Monday, May 31, 2010

Pres Aid Cross Plug(s)

We've been gearing up for this the past several weeks.

Animator Pres Romanillos has suffered a relapse of leukemia, and is in the hospital awaiting a repeat bone marrow transplant. His friends are putting together a charity art auction for his benefit. ...

And we're happy to see other sites shining lights on the event, it's much appreciated. (And I would be remiss in not mentioning how Guild President Kevin Koch has been pulling the event together for a long while.)

Friday is just around the corner.

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Hellish Television Cartoon

Neighbors from Hell premieres on your home screen in slightly less than a week.

... "Seem normal, fit in." This is the mantra that the demon family in TBS's new animated comedy "Neighbors From Hell" (premieres 10 p.m. Monday, June 7) keeps repeating, but it could just as well be the goal of any eccentric family uncomfortably ensconced in the suburbs. Shocked and disturbed by what they find in their new home "topside" (as Satan calls Earth), Balthazor Hellman (Will Sasso) and his family can't go home to hell until Balthazor infiltrates a company called Petromundo ...

I mention the fact here not because it's receiving favorable notices or because its pre-production work is being done here in L.A., but for other reasons ...

It's the first show from new production house Bento Box; it's being produced by DreamWorks Animation (with several DWA staffers working on it) and Fox. And the Animation Guild recently signed a contract to cover its second season.

(There's always the question of whether any new television show will receive a second season, but it appears as though this one might. Which would be good for the artists working on it, and good for TAG.)

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A Ray of Sunshine

As I've said, I've watched the visuals for Tangled on different computer screens 'round and about the hat building, and been knocked out. So here's an early squib from somebody who claims to have seen a cut of the feature:

... They maintain the Disney classics (Cinderella, Snow White) look and feel but transition it into the computer generated era. The characters look more like human beings, and less like exaggerated cartoon characters. Rapunzel’s facial expressions are always changing and connected to the actions that she is partaking in. Disney is clearly focused on mirroring Snow White, taking the painting like look, and surrounding it with warm, soothing colors. The watercolor style gives the film a storybook like visual that impresses, but does not dominate the film.

Zachary Levi steals the show as the cocky thief Flynn Rider ...

The consensus of the folks I've talked to is: "They're going for a classically-structured Disney feature with songs, and the songs are pretty good." Everybody is working hard to get the film done under a tight schedule, but they always jam everything through the pipeline in time to hit the deadline. I have faith they will hit the deadline yet again.

Tangled has gone through multiple permutations over its years in development: traditional fairy tale, then comedic spoof (a la Shrek), then back to fairy tale.

I'll be there to see it opening weekend.

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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Morale and Mind Games

The last three years I was at Disney, I watched it go from sleepy movie backwater (Ron Miller CEO) to cutting-edge industry dynamo.

The difference? The Players from Paramount (Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg) rode into town, and the dynamics of the Burbank lot changed overnight. The atmosphere went from relaxed and a little spaced out, to tense, anxious, and a tad paranoid. A-year-and-a-half in to the new regime, after a story session with the new rulers of Disney, an artist muttered to me:

"You never know where you stand with these guys. They sit at a meeting and praise your pitch to the skies. Then a week later they cancel the project."

It makes for an unsettled existence ....

Which, a couple of decades later, a longtime Disney staffer said was the main idea.

"Michael never wanted anybody to get too comfortable. He thought, and it was kind of the whole operating philosophy, that if you were scared about keeping your job, you'd work harder."

That was certainly the vibe I picked up at the time. And for a time (let's face the facts squarely) it worked like gangbusters.

Today, a lot of the industry operates this way, some of it by accident, a lot of it by design. As different artists have said to me over the past decade:

All these execs, they read The Art of War and The 48 Laws of Power, then they call a meeting and change the time and date four times, then show up late and let you sit there for twenty or thirty minutes. It's aggravating. ..."

... "Sharon never showed up on time. I remember her assistant calling and asking if David was there yet, and we all knew she wasn't going to show up until he did. So we all sat there waiting. And drumming our fingers." ...

And wasting hours where actual work could have occurred.

Of course mind games and jockeying for position are as old as Hollywood ... or the court of Louis XIV... or the Byzantine empire, when the court eunuchs schemed and back-stabbed in the polished marble corridors. The strategies of "Discovering each man's thumb screws" or "Mastering the art of timing" have their uses, but they also have built-in limitations. Creators are not cattle responding to electric prods as they shuffle along the wooden chutes, wondering what all that screaming is up ahead. When you're asking somebody to stretch and innovate, to perform better than they've ever performed before, fear and uncertainty only carry you so far.

Often they have the reverse effect.

"I got so tired of the manipulation and one-upmanship, I finally quit and went someplace else before my head exploded."

Me, I think creating an environment where the folks making your movies aren't worried about stepping on some hidden exploding landmine, where they think they might have some longevity with the company when they do good work, is useful for long-term success.

But maybe I'm wrong.

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The Foreign Tally

Prince isn't, apparently, the under-performer in foreign lands that it is stateside.

Powerful opening launches in a handful of key overseas markets on the Memorial Day weekend propelled " Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" to the No. 1 spot on the foreign-theatrical circuit.

The Disney film drew $59 million from 7,100 screens in 47 territories for an early international cume of $87.5 million ....

And the green ogre is nosing into various countries beyond the seas:

... "Shrek" finished third wordwide, which opened in six markets including Turkey. Overall weekend tally was $18.5 million from 1,685 venues in 15 territories.

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Animators Agitate for Guvmint Relief ...

... In Great Britain.

... The [British animation] industry ... is seeing talent lured overseas by lucrative tax breaks. And they complain that work is being outsourced to studios in the Far East. Earlier this month it emerged that a film produced to showcase one-eyed monsters Wenlock and Mandeville, the mascots for the London 2012 Olympics, was produced in China ....

Their new campaign, Save UK Animation, launches in a couple of weeks' time but it is marshalling its forces ahead of the coalition government's emergency budget on 22 June. While in opposition, both parties talked of the need to support the creative industries, and Save UK Animation is compiling a dossier on the economic value of the industry to bolster its case ...

These are the times that try animation artists' souls. Outsourcing. Technological change. Downsizing of employment opportunities.

And (what a surprise!) it seems to happen in a number of countries, not just the U.S. of A.

But the problem with tax subsidies and or breaks (really pretty much the same thing) is they are almost always temporary band-aids that deliver temporary lifts in local employment and then fade away. Take for instance Canada. Our neighbor to the north has had tax subsidies for years, yet Disney animation studios have come and gone and come again. Disney Television Animation opened facilities in Vancouver and Toronto, they last three years and then closed. Now Pixar/Disney has opened a studio in Vancouver, and how long that fun factory stays open is anyone's guess.

One of the problems is that our fine entertainment conglomerates are schizophrenic: they chase talent while they also chase lower costs, and the two are often mutually exclusive. (Skilled talent has a habit of migrating to where the pay is better, which works against lower cost sub-contracting studios that want to keep pay low, the better to low-ball projects from American entertainment conglomerates.)

Then, of course, there's the problem of exchange rates constantly rising and falling. A few years ago, the Canadian looney was at a steep discount to the U.S. dollar; now it's closer to par. Twelve months back the euro was actually a strong international currency, now it's in a swoon. Added to which, tax subsidies get taken away as quickly as they're put on the books when governments are hungry for revenue.

The Los Angeles area animation industry has faced outsourcing for over three decades, yet the L.A. animation business continues to motor along. The reason, I think, is that the gravitational pull of a large and deep talent pool often trumps the ups and downs of cheap currency, cheap labor, and temporary tax breaks. Because after al is said and done, it doesn't do Disney, DreamWorks Animation or Warner Bros. a whole ot of good to make a cheap animated feature that nobody wants to see. The boy and girls who run the studios need the high grosses that quality often provides, otherwise they've got a lot of red ink ... and angry stockholders.

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End of May Derby

Now with Add Ons.

The Nikkster tells us the carnivorous Manhattan gals are #1, with the ogre #2. What else do we need to know?

1. Sex And the City 2 (NL/Warner Bros) NEW [3,445 Theaters] --Friday $13M, Estimated Weekend $53M, Estimated Cume $67M

2. Shrek Forever After (DWA/Paramount) Week 2 [4,367] -- Friday $11.3M, Estimated Weekend $50M, Estimated Cume $149M

3. Prince Of Persia (Disney) NEW [3,646] -- Friday $10.3M, Estimated Weekend $42M

4. Iron Man 2 (Marvel/Paramount) Week 4 [3,804] -- Friday $4.0M, Estimated Weekend $18.5M, Estimated Cume $277M

5. Robin Hood (Universal) Week 3 [3,373] -- Friday $2.8M, Estimated Weekend $12.5M, Estimated Cume $85M

If Shrek has a mere 28% drop, then I'm guesstimating it ends up with a $230-280 million domestic take by the end of its run (a multiple of approximately 4.) Of course, Toy Story 3 rolls out in a few weeks, and that will take a bite out of the ogre's 3-D screens and box office.

But that's the movie biz for you. Competitive.

Add On: Shrek IV remains at the top of a lacklustre heap, declining 38.8%, the second best hold in the Top Ten.

The ogre has now collected $133 million. Though it isn't performing up to DWA's (or Wall Street's) hopes and dreams, it's gonna end up a solid moneymaker.

Prince of Persia? Not so much. And Jake G. isn't going to be headlining any tent-pole franchises in the foreseeable future.

As the Mojo relates:

This Memorial Day weekend is shaping up to be the lowest-grossing in over a decade and the slowest in at least 15 years in terms of estimated attendance. Overall business was down around 20 percent from the same period last year. The simple reason for these doldrums is the movies themselves: an indifference-inspiring brew of tepid holdovers and non-event new releases.

Shrek Forever After won the weekend by default, not because it exhibited any particular strength. The animated sequel grossed an estimated $43.3 million Friday-to-Sunday, off 39 percent from its opening weekend. While that was a better hold than Shrek the Third, which fell 56 percent, it was a steeper drop than Shrek 2 (down 33 percent) and the first Shrek (which didn't drop).

My thinking: A weak Shrek 3 helped smother a better Shrek 4. But maybe the franchise is ready for retirement, yes?

Add On Too: Richard Corliss expounds on the ogre's good fortune:

... The winner among the losers was Shrek Forever After. The DreamWorks animated feature, which brought back Mike Myers' green ogre and the rest of his fairy-tale troupe for a fourth round, managed a four-day gross of $55.7 million in North American theaters, according to studio estimates. That's far less than the $70.8 million the movie earned in its opening three-day session last weekend, but it was enough to cream the competition ...

For Hollywood movers and shakers the Memorial Day weekend's grosses make bitter beach reading. Suddenly, after filling theaters at near-record levels throughout the Great Recession, filmgoers are getting picky. Let's see: they don't like big-budget original movies like Robin Hood and Prince of Persia — even Iron Man 2 got yawns from the tend of millions who saw it — and they're not crazy about sequels of gigantic hits, like the Shrek and Sex and the City follow-ups. What does that leave? ...

Beats me. something fresh and original?


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Friday, May 28, 2010

Last of the Maytime Linkfests

More animated this and that.

Warner Bros. Animation continues to rev up its super hero division.

The Hollywood Reporter reports that Cartoon Network will be unveiling Green Lantern: The Animated Series in 2011, coinciding with the live-action Green Lantern movie, which will hit theaters in June of that same year.

The Green Lantern cartoon series represents yet another facet of DC Entertainment and Warner Bros.’ plan for total brand-expansion. Yesterday we reported on DCE/WB’s latest plans for their slate of upcoming superhero movies ...

This is known as "synergy" in the moving picture business.

Homer Simpson tops some list or other. (And are we really, truly supposed to care?)

... Entertainment Weekly did a pretty fine job of putting together their list of The 100 Greatest Characters of the Last 20 years. But that doesn't mean there's not some room for dissent.

The pick of Homer Simpson as the best character over the last 20 years is fitting: he's actually been around for 20 years. Sure, diehard fans will tell you "The Simpsons" isn't what it once was, but for a single character -- particularly an animated one -- to sustain such a presence in popular culture over such a long time is truly remarkable. ...

(Well, hey. Look at Mickey Mouse.)

Peter Keefe, RIP

Peter Keefe, an animation executive and producer best known as the creative force behind the iconic children's TV series "Voltron," died May 27 of throat cancer in Rochester, N.Y. He was 57.

During the past two decades, Keefe created, produced and sold more than 600 half-hours of children's and family entertainment programming, shows that were watched by hundreds of millions while generating hundreds of millions of dollars in business. ...

Disney/Pixar Presents a Video Introduction to Pixar Canada.

Meantime, Wall Street speculates about what the Mouse will be doing with ABC.

... "I've been anticipating a new wave of consolidation in the TV and radio broadcasting business. And the notion of Disney selling ABC fits into that picture," said Paul Kagan, chief executive officer of PK World Media.

ABC, third of four networks in the ratings race, recently overhauled its prime-time lineup -- the second year in a row it revamped its schedule during the upfronts season, when broadcasters negotiate with advertisers ...

Just because Disney is backing away from hand-drawn cartoons, doesn't mean others aren't giving it a shot.

Check out the french trailer for Sylvain Chomet’s new animation film, L’ILLUSIONNISTE (The Illusionist), which was written by Jacques Tati before he passed away. The animation looks really good. ...

Enjoy the elongated weekend. But wear sunscreen.

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Who's Working in What Classifications

The Animation Guild has close to 3000 active members.

Of that number, 2,617 are now working as staff or free-lance employees. That pencils out to 87% (give or take).

But in what categories are those 2000-plus people working? Click the pointy hand on the blue words below and find out ...

Members employed at TAG shops, by category

Figures in square brackets are the number of persons employed

Employment patterns have mimicked a roller-coaster over the past couple of years, with television animation coming out of its trough of a year ago to grow in fits and starts. (Warner Bros. Animation has come back to life, Nickelodeon has built up its CGI staff, Cartoon Network and Disney Television Animation have added shows.)

On the theatrical side, DreamWorks Animation has been a (relative) island of stability), while Walt Disney Animation Studio has used the visual effects model: hire staffers when you need them, lay off staffers when you don't. Image Movers Digital, a steady engine of growth in 2008 and 2009, will be disappearing at the end of 2011.

And so it goes. Twenty-year veterans of hand-drawn animation have found tougher sledding over the last year, and there are more CG television shows in the pipeline than ever. Digital storyboards are encroaching on timing directors' jobs, and the expansion of the Cintiq has meant more work is expected in smaller amounts of time from designers and board artists. (And those board artists now have the added work opportunity to build their own animatics at their desks.)

Technology has been a major driver of employment trends, but what's new? You can see the evidence for yourself in the chart above.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Feel the Love

Canadian artist Jessica Borutski has received mixed messages on her Looney Tunes designs.

Jessica Borutski has spent nearly two years redesigning characters like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd for Warner Bros.

When the company broke the news online, some angry fans lashed out by posting nasty comments aimed at Borutski ...

Borutski said she wasn't prepared for such negativity.

"My heart sank a little bit. It was hard to see such hatred," she said ...

Here's the deal, Jessica. You're in Animationfandom now. A lot of these folks specialize in hatred. Change their favorite character, direct a movie of which they don't approve (Alice, maybe?) and the long, serrated knives come out.

Get used to it.

The only sliver of encouragement I can offer is that a lot of the board artists actually working on the shows for which you redesigned Bugs, Daffy, et al think your drawings of the characters are just fine. One even showed me a clip from one of the shorts and pointed out how good Porky Pig looked.

But what do they know? They're just the people who are making the series.

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More Television Animation?

The New York Times informs us that the Big Mouse is converting one of its cable outlets to a franchise called Disney Jr.

Moving aggressively to expand its hold on children’s entertainment, the Walt Disney Company will close its SoapNet cable channel and replace it with a service aimed at preschoolers.

“Jake and the Never Land Pirates,” an interactive animated series for children and parents, is one of the new series planned for Disney Junior, a channel for preschoolers.

In 2012, Disney Junior will take the place of SoapNet ... Disney’s current preschool operation — a block of programming on Disney Channel and about two dozen Playhouse Disney international channels — will be rebranded Disney Junior starting next year.

“This represents the next step in a global preschool strategy that started 10 years ago with the introduction of dedicated channels overseas,” Ms. Sweeney said ...

With Disney Junior, the company has chosen a name that echoes the preschool brand operated by rival Nickelodeon, a unit of Viacom. Nick Jr. is a commercial-free channel that features programming like “Dora the Explorer” and “Team Umizoomi” and is available in 73.3 million homes. (Since Nick Jr. became a full-service cable channel in 2008, replacing Noggin, ratings have nearly doubled, indicating a demand for programming for preschoolers in the evenings.) ...

Disney TVA was roaring in the mid-nineties, producing lots of animated series for the "Disney Afternoon," also producing shows for overseas and long-form direct-to-videos (this was before the made-for-teevee animated feature department was spun off to become Disney Toon Studios.)

But recently? Sad to say, Disney Television Animation has been a pretty sleepy place, producing a handful of shows. Of late, the studio has focused on cartoons for tots. The old generalist days where DTVA was going after pre-schoolers, elementary and middle-school kids appear to be over, but with the advent of Disney Jr. ... there could be more kiddie fare.

And the studio will need equal numbers of board artists, designers and directors to make animation for the diaper and day-care set as it does for older kids. I like to think about that after talking to an artist or timing director who's looking for work.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"Ain't That a Kick In the Head?"

…writing action for kids –6-11.

Tuesday night, The Animation Guild hosted a panel of animation writers discussing the world of action heroes in Toonland.

Writer and story editor Matt Wayne (who is also a TAG executive board member) moderated a panel which featured Stan Berkowitz, Alan Burnett, Nicole Dubuc, Charlotte Fullerton, Rob Hoegee, Marty Isenberg, Dwayne McDuffie, Jim Krieg, Eugene Son, Dean Stefan, Greg Weisman, Amy Wolfram and Christopher Yost.

The hour-plus discussion was wide-ranging and lively, and encapsulated the challenges of writing for Superman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman and all the other citizens of the action hero universe. What follows are some of the highlights of what was said.. (My note-taking is too slow and the back-and-forth moved too fast for me to reference speakers, so summaries will have to do. Apologies for that.) …

The panel got into the nuts and bolts of writing for action heroes, noting that it was tough to have the leads on the shows own compelling "character arcs", but they try to work them in.

When asked: "When does action become violence?", the answers ranged from "When blood turns from green to red," to the difficulty of showing consequences of violence and action. Network biggies don't focus on consequences, and the creators want to show "That War isn't good or fun."

It was pointed out that the benchmarks for what can be done on screen and what can't be done changes over time. "We once couldn't get away with a character saying gun, but now you can say gun ... or blaster ... and I'm so used to not being able to say [those things] it freaks me out." ... Today, sometimes the objections to onscreen violence is that the laser blast sound effects are dialed up too high.

The panelists allowed as how the Standards and Practices people don't want to horrify children, but also don't want to trigger lawsuits. The creators of the show, of course, have different agendas: "We're contrarians. As soon as S & P says 'you can't do that,' we want to find a way to get it in."

As another writer said: "Sometimes you write a good line of dialogue, and it goes through. The trick with double entendres is, they have to be double. For instance, a female character saying to Spiderman shooting his web: "Don't get your goop in my hair," went through. For kids, it's obviously the web goop that she's talking about, but for adults it can be something else. And you can alibi with the overseers that you were really, truly talking about his web."

And from another panelist: "On Duck Tales years ago, we got an angry letter from a parent about the magic and witchcraft in an episode. It went: "How DARE you show witchcraft! Walt Disney would be spinning in his grave!" Our response was: "Hey. Have you ever seen 'Snow White'?"

All in all, it was a lively evening, and you really should have been there. As one of the action writers said near the end:

"All of us ... would like to do animation action shows for other adults, but that isn't the reality now. Now it's fartjokes for 7-year-olds." ...

From left to right: Dean Stefan, Alan Burnett, Nicole Dubuc, Charlotte Fullerton, Stan Berkowitz, Jim Krieg.
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Scott Shaw! sends this appeal:

I need about three dozen SoCal pro cartoonists to volunteer for an all-day charity event on Saturday, June 5 in Griffith Park.

We will be doing free drawings (caricatures, comic and cartoon characters, animals, special requests, etc.) for the City Of Hope hospital's fun-fair for cancer-afflicted kids and their families.

You need to be friendly, confident, flexible and tireless. We'll be drawing for about six hours (with short breaks) for hundreds of young kids who will be testing our abilities to quickly draw things and characters we've never been asked to draw before, so it's important be able to think (and draw) on your feet to interact with children comfortably.

If you're interested, please email me at for more information.


-- Scott Shaw!

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

One Billion

It's always good to see a former animator do well.

"Alice in Wonderland" on Thursday will become the sixth movie to cross $1 billion in worldwide boxoffice and the first spring release to do so. ...

The industry's previous five $1 billion pics -- "Avatar," "Titanic," "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," "Dead Man's Chest" and "The Dark Knight" -- unspooled during the holiday or summer boxoffice seasons. ...

There have been other animation artists who have made it as live-action directors. None, however, have had the success of Mr. Burton.

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A Word About 401(k) Fees

But first, a short announcement:

TAG 401(K) Meetings

Wednesday, May 26: Nickelodeon -- 1 p.m. -- Main Conf. Room

Thursday, May 27: Fox Animation -- 2 p.m. -- Main Conf. Rm

Now, back to the issue up in the title.

Questions about 401(k) plan costs are among the top three inquiries I get. TAG's investment fees, which range from .19% to 1.45%, are listed in the lower left-hand corner of the Morningstar ratings sheets in the Animation Guild 401(k) Plan's Enrollment Book.

The lowest cost funds in the TAG Plan are 1) Vanguard Target Funds (19%), Northern Trust Select Indexed Equity Fund (22%), 3) State Street Global Advisors Mid Cap Equity Index (.62%), and State Street Global Advisors International Equity Index Fund (.69%).

Unsurprisingly, all of these offerings are index funds, the lower cost siblings of actively managed funds ...

The not-so-secret secret of every 401(k) plan is that each one costs participants money. The Plan Administrator takes a cut; the Plan attorney(s) are paid for legal work; the mutual fund offerings have costs. So all in all, whenever you participate in one of these retirement plans, every deducted investment dollar pays some of the freight that plan carries.

Happily, the bigger the asset base of a 401(k) plan, the smaller the fees for participants, and our plan is now up over a hundred million dollars, so costs are (relatively) small.

Even so, money that 401(k) plans pay out for administration has been an ongoing issue with congress:

A 401(k) fee disclosure provision has been added to the new stimulus bill, the $190 billion American Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act that the House is supposed to vote on this week.

Among other things, the new jobs bill extends unemployment insurance to nearly two years and relaxes pension funding rules. The latter provision prevents companies that still offer old-fashioned pension plans from having "to choose between making forced cash contributions, freezing plans or cutting jobs," according to Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor ...

If this jobs bill does pass and if the 401(k) fee provision remains intact, "A worker's quarterly statement would be required to list total contributions, earnings, closing account balance, net return and all fees subtracted from the account," according to Miller's website ...

The point I make in 401(k) enrollment meetings: You should definitely use 401(k) Plans to shelter income, but you should roll money from older plans in which you have investments into an IRA Roller Account at a low-cost fund family like Vanguard or Fidelity.

With the right fund selection, your investment costs will be lower than a 401(k) Plan, so ... my advice is never roll money into a 401(k), but only out. You'll end up richer.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

VFX Soldiers

In the past couple of weeks, an animator and tech director from two different studios came into the office to complain.

The animator, despite stellar work reviews, had been offered a rollback in wages for the privilege of continuing at the studio that told him at the same time his animation was topflight. He wasn't pleased.

The tech director? After a decade busting his hump at another big studio, he'd been told that his work was suddenly sub-par. And he found himself brusquely dismissed.

"They said things weren't working out and they wanted to move in a different direction, so goodbye. I was so angry I couldn't see straight. I told them they were making a big mistake and walked out."

We live in an era of fragility and fear, friends and neighbors. Every big conglomerate I know about has grabbed the current recession and used it like a Louisville Slugger to beat employees over the head. "Don't you know we're in tough times?!" goes the refrain. "Everybody is taking pay cuts!"

Everybody, that is, except the wonderful folks who have the initials C,E, and O after their names in those glossy annual reports.

So today I get an e-mail from a visual effects artist who, in a fit of despair or perhaps insanity, has started a blog. It goes like this:

... I have worked in the Hollywood Visual Effects industry creating imagery and animation for a good number of blockbuster films. While the journey here was tough, it was driven by a simple idea portrayed by a quote in an old film The Flamingo Kid:

There are only two important things in living . . .

Finding out what you do well, and finding out what makes you happy.

And if God is smiling on you, they’re both the same thing ...

... Isn’t it ironic that the visual effects industry is one of the worst businesses to be in? Each facility operates on a flawed business model by losing or making no money at all on the blockbuster films they conduct work on. On a good year they will make a profit margin as small as 3-5%. How can this be possible? The reason why is Hollywood studio conglomerates effectively leverage their position by pitting vfx facilities so strongly against each other that eventually one company ends up taking the project for a loss. In fact, one producer was so bold as to state in an article that:

If I don’t put a visual effects shop out of business (on my movie), I’m not doing my job.

The reality of visual effects shops operating on paper-thin profit margins is not new. In 1997, in the hallway of Disney's Feature Animation Northside (anybody remember the Northside facility? I thought not.) a c.g. supervisor and I mused how visual effects houses made no money, even as experienced c.g. tech directors and animators did. There was at the time, lots of work but relatively few people with a lot of production experience. Hence, high salaries.

Thirteen years later, visual effects studios still make minimal money. But visual effects artists, now that the supply of talent has caught up with demand, are also eating it.

And so here we are, in a time of arrogant management that knows it can easily replace you if you look at a production manager funny, and lower salaries and independent contractors paying their own payroll taxes. And outsourcing that gets shipped to Timbucktoo. No wonder James Cameron says:

"Fundamentally, visual effects is a crappy business ..."

But just because it's crappy now, doesn't mean it has to be crappy forever. Go read the Soldier's blog and help him (and maybe us) make it better.

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Shrek IV, the Day After

The whole stock market went down today. Even so, the market seems to be saying: "The ogre's opening? Could have been better..."

DreamWorks shares dropped 10% to $31.31 in early morning trading after the Glendale studio reported far lower box office numbers for the final "Shrek" film than investors had anticipated. The fourth movie in the series generated an estimated $71.3 million in revenue in the U.S. and Canada this weekend, compared with $121.6 million for "Shrek the Third" ... [Update, 1:16 p.m.: The actual weekend gross for "Shrek Forever After" once Sunday ticket sales were fully calculated was $70.8 million.]

Although the film will probably still be profitable, the results stunned Wall Street analysts who had been banking on a much bigger opening ...

You could have fooled me about the opening weekend numbers. I saw the feature early on Friday, and thought the picture was going to come in at the century mark. Which only goes to show that William Goldman is a lot smarter (and more correct) than I am.

When you come in "below expectations," the carving knives come out. For instance, Steve Mallas of Blogging Stocks was sort of brutal:

Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation (DWA), must be feeling just awful. The new Shrek bombed. There's no way to spin the statistic (although I can't wait to see how the company tries). ...

Mr. Mallas employ a generous dose of hyperbole, but he's likely reflecting Wall Street's opinion this Monday.

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Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Horse Race Abroad

It's still Robin Hood riding through foreign glens, but not by much:

... Dropping 60% from its opening launch, "Robin Hood" fought its way to $30 million in its second round on the foreign circuit, playing 7,157 sites in 58 markets. So far, director Ridley Scott's re-imagining of the Crusades-era outlaw costarring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett has grossed a total of $125 million overseas. ...

Meantime, the ogre rolled out in selected markets:

... Paramount premiered DreamWorks Animation's "Shrek Forever After" in 3D in just nine overseas territories, collecting $26 million from 1,236 venues and finishing No. 2 on the weekend.

The fourth and presumably final installment of the "Shrek" franchise -- which has grossed $1.166 billion overseas to date -- opened massively in Russia where the weekend provided a whopping $20 million from 700 locations. Paramount says that is the biggest opening gross ever for any film playing the market. Strong weekends were also recorded in the Ukraine, the Philippines and Singapore.

And the dragon hasn't finished yet:

... A solid first place finish in Korea ($7 million from 553 locations) propelled DreamWorks Animation's "How to Train Your Dragon" to a $10.5 million weekend at 4,766 situations in 62 territories. Cume for the 3D animation handled overseas by Paramount is $235 million. It ranks No. 5 on the weekend ...

Lastly, Mr. Burton's Alice continues to move at an energetiv trot:

... [T]he Lewis Carroll classic drew $7.9 million over its 12th weekend overseas from 3,071 screens in 32 markets. It remains No. 1 in Japan in its sixth round there with a $3.7 million tally from 858 sites and a huge market cume of $107.9 million.

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Toonish Predictions: Things That Will, Things That Won't

Pixar (and other Disney companies) will be staying on board the sequel and franchise express, because conglomerates believe that's where the big, long-term money is:

Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger got right to the point in a conference call last week to discuss the company's financial performance with Wall Street analysts.

"Let me start off by saying how thrilled we are with the global success of 'Iron Man 2,'" he said. "It makes me even more enthusiastic about the great things that Marvel and Disney can do together." ...

"I like franchises, not necessarily because they fit the corporate model, but because that's what I was a fan of when I was a kid," said Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, who produces the company's films. "Toys simply extend the experience that people had so much fun with for two hours in the theaters. And if it feeds other divisions, that's awesome."

Our fine entertainment conglomerates opt for awesome, every time. Creativeness and originality are all well and good, but it's awesomeness (as in awesome cash flow) that gets the Big Boys' blood racing ....

Fox News Corp. will keep searching for the next big animated teevee series. And will work to expand the Sunday night cartoon block, even as it hangs onto its current Sunday night cartoon block. This will happen because ....

FOX Sunday’s animation line-up #1 in Teens, 18-34; Simpsons #1

The Simpsons' voice actors are going to have leverage at the end of the 22nd season (now in production). Fox will try to cut a deal to keep the parade moving forward. If new episodes end, the franchise withers that much more quickly. And Fox still wants another animated feature (how could they not?)

(And animation artists will continue to get squeezed amidst all the cost-cutting.)

Three Dee won't be the box office salvation that movie companies want it to be:

For the first time ever, a standard movie ticket will be sold for $20. The Wall Street Journal reports that several AMC theaters in Manhattan's Kips Bay neighborhood will charge the incredible price for a ticket to Shrek Forever After, the fourth Shrek installment from DreamWorks Animation, in IMAX 3D. ...

Happily, my local AMC (Burbank division) was selling Shrek Imax tickets for $15. But I don't think the big premiums for 3-D viewing is necessarily helpful as we move along. I think price resistance might be setting in ...

On Friday, Shrek Forever After grabbed an estimated $20.8 million on approximately 9,500 screens at 4,359 locations, easily leading the day but debuting closer to Kung Fu Panda than its Shrek brethren. The fourth Shrek's release included a record number of 3D locations (2,373) and a record number of IMAX locations (194), but how much they contributed is unavailable as of this writing.

Without a 3D boost, Kung Fu Panda made $20.3 million on its first day, while Shrek the Third generated $38.4 million on its first day and went on to break the animated opening weekend record with $121.6 million. Shrek 2's first Friday was also greater than Shrek Forever After ...

Movie history tells us that technological changes at the cinema follow a kind of pattern: When sound came in (1927-28), people rushed to see whatever piece of crap was thrown at them because it was, you know, a talking picture. But that ended after a couple of years, and the drek that had a soundtrack couldn't find much of an audience.

Then came three-strip Technicolor, which added $400-500 thousand dollars to the cost of a film's budget (a sizable bite in the 1930s.) Snow White, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Gone With the Wind did huge business using the rainbowed process, but The Wizard of Oz and Drums Along the Mohawk didn't make their costs back.

So I think, as time flows by, studios are going to note that Three Dee is not enough. They must also create stories that movie goers want to see.

One last thing regarding DreamWorks Animation: I don't think I would agree with director Mitchell's terminology:

... "Dreamworks kinda works like a hippie commune, where everyone, like all the directors and [story] boarders, they all help each other out on other films. So, it was really neat to approach this — what was relatively new at the time this was three years ago that we started this film." ...

I've always thought of the place as more of a Florentine art workshop with high-end computers and render farms than a commune. But that's me.

I'm old enough to have actually wandered through a few hippie communes. And for one thing, DreamWorks Animation smells a lot better.

Click here to read entire post

Ogre and Donkey Horse Race

Now with high protein Add On.

As per usual, the Nikkster gives us the box office low-down early-on.

1. Shrek Forever After 3D (DWA/Par) NEW [4,359 Theaters] -- Friday $20M, Estimated Weekend $70M

2. Iron Man 2 (Marvel/Paramount) Week 3 [4,177 Theaters] -- Friday $7.8M, Estimated Weekend $27M, Estimated Cume $251M

3. Robin Hood (Universal) Week 2 [3,505 Theaters] -- Friday $5.5M (-57%), Estimated Weekend $17M, Estimated Cume $54M

4. Letters To Juliet (Summit) Week 2 [2,975 Theaters] -- Friday $3M (-40%), Estimated Weekend $9.5M, Estimated Cume $22M

5. MacGruber (Rogue/Universal) NEW [2,551 Theaters] -- Friday $1.6M, Estimated Weekend $4.5M

Having seen Shrek IV this very day, I would say it's a pretty good installment of the franchise and that the 3-D is excellent. (And I am shocked, shocked that MacGruber tanked on its opening night. Maybe the fact that it's like visual chloroform has something to do with it ...)

Add On: The ogre comes in under expectations at $72 million, and Dragon takes a 63% hit (in contrast to its 265 declines over the course of its run) for a domestic accumulation of $211 million.

Even so, it must be gratifying for DWA to have two animated features in the Top Ten at the same time. Like, how often does that happen? (If ever?)

Click here to read entire post

Friday, May 21, 2010

Avoid Gouging

For a quarter century I had a stock broker/ "financial advisor" who was folksy, funny, took me to breakfast every six months, invested my money for me ....

And took two percent off the top. I was reminded of this happy time when I read Rick Ferri's think piece on

Your advisor is a really nice person, and the office manager of the financial firm you do business with is really nice also, and those mutual funds you were sold by your advisor are also managed by really nice people. But this isn't a reason to give these people $1 million extra over your lifetime. ...

Assume a young man and woman get married and enter the workforce at age 22. Their starting pay in the workforce is $40,000 each per year. Every year each gets a 5% raise and both work until age 65. The couple religiously saves 10% of their salaries every year in a retirement account. How much does the couple have for retirement at age 65?

Their nest egg will depend on their rate of investment return. Here are [two] possibilities:

--Five percent return grows to $2.67 million. ...

--Six-and-a-half percent return grows to $3.65 million. ...

So how do you increase your return by a million bucks? The first order of business is to not have somebody taking 1.5% (or 2%) of your investment money as you go along.

It took me two decades to figure this minor detail out, but it finally registered that I could do as well as most financial advisors out there if I A) did some independent research, and B) had the gumption to set up my own asset allocation plan and stick to it. What I've learned over time is:

1) There is no ideal asset allocation, but only calculated guesstimates based on market histories that may or may not be replicated.

2) Every investor has his own capacity for risk, and threshhold for financial pain. And each investor knows it better than some detached financial advisor with his or her own agenda.

3) Financial advisors have their uses, but are used best on a fee-based rather than a commission basis.

(As for me, my jovial investment counselor and I parted company twelve years ago when I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and realized that he was giving me lower returns, year by year, than an S & P 500 Index Fund. Although I miss the fun breakfasts we used to have, I don't miss giving the guy 2% of my money.)

And here's yet another article that might convince you that stock brokers and their cousins might not have your best interests at heart.

Upcoming 401(k) Meetings

Nickelodeon -- Wed., May 26th, 1 p.m. -- Main Conf. Room

Fox TV Animation -- Thurs., May 27th, 2 p.m. Main Conf. Room

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Departing Reptile ...

As B.O. Mojo relates:

... With close to $209 million through its eighth week, Dragon has grossed nearly five times what it did on its opening weekend, which is the biggest multiplier of any 2010 nationwide release thus far and, among major animated releases, the biggest multiplier since Finding Nemo. Its average weekend drop-off rate has been a slim 26 percent. ...

Dragon is on pace to replace Kung Fu Panda as DreamWorks Animation's highest-grossing non-Shrek release. Panda generated $215.4 million, though Dragon's unlikely to top Panda's attendance due to its inflated 3D prices. Overall, 3D has accounted for 67 percent of Dragon's total gross. Sift the 3D ticket price premium out and Dragon's $209 million would adjust to the equivalent of less than $170 million.

Word of mouth kept Dragon soaring, but the ad campaign launching the feature didn't quite do the job during its first weekend. I donno, maybe it was the Vikings that were a hard sell. It's been a long time since burly men in spiked helmets commanded big bucks at the box office.

Click here to read entire post

And Oncoming Ogre

The L.A. Times speculates on howShrek Forever After will perform:

... People who have seen pre-release audience surveys say the CGI animated sequel — which features the voices of Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz and Eddie Murphy — will probably sell about $90 million worth of tickets in the U.S. and Canada this weekend. ...

DreamWorks Animation stock has fallen 4% this week as word has spread on Wall Street about the movie's expected opening. ...

Paramount is also expecting that, like the last two "Shrek" movies, "Forever After" will sell close to $500 million worth of tickets overseas. ... The only other movie opening domestically this weekend is "MacGruber,"

Call me starry-eyed, but I think the feature could beat expectations. Yeah, I'm an animation rah-rah, but I have a bit of knowledge here.

I saw Shrek's competition tonight, the live-action MacGruber. I lasted about a half-hour before exiting the theatre. It's unfunny, clunky, and devoid of punch. The local papers say it didn't cost much to make, and I believe it. Very little shows up on the screen.

Which means there won't be much in the way of alternatives to the big green ogre this weekend. But I guess we'll see.

Click here to read entire post

"Endangered" ?

Recently, newsletters went out from the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan informing participants that the Defined Benefit Plan (one of two pensions in the Trust) have fallen into the "Endangered" category.

I've gotten numerous questions about it from people working at various studios, but what does "Endangered" mean exactly? ...

In 2006 the Feds passed "The Pension Protection Act of 2006" stipulating that private pension plans meet certain benchmarks, to wit:

1) If a Pension Plan has 80% (or higher) funding, it's "Healthy" (The Green Zone.)

2) If a Plan has lower than 80% funding, it's "Endangered." (The Yellow Zone.)

3) If a Plan has 60% (or lower) funding, it's "Critical" (The Red Zone.)

Simple enough. So what's with the Motion Picture Industry Pension Plan? From the latest newsletter:

As of January 1, 2010, Plan funding was at 79.2% ...

In other words, funding is eight tenths of a percent out of the Green Zone, and the Plan needs to inform participants of that fact, and take corrective action.

The Pension Protection Act has had good and bad effects on pension plans across the nation. It's got more stringent rules than before (mostly good), and requires corporate plans to adhere more closely to clearer rules (clearly good), but it's given union and management negotiators less leeway to move dollars around when negotiating collective bargaining agreements because they always have to keep pension funding in mind (sometimes a mixed blessing).

According the the MPIPHP's acountants and financial advisors, the Defined Benefit Plan's funding is projected to return to green territory within the next couple of years. And the other Motion Picture Industry pension plan, the Individual Account Plan, is not "endangered" at all. The money in each account will remain there until participants reach retirement age and claim it.

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Walt Scott and "The Little People"

Today's treasure from the Megacollector's vaults is from the pen of an artist who only spent three years in animation.

Click the thumbnail for a larger hi-res image.

Walt Scott (1894-1970) spent three years as a layout artist for Disney on "Bambi," "Pinocchio," "Fantasia" and "Dumbo". For most of his career he was a comic book artist for NEA and Dell, best known for his series "The Little People", which he drew and wrote from 1950 until his death.

Above is the cover art for the 1958 Dell comic "The Little People and the Giant". However, the cover is not by Walt Scott -- it's the work of another ex-Disney artist, Mel Crawford.

More about Walt Scott here, here and here.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The New Loonies

The New York Times tells of the long history of working to revive the tent-poles of Porky, Bugs and Daffy ... and the current effort:

Ask a first grader to identify Bugs Bunny and the response more likely than not will be a blank stare. Dora, sure. Mickey, alive and kicking. But Porky who?

Worried that the low profile of the Looney Tunes cast ... is the start of th-th-th-that’s all folks for the historic cartoon franchise, Warner Brothers is embarking on a five-alarm rescue effort ...

A new 26-episode half-hour series, “The Looney Tunes Show,” is headed toward Cartoon Network in the fall ... the television series alone carries a cost of about $750,000 an episode, according to industry estimates. “We want to reinvigorate the brand with the best possible execution — high-quality, high-end state of the art” ...

I've been through the Warners animation studio, and the new character designs for the old characters and the execution of the boards are first rate.

And how are the shows? Since I haven't seen them, I can't offer much of an opinion, but there have been development pains. Crew was laid off last year while the Warners top-kicks paused the production to retool the original retooling. The Times makes reference to new c.g. Coyote and Road Runner shorts. People I've talked to say the crew and director of the latest C & Rs did a solid job with them. (I'm informed the c.g. animation is being created by Reel Effects in Texas.)

I'm hoping that the series, despite the production hiccups, ends up being a smash hit. But while I wait to see how the new Loonies ultimately turn out, my heart is lifted, at least a little, by the Times:

... [A]rt from “The Loonatics Unleashed” is framed and hanging in Warner’s animation offices as a reminder of what not to do ...

Click here to read entire post

Good Management, Bad Management

I've long observed that you can tell whether an animation studio has a good work environment by looking at the size of three groups: Happy and contented workers, mildly okay workers, unhappy workers.

In my experience, every studio contains all three groups. So to find out whether a given cartoon workshop is good, bad or indifferent, just quantify which group is the largest. You'll get a pretty fair idea about the overall quality of that particular studio.

Along these lines, former exec Liz Ryan has kindly provided us with a road map for making a bad cartoon studio even worse:

1. If you desire a mediocre workforce, make sure your employees know you don't trust them ...

2. If you want to drive talented people away, don't tell them when they shine ...

3. If you prefer a team of C-list players, keep employees in the dark ...

4. If you value docility over ingenuity, shout it from the rooftops* ...

5. If you fear an empowered workforce more than you fear the competition, squash any sign of individualism. ...

Obviously no studio manager in his or her right mind is going around spouting the message points above, but over the course of years I've seen plenty of execs -- many who are highly educated -- behave like they carry around Ms. Ryan's article in their back pockets. As a tech director at a high profile entertainment conglomerate said to me not long ago:

"They invite people to their 'open forum' meetings and tell them to speak their minds. But a bunch of us have noticed that anybody who takes them up on the offer and asks a pointed question is gone a couple of months later ..."

Over time, this has a ... what's the phrase? ... chilling effect on openness, collegiality and creativity in the studio workplace.

Two-and-a half-years ago, I had a smiling studio exec tell me: "It's all about improving morale and growing a studio where people want to work, that's what we're about." The studio for which he worked had (and has) about the worst morale of any workplace I visit, so obviously there's some disconnect or willful hallucination going on.

From my perspective it's really pretty simple. If your studio is headed by people who don't listen, who are thin-skinned about criticism, who fire people who won't toe the company line (whatever it happens to be that day), then the creative flow around the place is going to be way less than optimum, the product will be less than the best, and employee morale will end up crappy.

And of course anybody with the guts to point this out to the Top Dogs will probably get his or her ass fired.

* In Hollywoodland, #4 usually is proclaimed in the reverse: Studio managers will tell you, over and over, what a swell place their company is, work-wise. That's almost always a tip off that ... it ain't.

So what jazzes high-cognitive, creative workers? Mark Mayerson posted a useful video on the subject a few days ago. We crib it here:

Click here to read entire post

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Animation: The Over-55 Demographic

A couple of clicks down, we were asked about how many older animation artists were working. As promised, we've come up with some numbers.

  • Over the last two years, 3,722 persons have worked under our jurisdiction, of which 2,780 are currently employed (74.8%), and 942 are currently unemployed (25.2%).

  • Of the total group, 372 are age 55 or older (10.0% of the total). Of that group, 254 (68.2%) are currently working and 118 (31.7%) are not working.

  • Of the total group, 2,774 are younger than age 55 (74.5% of the total). Of that group, 2,134 (76.9%) are working and 640 (23.1%) are not working.

There are two factors to bear in mind when considering the above statistics:

  1. Once a month for each coverage period, the Health Plan gives us reports on who is acquiring and losing health benefits. However, we do not get tallies of the total numbers of people covered, or any breakdown of that number by age.

  2. We do not have birthdates on some of our members, which is why some of the numbers don't add up.

Having said all that, I can tell you the older groups that are unemployed or under-employed based on firsthand observation:

* Traditional animators. Many couldn't make the jump to c.g. animation. The successfully transitioned totaled far less than half of the traditional animators working in the 1990s.

* Cleanup artists. There are simply too few jobs to support a craft that used to employ hundreds. And the few jobs there are now have mainly gotten sub-contracted out of L.A. county.

* Timing directors in television animation. As animatics have become more ubiquitous, timing director jobs have declined. Some studios rely on animatics (digital story reels) to provide timing for overseas studios. (And there are a lot of older timing directors. As one recently told me: "If the jobs all dry up, thank God I can retire with the Guild pension ...")

The only constant in the business of cartoons is change, and some folks get caught in the cross-currents. Add to that the reality of your network of friends, allies and references diving off the boat into the warm tropical seas of retirement, and the late fifties can get choppy, employment-wise.

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A New Broom Sweeps Clean, the last of 4

Click the thumbnails for a larger hi-res image.

Courtesy of the Megacollector, from Terrytoons artist Jim Tyer.

From Ralph Bakshi's website, a podcast of his reminiscences of working with Connie Rasinski and Jim Tyer.

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Helping writers get what they’re owed

We've been talking on the TAG Blog about the issue of foreign levies for almost as long as there's been a TAG Blog. Recently, we've been participating in settlement hearings regarding a lawsuit filed against the Writers Guild of America, west (WGAw) over the collection of foreign levies residuals.

Specifically, we’ve begun attempts to work with the WGAw to collect and distribute money from the European Union owed to animation writers, from a tax on blank videocassettes and DVDs on behalf of the “creative authors” of animated films and shows.

For years we have had an arrangement with the Directors Guild, which collects and distributes these monies on behalf of animation directors, and as a result many members and non-members have profited. Unfortunately, at least until recently the Writers Guild has been less cooperative in helping get these funds into the hands of animation writers and other non-WGAw members.

Now the WGAw has sent us a list of animation writers that may be owed some of this money. In checking the list against our records, we’ve found thirty-three names (see below) that we’re unable to contact, either because they’ve never belonged to the Animation Guild or because they’re inactive and we do not have a current address.

What we need is contact information – addresses, phone numbers and/or e-mails – for the persons listed, so that we and the WGAw can contact them and arrange for them to receive the funds they are owed. Some of these people may not, in fact, have written for animation, but we will work to get them in contact with the WGAw in any event. Please understand that TAG does not have records of how much money (if any) is owed to these or any other animation writers.

Please contact Jeff Massie at or (818) 845-7500 ext. 110 if you can be of assistance or if you have any questions. All information will be held in strictest confidence between TAG and the WGAw.

MISSING CONTACT INFORMATION Writers who may be owed foreign levies monies as of 5/14/2010

  1. Casey Alexander
  2. Berkeley Anderson
  3. Joel Barkow
  4. Keith Blocker
  5. Jeff Borkin
  6. Fred Brunish
  7. Peter Burns
  8. Sabatino Ciuffini
  9. Walter Coleman
  10. Jack Cosgriff
  11. Raven Farquhar
  12. Janet Greene
  13. Jeff Holder
  14. Peggy Holmes
  15. Scott Landis
  16. Phil Lorin
  17. Lisa Maliari
  18. Robert May
  19. Joseph Molinari
  20. Kiel Murray
  21. Larry Parr
  22. Anne-Marie Perrotta
  23. Jan Pinkava
  24. Michael Reynolds
  25. Carlo Romano
  26. Don Rosa
  27. Tony Schillaci
  28. Tean Schultz
  29. Michael Steinbeck
  30. Zach Stones
  31. Enrique Torres Tudela
  32. Kent Wadsworth
  33. William Winkler

NOTE: I've turned off comments on this post to emphasize that the contact information we are collecting will be kept strictly and totally confidential. Please contact us as specified above if you have information on anyone on this list. Thanks!

Click here to read entire post

One More New Fox Animation

Fox Broadcasting, awash in animated tentpoles on Sunday night, is working to add yet another.

...[Joining] Fox’s lineup next year is their new animated comedy series" Bob’s Burgers." The series follows a family that runs a failing burger joint ... [and] features the voices of H. Jon Benjamin, John Roberts, Dan Mintz, Eugene Mirman and Kristen Schaal. ... [I]t appears as though a few of the female characters will be voiced by male actors ...

Bento Box is now ramping up to create episodes of BB, and the show hits the airwaves in 2011. I wouldn't have a clue whether the show will catch on with the cartoon-watching public or not, but I'm keeping an open mind. (Some folks don't like Bob's look, yett there have been various shows -- Beavis and Butthead and Family Guy come to mind -- that didn't exactly resemble Fantasia and nevertheless succeeded in the ratings department.)

Will the new spate of shows that are now in the pipeline become Nielson darlings? I guess we'll know by the middle of next year.

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Fifteen Years of TAG Pension Benefits

Because we've been answering questions about the IA TAG Pensions (and remember we've got three of them: the Defined Benefit Plan, the Individual Account Plan, and the TAG 401(k) Plan*), and because the question: "What do I get after fifteen years?" has been asked, let's do a little mind exercise.

What might you expect in Animation Guild pension bennies after, say, fifteen years? ...

(We're assuming here that you A) work fifty weeks a year for fifteen years, and B) the current structures and percentages of the DFP, the IAP and the 401(k) Plan remain in place.)

In the Defined Benefit Plan, working 2000 credited hours for ten years at the benefit rate of $ 0.0295 per hour, and then working an additional five years at the increased accrual rate of $0.0393 with the same number of credited hours (2000), you would end the decade and a half with a monthly annuity of $983.00 .

In the Individual Account Plan, it gets a tad trickier, because we have to make assumptions that may be low or could be high. But for our mind exercise, we assume the following: A $1600/week minimum contract rate, a 5% annual investment return (which leans conservative), and a 2% annual minimum wage increase (in line with most current bump-ups). We further assume that the employer contribution into the IAP of 6% of an employee's minimum rate (plus 30.4 cents for each hour worked) will be the same over the next decade and a half.

So. Plugging in all those percentages and numbers, and doing the calculations, we start with $5,420 the first year, and end with $136,199.19 at the end of year fifteen.

Not too shabby. (And please note that these two plans are automatic ... and paid for by contributions from the employer.)

Now, the third leg of the TAG Pension Suite, the optional TAG 401(k) Plan, is a no-match Plan (similar to 30% of the 401(k) Plans in the U.S. of A.), funded by employees' deducted, pre-tax wages.

For the 401(k) calculations, we assume a $16,500 annual employee contribution and a 5% rate of return, compounded. Plugging in those numbers, we get: $16,500 at the end of the first year, and $353,009.00 at the end of the fifteenth. ($247,000 of which would have been put in by the employee.)

Your grand total of pension benefits after fifteen years of creative labor? A $983 monthly annuity and $489,208.19 lump-sum accumulation.

Could be worse.

* The Motion Picture Industry Defined Benefit Plan provides you with a monthly check on retirement; the Motion Picture Industry Individual Account Plan gives you a lump sum accumulation (both paid by the employer); the TAG 401(k) Plan gives you a lump-sum accumulation from your deducted wages.

Anmation Guild TAG 401(k) Enrollment Meetings

Disney TVA -- Sonora Building -- Tues., May 18th, 2 p.m., Rm 1173

Disney Toons -- Sonora Building -- Tues. May 18th, 3 p.m. Rm. 2025

Disney Feature -- Southside Building -- Thurs. May 20th, 10 a.m., Rm 1300

Nickelodeon -- Wed. May 26th, 1 p.m., Main Conf. Rm.

Fox TV Animation -- Thurs. May 27th, 2 p.m., Main Conf. Rm.

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Green Wood Overseas

It didn't achieve the Top Spot stateside, but Rusell Crowe and company did quite nicely in foreign lands.

"Robin Hood" conquered the foreign theatrical circuit, grossing $74 million from 6,944 screens in 56 markets ... making it Universal's second biggest international opening weekend ever ...

The other top entries:

... Marvel Studios' "Iron Man 2" is second on the weekend, grossing $31 million in its third weekend of foreign play, raising its offshore gross total to date to $245 million. ...

Third on the weekend was Disney's "Alice in Wonderland," which registered an 11th weekend tally of $10.7 million from 3,861 locations in 55 markets, with Japan, Brazil, Spain and Chile driving the boxoffice action. ... "Alice" now ranks as the seventh biggest international boxoffice hit ever released. With its worldwide gross of $980.5 million, "Alice" ranks as the sixth biggest boxoffice success of all time ...

In the meantime, How to Train Your Dragon is grossing as much in foreign lands as it is domestically. Over two hundred and seven million dollars in both venues.

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A New Broom Sweeps Clean, #3 of 4

Click the thumbnails for a larger hi-res image.

Courtesy of the Megacollector, from Terrytoons artist Jim Tyer.

On Tuesday, the final chapter.

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

French Animation

France is doing beaucoup animation just now. Despicable Me comes out later this year, and some newer projects are rolling.

French film studio EuropaCorp. has partnered with HP to make an animated feature film version of Mathias Malzieu's novel "The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart" for a fall 2011 release. ... Malzieu will direct the €20 million ($25 million) project alongside Stephane Berla, with EuropaCorp. producer and Luc Besson's wife Virginie Besson-Silla set to produce in association with France's Duran Duboi

... After their "Arthur" franchise, EuropaCorp. is expanding into the animated realm with another 3D animated feature "A Monster in Paris," set to hit French theaters at Christmas.

EuropaCorp. is the studio of Luc Besson, whose current wife is one of the producers of Cuckoo-Clock Heart. Besson is one of the more prolific and profitable French film-makers.

Over a 30-year career [Besson] has not only directed 10 features ... but has also written and produced dozens more, including a handful of the most commercially successful French movies ever. ... [H]is "Arthur and the Invisibles " — a Harry Potteresque children's adventure that is a hybrid of live action and innovative 3-D animation — has earned nearly $110 million. ...

Arthur did well in Europe, but the Weinstein Co. took a major bath releasing the film stateside. More's the pity.

Happily, the non-traction of French c.g. features hasn't poisoned the Gallic appetite for le animation. We'll find out what sort of hunger American audiences possess for French product when Despicable rolls out this Fall and Cuckoo-Clock Heart opens the next.

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The Sherwood Derby

Now with long-bow Add On.

The Nikkster, as is her practice, is the first out of the gate with box office numbers. And apparently (so far) the Man in the Iron Suit is beating Robin, at least domestically.

1. IRON MAN 2 (Marvel/Paramount) Week 2 [4,390 Runs] Friday $15.2M (-70%), Estimated Weekend $53M, Estimated Cume $212M

2. ROBIN HOOD (Universal) NEW [3,503 Runs] Friday $14.9M, Estimated Weekend $40M, Estimated Cume $209M

3. LETTER TO JULIET (Summit) NEW [2,968 Runs] Friday $4.9M, Estimated Weekend $14.5M

4. JUST WRIGHT (Fox Searchlight) NEW [1,831 Runs] Friday $2.8M, Estimated Weekend $9M

5. NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (NL/WB) Week 3 [3,075] Friday $1.5M, Estimated Weekend $4.5M, Estimated Cume $55.8M

6. DATE NIGHT (Fox) Week 6 [2,481] Friday $1.2M, Estimated Weekend $4.0, Estimated Cume $36.6M

7. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (DWA/Par) Week 8 [2,620] Friday $1.1M, Estimated Weekend $5.2M, Estimated Cume $207.7M

You will note that Dragon, after an under-powered opening, has bested Monsters V. Aliens by a comfortable margin. (Monsters ended at around $195 million in domestic grosses, although it opened much higher than the reptile.)

Add On: Iron Man 2 collects $53 million while Robin Hood makes due with $37.1 million.

How to Train Your Dragon has the smallest drop of any Top Ten feature, declining 23%, raking in another $5.1 million, earning a cumulative $207.8 million. Next week, of course, the green ogre takes over most of its dimensional screens.

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Friday, May 14, 2010

Maytime Linkage

As the weekend rolls over us, we give you various news you can chew (mentally).

Cal Arts put on its annual producers showcase, where the best and the brightest project their student films and animation divisions for many of the major movie and t.v. producers herd prime student-candidates onto buses and haul them off to L.A. production facilities.

... CalArts put on their annual Producers Show, showcasing some of the best work created by the school’s character animation students. CalArts has cultivated the premier program in animation and to watch this show is to glimpse the future of the field. Little wonder industry types and students alike packed the expansive Leonard H. Goldenson hall to catch the 24 shorts included on the bill. ...

(I went to some of these in the nineties. Back then, they were like frenetic bidding auctions for the services of different up-and-coming artists.) ...

The voice cast of Shrek waxes nostalgic as the franchise (maybe) wraps up:

Q. How does it feel for you that the “Shrek” series is coming to an end?

Mike Myers: I think it’s very elegant. They only made a few “Fawlty Towers,” and I love that they did that. I think that they’ve managed to keep the integrity of the series. It’s all about that one line: “But you are beautiful to me,” from the first movie. By the ogre falling in love with the ogre girl, he is saying: “I too am beautiful. And you too you are also beautiful.” ...

(And we'll see if this is really and truly the last one ...)

SPA goes long and uncorks a high arching pass downfield.

Sony Pictures Animation has pre-emptively picked up rights to the Atari video game "Rollercoaster Tycoon," and is developing the project as a live-action/CGI hybrid.

The "Tycoon" franchise, created by Chris Sawyer, is a popular series of computer games that simulate a combination of designing roller coasters and amusement park management. ...

Leonard Maltin overviews the long cinematic history of Robin Hood (including two Disney versions).

... [I]f I were to pick the Robin most deserving of rediscovery it would be Richard Todd in Walt Disney’s 1952 British-made adventure The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men. Disney’s own animated movie, made some twenty years later, put this live-action film further in the shade, a fate it doesn’t deserve.

Having enjoyed great success with his live-action Treasure Island in 1950, Walt Disney continued producing films in England, largely because the British government wouldn’t allow him or other Hollywood producers to take the pounds their films had earned out of the country. So Walt hired a first-rate team of British filmmakers to create a series of costume pictures under the supervision of Walt’s man from Hollywood, a creative producer named Perce Pearce. ...

Mr. Pearce worked for Disney from the mid 1930s until his sudden death from a heart attack in 1955.

Since you were no doubt aching to know which ones they were, Josh Jackson names "The Forty Best Cartoon Characters of All Time." (Of course this covers all past and future characters.)

38. Sylvester J. Pussycat & Tweety

Created: 1945. Creator: Friz Freleng. Voice: Mel Blanc

Mel Blanc kept the different speech impediments straight while voicing both cat and bird for Looney Tunes ....

(Funny, I would have had tweety Bird pegged as 33rd greatest, or maybe 32nd. Shows what I know.)

Lastly, features Japanese posters of Disney and Pixar animated films.

Have a splendid weekend. Your TAG leadership will be spending it in a big hotel meeting room, attending an IA District Two convention. What fun!

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A New Broom Sweeps Clean, #2 of 4

Click the thumbnails for a larger hi-res image.

More of the tale of the broom and its new master, courtesy of Jim Tyer and the Megacollector.

Part 1 is here. (More to come ...)

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Kung Fu II

Kung Fu Panda Deux, which is housed one-floor below The Croods on DWA's Glendale campus, gets buffed to a high gleam ...

Charlie Kaufman, the Oscar-winning writer behind “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and films such as “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich,” has headed off into an unexpected direction: animation.

The scribe is coming off of less than two weeks worth of work on DreamWorks Animation’s “Kung Fu Panda: The Kaboom of Doom,” ... His work on “Kaboom” falls under the polish category, and animated movies tend to be worked on by multiple writers, so it’s not fair to say this will be a Kaufman cartoon.

DreamWorks, Disney and others often use high-end writers on their animated features. The days when the board artists and maybe an in-house scribe did all the heavy lifting are long gone. The stakes (with some exceptions) have grown too large to allow that kind of old-time cartoon making.

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A Child's Garden of Misinformation

There's bits of ... how to put this? ... misinformation bandied about in the comments section of the Persuasion post below.

So that you don't have to venture down to an old post, we bring the discussion here. The bold/italics lines are from anonymous commenters, and the responses are from your ever-helpful union leaders:

In order to have "retiree health benefits" would you not have to be employed at a, or several, union shops solidly for 15 years?

No, the 15 qualified years required for retiree health benefits do not have to be continuous (which is what I think you mean by 'solidly'). From the time you start working, until you retire, you need a total of 15 'qualified' years to earn retiree health benefits through the union plan. We'll explain 'qualified years' below.

It is nice to see that the pension money, being deposited because of my work, will be going to people other than myself.

This is half false, half exaggeration. First, remember that there are two distinct union pensions which are automatic (i.e., you're automatically a part of both of them when you're working at a union studio). One is the Individual Account Plan. Every penny that goes into your IAP will only benefit you. This fund is not co-mingled with anyone else's IAP. Contributions to your IAP, made by your union employer, and the interest earned on your invested funds, stays in your account, which you receive at retirement. This plan vests after you've worked 400 hours, so it is not going to anyone else.

The second pension is the Defined Benefit Pension Plan. This requires five qualified years to vest. Once you're vested, you've earned a monthly stipend that begins paying out at retirement. The funds contributed on your behalf to the DBP go into a larger pool. Here it's possible to work several years at union studios but never vest, and so in a sense your DBP contributions could benefit other people if your union career is sufficiently brief. But you would still have your IAP waiting for you, along with any contributions you've made to the 401(k).

The problem is that almost every year, for nearly everyone employed there, there would be a hiatus for about one month. That would then negate the entire year for me, although money still went to the pension regardless.

I have been a member of the union since 1998. How many years do I have towards the pension? One.

Which means you only worked 400 or more hours in one calendar year. The pension plans, and the qualifying for the retiree health plan, are based on 'qualified years.' A qualified year is any calendar year in which somebody works 400 hours or more at a union studio. Someone working 40-hour work weeks would have a 'qualified year' after two and a half months. So if you worked at a union studio for 11 months out of each year (or even as little as three months out of the year) since 1998, you would now have 13 qualified years.

Management's incentive is to keep you employed to the bare minimum of their requirements to deposit funds toward the union. That keeps their bottom line in check and their stock happier. If they can lay you off or keep you temporary, they will because they pay less to TAG.

Cute, but not how things work. The studios do not pay a red cent to TAG. Your initiation fee and your dues are the only money that goes to The Animation Guild. The initiation fee is waived for people at a studio that goes union while they're working there. The dues range between $69 and about $100/quarter, depending on your job classification.

The studios DO pay into the Motion Picture Industry Health and Pension Plan on your behalf. For every single hour you work, they pay into a trust fund for your two pensions and for your health benefits. It doesn't matter if they employ you for 3 months a year on an 'at-will' basis, or whether they have you on a 7-year contract--they pay into the MPIHPP for every single hour you work for them.

For TAG, the incentive is to organize as many people at corporations as possible in order to maximize the corporate contributions to the health and pension funds to keep them solvent over the long term. In order to protect those funds, it is also in their interest to keep member requirements high enough so as to not jeopardize the funds.

This is also false. I'm beginning to think there's a management troll posting on our blog to try to discourage certain animators at a certain studio from going union.

The union has NO -- as in "zero" -- access to the funds that go into the health and pension plans. The MPIHPP is a trust fund that operates under layers of federal regulations, and is solely for the benefit of members. And the union has no incentive to keep qualifying requirements high. In fact, TAG has worked to do the opposite.

When the Defined Benefit Pension was first started, it required 10 qualified years to vest. Then the union got it reduced to 5 qualified years. When the Individual Account Plan was started up, it was set up with a FIVE year vesting time. Now, it takes ONE year (400 hours) to vest.

The health plan used to require about a year of work to qualify for benefits. Now the plan becomes active in half that time.

TAG fought for and won a 401(k) plan for its members fifteen years ago. It initially had a 6 month wait before one could join the 401(k). Then it was reduced to three months. Now it's virtually immediate.

So the history of TAG has been to push for better benefits, and more easily accessed benefits.

Worked for three years straight at a union studio and because of how the time broke up, I only had one year count. Have worked on other union projects for the greater part of a particular year but none of that has counted.

This is mathematically not possible. As stated above, a qualified year is simply 400 hours worked in a calendar year. It doesn't even need to be continuous, so if you worked all of January, half of July, and all of October, you'd have a qualified year.

A couple of examples to make this more clear. You started working 40 hours per week at a union studio on Oct. 1, 2007, and worked steadily until March 30, 2009. You worked 18 straight months. How many 'qualified years' do you have? Three, because you had at least 400 hours in each of those three years.

Example two: you started working 40-hour weeks on Nov. 1, 2007, and worked straight through until Feb. 28, 2009. In this example you have one qualified year, since in both 2007 and 2009 you were just under the necessary 400 hours. However, if you were working at least 50 hours per week in both 2007 and 2009, you would again have three qualified years.

Anyone who thinks they have earned qualified years that aren't being credited, contact the union office ASAP. We'll help you sort it out. And this is why we encourage members to keep their paystubs, and check the summary statement they get yearly from the MPIHPP.

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