatrical side. DreamWorks animation was adding staff throughout 2008, also Image Movers Digital. The Disney Animation Studio laid off crew when Bolt ended, and will probably lay off traditional artists at the conclusion of Princess and the Frog, but staff will be increased as Rapunzel gets deeper into production ...

What do you do when your studio doesn't pick up your personal service contract, but wants to keep you on and renegotiate your wage increase to zero?

Studios have the right to exercise or not exercise contract options (that's why they're built into the initial deal). If they want to retain you but not pick up the option to extend, they're no doubt looking at market conditions and deciding that you will stay around ... even though you won't be getting that contractual wage bump.

My advice is: Seriously look around and see what other jobs and wages are out in the marketplace, and seriously consider taking one when you find it. And let your old employer -- the one that didn't pick up the option -- know that you'll be moving on if they don't match the newer job offer.

I suggest this approach because, if you're truly unhappy with the way you're being treated and want to be treated better, the only way you'll get what you want is by playing chicken ... and being willing to walk away from a deal you're not happy with. It's the only way you can negotiate with higher effectiveness. Having that willingness to say "no" is key. (And yeah, this could be tough to do in the present work/economic environment.)

My supervisor and I haven't been getting along. He doesn't think I'm a "team player." What do I do?

(My answer here ties in with the numerous other posts I've done on this subject; here is yet another version:)

Not what I did in the workplace.

When I worked at Disney, I was a feisty, stick-up-for-myself, mouthy kind of story guy. This was relatively okay under the regime that hired me, but wasn't okay under the regime that came in later. Sadly, I didn't get the memo about the rule change and so was shown the door.

One of the harder things to do in the studio environment is knowing the acceptable boundaries of behavior with your boss. After watching a lot of different studios for a long time, I've concluded there is no totally foolproof mode of behavior, but in general: 1) Don't contradict your supervisor in front of superiors, 2) Don't tell your supervisor "I told you so" when they turn out to be wrong and you turn out to be right, 3) Go the extra mile and be as agreeable as the law and your internal rheostat allows (and be sure your rheostat is properly adjusted for the reality in which you are working.)

My 401(k) has tanked. What do I do?

Stay at least partially in stocks. And wait for the market to rebound.

(Easy advice to give. Harder advice to follow.)

There is no super-great answer here. The market has already eaten it and is, as I write, moving up again. (And yeah, it might go down some more ... although I think it's far closer to the bottom than the top.)

There are no great pearls of wisdom to be given in this space. I'm far from an expert, but few if any financial advisors saw the stock market Tsunami coming, and fewer still know when the market will recoup its losses. (My guess is: a while.)

If you are young, you'll likely have time to recover from this fall off the cliff and should consider remaining in equities. If you are old and near retirement age, you should have been weighted in bonds going into this. If you weren't, calculate what you need to live on in retirement and develop a plan to claw your way there. Maybe it's working an extra three years, maybe it's taking Social Security earlier, maybe it's diversifying your reduced accounts. Whatever it is, develop a plan.

My general advice: Don't invest beyond the tolerance of your nervous system. And for heaven's sake, figure out the amount of punishment your nerves will tolerate.

Etcetera, etcetera. Now you know the kinds of questions I've been getting in the last few weeks and months. Also the accompanying answers.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

February Studio Roundabout

At Film Roman, most of the The Simpsons's crew is finishing the current season of The Yellow Family. Various people came up to me today and mentioned that they now have five qualifed pension years under their belts. So folks who've been working there since TAG signed a contract with FR in early 2005 are now vested in both pension plans run by the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan.

A few hearty souls have already started with Season 21 of The Simpsons. One of them related:

"We've got twenty-two episodes in the new season, which is great, but they're cutting schedules, so everyone is going to have to work longer days, and with the high def format we're reworking a lot of the old locations and setups and there's a lot more pencil mileage. And the word around is that the company want's to keep salaries flat. But hey, we're working ..."

"We're working," It's a phrase I hear a lot. (I might have mentioned this before. Like twenty or thirty times.)

And it ties in with what a Disney veteran (who's no longer there) recently told me over lunch re Disney Animation Studios.

"Old friends are telling me that Princess and the Frog has tested really well, and that the rumor going around is that the studio is thinking about doing more hand-drawn features, maybe two.

"But nobody's taking anything for granted, and everybody's insecure. Like they don't know if they'll be there after PATF is done or not ..."

Then, of course, there's the tempest currently brewing in your local thimble:

... [E]ven though "The Princess and the Frog" isn’t released until later this year, it is already stirring up controversy.

For while Princess Tiana and many in the cartoon cast are black – the prince is not. Which has led some critics to complain that Disney has ducked the opportunity for a fairytale ending for a black prince and princess.

While some have hailed Disney’s decision as a reflection of melting pot America, others say the company is sending out a mixed message.

Mixed message. That's choice.

Apparently it's escaped the notice of some outraged filmgoers -- and journalists unhampered by irony -- that the United States has a President who is ... how do I say this diplomatically? ... of "mixed race." You know, like a white mother and black father?

So maybe the mixed message thing fits right in. You think?

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401(k) Changes

For people here who are plugged into the TAG 401(k) Plan, we have some changes dialed into the mix. (Everybody else, skip this post.) ...

In our quest to improve the mix of funds, effective June 1 we will be:

1) Dropping the Mass Mutual Destination Series funds (age-based retirement dates) and replacing them with the Vanguard Target Date Series. The Vanguard funds are not only more cost efficient, they track market benchmarks more closely than the Mass Mutual funds. (Added to which, the Mass Mutual Destination Funds have been under-performing of late.)

2) We’re eliminating the Oppenheimer Small and Mid Cap Value Fund and the Oppenheimer Main Street Small Cap Fund. Both of these funds have under-performed funds of the same type over the past nine months. We’ll be replacing them with the Allianz NFJ SCV Fund, and the Gabelli SCG fund, respectively.

3) We’ll be eliminating the American Funds World Bond Fund and the Premier Inflation Protected Bond Fund (funds for each transferred to PIMCO Total Return Fund), as well as the NASDAQ 100 Fund (money there going to Select Indexed Equity) and the MRS International New Discovery and International Equity Index (both charting to American Funds Euro Pacific).

The Plan Trustees, after months of review, felt that these funds were a) duplicative of better funds offered by the Plan, and b) outside our core mission of offering a simpler, diversified offering of different asset groups.

Lastly, if you have money in any of the dropped funds, it will be automatically transferred to the same type of core funds that remain in the Plan. (Money in the Select NADAQ 100 will transfer to the Plan's S & P 500 Fund.)

We now return to teh regular blogging.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Clearing Up a DWA Question

Since I was kind of in error in the DreamWorks post down below ... but don't want to get in the middle of other commenters' firefight ... let me clarify a few items of interest up here ...

Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois? Co-directing How to Train Your Dragon? Absolutely true.

I know it's true because I read it in Wikipedia, and if you can't trust Wikipedia, what can you trust? Also, various employees at DreamWorks Animation told me the same thing.

And the shorter production schedule? I'm informed that HTTYD has always had a fairly short window to get the picutre done, and has one now.

"We know we're going to be working a lot of overtime on the picture, but nobody's uptight about it, everybody's happy to be working. The story's coming along, nobody is worried about that. We know the picture's going to get done. We've done it before, many times ..."

So, to sum up: People aren't worried that the time they've got to produce How to Train Your Dragon is too short (at least, nobody I talked to.) And nobody's fretting about the story.

All I know is what I read in Wikipedia, and hear from people on the DreamWorks campus.

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Writers Guild Shrinks Staff

Another sign post of tough times:

The Writers Guild of America West has notified its staff that it will cut at least 10% of its 185 employees as a result of an operating deficit of more than $2 million.

The WGA West had no comment Monday evening about the job cuts, expected to be announced in coming weeks.

... The WGA West has increased its expenditures in recent years to beef up its organizing efforts in reality and animation but has registered negligible gains in those arenas.

It's difficult to have to cut staff, but sometimes your hand is forced. You can't always predict cash flow in the middle of financial distress, so you trim the sails and hope for the best as you plow into the storm.

On thing, however, I know: It's better for every working person in Hollywood when the industry's unions are strong and taking care of business. Because it means that, long term, the people who have to work for a living will have enough money in their pockets to raise healthy families and be productive citizens.

Let's hope that whatever cuts the Guild has to make are neither deep nor prolonged.

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White Doggie Watch

Though Bolt is gone from U.S. movie screens (topping out at $114,053,579 when it departed in February), the picture still trots right along overseas:

... Bolt added $2.5m from 2,877 screens in 33 for $175.8m

Which means, White Doggie now has a worldwide theatrical cume of $289.8 million.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

A WBA Project

In the early and mid-eighties, Warner Bros. Animation was pretty much a boutique studio, turning out the occasional short or compilation of shorts at a small office in Toluca Lake.

Then in 1989 WGA entered a partnership with Steven Spielberg and began a major Renaissance (and a move to new spaces in the Sherman Oaks Galleria), turning out Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, and a raft of other product that was pretty much the gold standard for television animation in the first half of the 1990s ...

The quality Warners cartoon staff was kept on even when production was slow, and times were good.

Now, of course, times have changed. WBA is a much smaller version of its former self, and headquartered in two sites on the Warners (formerly Columbia) Ranch. Daffy, Bugs and Yosemite Sam have given way to comic book super heroes:

This time it is SUPERMAN/BATMAN: PUBLIC ENEMIES based upon the Jeff Loeb and Ed McGuinness comic series. Bruce Timm is the Executive Producer on the film and is currently actually in production ...

Of late, Warners Animation has been home to various spandexed crime fighters, in both direct-to-video features and t.v. episodics. "We keep getting close to adding a couple of new series to the production slate," one staffer told me, "but so far we've just done the Batman series and a string of dvd features. I keep hoping it's going to be more. We're sure trying ..."

It would be nice to return to those halcyon days when WBA artists worked year 'round and were carried during thin periods. But I'm sure the board artists, directors and model designers would settle for two or three newer series.

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

When Leverage Erodes

Talk to any veteran animator in the business today, and they'll tell you (if they're willing to talk at all) that they aren't making near the money they earned thirteen or fourteen years ago. As markets and competition drove paychecks up then, so are the same forces are pushing wages down now.

And so it is with labor unions.

Case in point, the Screen Actors Guild. A few days back the Nikkster bemoaned the spinelessness of SAG's new, moderate regime. To wit:

[T]he newly installed SAG leadership has zero interest in bettering the lousy terms of the AMPTP's "Last, Best And Final" TV/Theatrical contract offer made to the Guild on February 18th. Not the New Media terms. Not the issues of residuals or jurisdictions. Not anything except the expiration date of the contract.

[M]y own insiders and even the LA Times' sources say the new SAG leaders are only bargaining the issue of the contract's expiration date ... So the sole dispute between the Hollywood CEOs and the SAG National Majority right now is about whether the pact runs only 2 years or 3, and only that because it could prevent a SAG/AFTRA merger.

So tell me, SAG members: is that the only dispute between you and the Hollywood CEOs worth talking about now? ...

Nikki, you see, is agitated that the new SAG leadership doesn't get out there and improve the crappy New Media/residual terms to which the other guilds and unions -- most particulalry the horrid AFTRA -- have already agreed.

She's got no skin in the game, but hey. She's outraged. And she'll urge the players on from the quiet safety of her internet perch until the last picket sign falls.

But here's a good part of the reason SAG isn't more militant and aggressive with New Media ... and everything else save the contract expiration date ... in the way Nikki Finke would like:

The looming possibility of a SAG strike and the lure of the less-expensive and more-flexible digital production has accelerated the transition from film to digital. The union affiliation for a pilot and the subsequent series is determined by the method of filming: film for SAG and digital for AFTRA. That is firmed up after directors are hired, and with all pilot helmers in place, the final union pilot tally is coming together.

Sixty-six of 70 pilots this season will be AFTRA-affiliated, up from a handful last pilot season ...

See, there's this other union representing actors that has a three-year deal ... with the crappy New Media and residuals language that Nikki and a lot of SAG members hate. (And maybe it is crappy, who knows?)

But the problem is, crappy or not, the AFTRA deal is a ratified reality, and in place for years to come. And every studio in town has the option of signing onto it, whether SAG likes it or not.

And now it comes out that many studios are, at the ratio of eight or nine to one.

So SAG can rend its garments, dump ashes on it head, and weep and wail all it wants. But it gave AFTRA the finger when the smaller union attempted to merge with its militant sister a half dozen years ago, and now SAG is paying the price.

Because if you don't control the workforce, you lose leverage. And without leverage, you lose. Just ask the animators who were making four thousand dollars a week in 1995.

Add On: I notice, now that I've put this up, that Craig Mazin at Artful Writer has posted on the same topic from a slightly different angle. And his angle is well worth reading.

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A Mountain of B.O.

Now with sugar-free Add On.

The actor formerly know as "the Rock" sits atop the box office heap.

Dwayne Johnston's Race to Witch Mountain, came in Numero Uno on Friday.

Two 1970s remakes weighed down on "Watchmen" in its second Friday as Disney’s Dwayne Johnson adventure "Race to Witch Mountain" notched first with $6.7 million followed by Universal/Rogue’s "The Last House on the Left" which reaped $5.6 million.

In the meantime, Watchmen has imploded, falling 78%. If Warner Bros. was looking for legs on the picture, the company had better start looking elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Coraline hangs in at #10, accumulating grosses that now total $67,183,000.

Add On: Who among us could have guessed that Witch Mountain would triumph again? I mean, since Eddie Albert is dead.

Ah, but the retoasted Disney chestnut lands atop the winter heap, taking in $25 million on its opening weekend.

Elsewhere on the box office list, Taken and Coraline hold well, and Watchmen runs through its fan base to decline 67% (and change) in its second weekend.

Coraline. at Number Seven, is now bumping against a $70 million gross. But I tremble to think what will happen to the little girl when the oncoming Monsters Vs. Aliens gobbles up a bunch of those stereoscopic screens ...

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Re How to Train Your Dragon

Inside the refurbished Lakeside building over at DreamWorks Animation, work trundles along on Shrek Goes Fourth, added DVD goodies are being created for Monsters Vs. Aliens, and the first DreamWorks animated feature slated for release in 2010, How to Train Your Dragon is rolling into production ...

A staffer on Dragon related:

"We're going to be doing most of the animation on this between now and next Fall. It's kind of a Bolt schedule. [For those who don't know, the bulk of production work on The Tale of the White Doggie was done in a hectic, action-packed nine months.] We won't be working at a slow pace ..."

Walking around, I saw more scenes of Shrek IV being worked on than Dragon, (Shrek in slapstick action with supporting players) yet the ogre lumbers into your local cinema a couple of months after Dragon.

This could mean story is further along on Shrek than Dragon, or it might mean Shrek has more moving parts and needs a longer production schedule, or it might mean ... not much at all.

I have no knowledge of the story development of either picture, and my knowledge of the Dragon story is minimal except for this:

How To Train Your Dragon is a comic adventure set in the mythical world of Vikings ... The story centers around a scrawny teenager who lives in the North Sea on the island of Berk. His Viking tribe, the Hairy Hooligans, live, and all too frequently die, by their motto: Only the Strong Can Belong! Hiccup desperately wants to make his father, the Hooligans’ chief Stoick the Vast and his tribe proud.

Initiation is coming, and all young Vikings must capture and subdue a wild dragon from Dragon Island. But when Hiccup is saddled with an undersized and uncooperative dragon, chances for impressing his tribe and his father look bleak. Yet, in his quest to train his dragon-of-choice, he teaches his father and all of the Hooligans a new definition of strength.

But the way story work has gone on in feature cartoons since the beginning of time is: Act One of the movie gets tied down pretty good, Act II is being firmed up, and Act III is still ... sketchy. But production has started on Act I because, you know, there's a release date looming out there and nobody can lolly gaggle while other story kinks are being worked out. It's move, move, move so the release window and marketing tie-ins don't get screwd up. (Years ago, the middle of Aladdin was retooled while animation was being done, and the name "Baghdad" was changed to "Agrabah" due to a brief war.)

In short, animated features are always in a state of semi-chaotic flux. Climaxes get altered, dialogue is tweaked, and sequences are dropped and added. It's just the way the process of tooning works.

And for whatever reason, HTTYD is going to move at a high rate of speed for the next several months. You've been warned.

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