Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Filmation's Last Days -- Part III

Filmation had been the largest animation studio in Los Angeles during the mid-eighties. Bigger than Hanna-Barbera, bigger than Disney. It was one of the first studios to get into syndicating half-hour cartoon shows which were (mostly) twenty-two minute advertisements for the marketing of plastic action figures. It opened an animated feature division and produced "Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night" which was not profitable.

By the late eighties, the company was in retrenchment and looking for a corporate partner. In late 1988 it thought it had found one in a large, foreign conglomerate hungry to expand its empire, but what it got was a notice of closure. What follows is my take on the final crashing and burning of a Los Angeles Company animation company that perished after twenty-six years of existence.
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My weeks and months at Filmation rolled on. I contracted shingles, courtesy of the two and three-year-olds I was being exposed to at the kid’s day care center, scabs covering my back and stomach. But as painful as they were, I still schlepped in to work, keeping to Arthur’s tight schedules. I was grateful the red crust hadn’t broken out on my neck and face.

When I could find a semi-comfortable position in my hard-backed chair, the script work and re-write work was actually fun, even if the product was something less than the quality of Walt Disney Productions. It was good to come out of the wilderness of low-paying jobs and find a professional home, to start earning decent money again. Word was out that the studio could soon be swallowed by a foreign conglomerate, but that the doors would remain open with a year’s worth of work stretching out over the next year.

Happiness.

So, naturally enough, in the last week of January 1989, the corporate foundation collapsed. The signs of the collapse were at first subtle. I was working at the office computer on my sixth “Bugzburg” script, the sun shining benevolently through the windows, the needles of pain from the welts on my stomach and spine only half as intense as the week before. Then Don Heckman came through the door and settle into the visitor’s chair.

“Does anything seem different to you?”

I stopped banging on the plastic keyboard, leaned back uncomfortably in my chair, and peered at him. Don’s chin whiskers were even neater and more squared off than usual, but the mouth in the middle of them was tight.

“Nothing that I’ve noticed.”

“Arthur hasn’t come in to ask how the latest script is going. In fact, I haven’t seen him in three days.”

“So?”

“So something’s not right.”

“What, exactly?"

“I don’t know. But I don’t think it’s anything good.”

Don got up and left. I went back to my script. But doubt and a vague sense of unease started to gnaw at me. I knew Arthur was inside the building because I had seen his Jaguar in its usual parking spot. But he clearly wasn’t pestering his writers, one of Arthur’s primary occupations, so what the hell WAS he doing?

I continued to write into the afternoon, my office door wide open. Arthur remained invisible. And then, late in the day, I heard Arthur come out of his corner space and rtomp in my direction.

I creaked out of my chair and walked stiffly into the hall. Mr. Nadel was moving toward me, face an impassive mask. I walked in his direction, showing him a toothy smile, casual and nonchalant.

“Hi Arthur. How’s it going?”

His stony look didn’t change. “You’ll find out.”

What the hell does THAT mean? I had no idea, and there seemed no graceful way to find out. I bee-lined to the restroom, splashed water on nose and mouth, then spent the last hour and a half of my shift finishing the “Bugzburg” script.

Arthur was silent the following day, also the day after.

Don and I stayed in our offices, trying to focus on work, but rumors were beginning to swirl: the new owners were moving the studio to another state and/or shipping most of the production work to Korea. The new owners were packing up and taking everything to Europe.
Wednesday afternoon director Tom Tataranowicz knocked on my doorframe and sat himself on the far side of the desk, face grim.

“The studio’s closing.”

“What?”

“L’Oreal is pulling the plug.”

“The studio’s new owner?” I said.

“Yup.”

L’Oreal was the big, fat French conglomerate that had bought Filmation days before. It was an expansive, expanding corporation that specialized in hair care products and make-up. The question of the week was why L’Oreal would buy a Los Angeles cartoon studio in the first place, and why would they buy it simply to close it?

But there it was: Purchase Filmation. Shutter Filmation.

And there went my re-activated animation career. Before Filmation, I had written one script for Disney Television Animation, moonlighting away from Disney Feature Animation. Now that I had figured out how to do television work, how to push myself and pace myself and pitch ideas to a hard-to-read boss, it was all going up in smoke.

“When do we officially get the happy news?” I said in a hollow voice.

“Soon,” Tom said. “L’Oreal doesn’t want to waste time keeping the doors open. Costs them money.”

“Soon” turned out to be late Thursday morning. Word went out for relays of employees to traipse into the top floor screening room , where CEO Lou Scheimer would address his staff in shifts, delivering the bad news.

The writers were part of the second group of Filmation staff who filed into the screening room. Mr. Scheimer, all six feet four inches of him, stood up at the front in a dark suit, looking as through somebody had swung a nine-iron into his stomach. When everyone settled into the folding seats, he took a deep breath and said:

“God but this is tough, guys. Filmation has been open twenty-six years. We’ve made a lot of series, turned out a lot of stuff I’m proud of. But … we’re closing.”

Grim silence. Everybody already knew, but the head of the company saying the long ride was over put a black button on the finality of the news. Lou Scheimer wiped his eyes.

“When we went into talks with L’Oreal to buy the company, they told me they wanted to keep the doors open, wanted to keep production going. Maybe even expand production. And last week the deal finally closed and the documents were signed and all of us went out to dinner to celebrate. We broke out some wine. And the first thing they told me was ‘We’re closing the studio.’ I said ‘God, don’t even joke about a thing like that'. And they said, ‘Lou? We’re not joking. The studio closes. Next week.’”

More silence. The room was funereal.

“Layoffs happen a week from Friday,” Lou said. “But the old-timers, the veterans who’ve been here for years, they’ll get a week’s pay for every year they’ve worked at Filmation. At least I was able to get L’Oreal to do THAT.”

People shifted in the theater seats. Springs squeaked. Somebody in the back of the room blew their nose. Somebody else asked what would happen to “Bugzburg”. Mr. Scheimer said that was up to L’Oreal.

Another person wanted to know why people were still being hired a week and a half ago. Lou had a simple answer: because L’Oreal hadn’t told Filmation management anything about shuttering the place.

Nobody else had questions. But there was no need. Everybody got the bleak picture.

We shuffled out of the projection room and returned to our offices and cubicles, but nobody stayed at their seats for long. When there’s no work to do, there is no reason NOT to take long lunches. Arthur Nadel would no longer be making it an issue.

A handful of survivors from the third floor drove to a barbequed ribs joint on Ventura Boulevard, and I found myself sitting with writers Bob Forward, Don Heckman, and secretary Joyce Rivera, The mood was not upbeat. Everyone was aware that there had been layoffs at other L.A. cartoon studios. Hanna-Barbera was sputtering along in a holding patter. Disney continued to make the occasional feature and a few series with its new TV division. Smaller studios had shrunk staffs.

Mr. Forward, a long-time Filmation veteran who had recently returned to the company to develop new animated TV series, told stories about the old studio on Reseda Boulevard, with people working in close proximity in cramped rooms, about what a quirky, wacky, eccentric place the old Filmation had been:

“The studio was ALWAYS run like employees were in the eighth grade. Exactly sixty minutes for lunch, in the door at nine. I’m surprised they didn’t force people to use hall passes when they left their rooms.”

I grinned bleakly at Don Heckman. He had told me the same thing the first time I was in his office.

Back at the studio, there was nothing left to do but clean out desks and go our separate ways. That afternoon I carried my cardboard box of personal items – a couple of paperback books, a pad of paper, some pencils and pens – out to my Toyota Corolla. Arthur Nadel was already at his Jaguar in the next slot, stowing his receptacles in the trunk.

I put my box in the back seat of the car, shook Arthur’s hand, told him goodbye. He smiled weakly.

“It was good having you on the staff, Steve. Do have any idea what you’re doing next?

“I’ve got a teaching credential. I’ll go apply for a teaching job. Burbank unified probably has some substitute teaching positions.

Arthur closed the shiny trunk lid of his Jag. Sighed. “”Well, it’s good you have something to fall back on. Good you have a plan.”

“What about you, Arthur? What’ll you be doing?”

There was a long pause. A pursing of lips. “I don’t know. Just … ahm … go home and quietly starve, I think.”

I let that drift in the winter air. Finally I said.

“Well, I enjoyed writing for “Bugzburg,” I learned a lot. You never know what you can do until you’re pushed, and you pushed me, Arthur. Maybe we’ll work together again.”

There was minimal chance of that, I thought, but if there was one thing I had learned at Filmation beyond “work fast, work hard, and stay at your desk”, it was to never burn a bridge if you could possibly avoid it.

Arthur nodded, stoic as ever. We got into our respective cars, backed out of our respective parking spaces, and drove away into the further reaches of the San Fernando Valley. I never saw Arthur Nadel again. Two years later, I attended his funeral to say a final goodbye.

But at that moment, I had no idea any of what lay ahead. Just as I had no idea if I would find some way to stay in the cartoon industry, or if teaching children in school classrooms was going to be my future. I was soon to find out.


4 comments:

Alex Dudley said...

To finding out years ago, to this very day, I cant imagine why and how a company that never dabbled in media before would just come in and buy an animation studio only to shut it down. And no one to this day knows why.
Man, the animation industry can really suck sometimes.

Christopher Sobieniak said...

"Man, the animation industry can really suck sometimes."

Not to mention crappy foreign investment in the 80's that went nowhere fast. Other talks usually suggested "L'Oreal" was only interested in the library, because I guess they'd have content to sell off to potential networks through the next decades (which of course ended up in many different hands before it's current home with Dreamworks).

I don't suppose we'll ever see that "Bugzburg" pilot again (assuming how much of it was finished).

Adam Martinez said...

Unfortunately, you're probably right, Chris. L'Oreal sold the Filmation library to Hallmark a year later. If you thought L'Oreal's "buy it and kill it" deal was bad, Hallmark's treatment of the library made the shampoo-making Frenchmen look like excellent owners. They junked nearly EVERYTHING relating the shows, even the original film masters! When Entertainment Rights (who actually gave a damn about the library) got their hands on Filmation's shows, they were forced with mostly sped-up PAL copies digitized from 16mm prints, with a few exceptions (I heard their Ghostbusters series was NTSC). It's actually rumored that Hallmark intentionally shit-canned it all out of a petty, spiteful dick move. I don't know if that's true or not, but either way, we're never seeing Bugzburg. Fuck you, Hallmark!

Christopher Sobieniak said...

And I guess nobody had any thought to copy the workprint recording (if one was made) at the time. Always love deleted scenes on DVD's when they resort to the workprint tapes. At least the Bravestarr follow-up pilot "Bravo" was saved somehow.

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