Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Age of Personal Service Contracts

In Hollywood animation's sleepy, long-ago past, hardly anybody had Personal Service Contracts -- those three-to-thirty page agreements that spell out salary and other terms of employment for individual employees. But in the late eighties all that started to change... Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg had rolled into Walt Disney Productions in the mid-eighties, and after "The Little Mermaid" hit big, the executive decision was made to start tying up talent with Personal Service Contracts. In 1990 I noticed that more and more Disney artists were getting PSCs, spelling out salaries, what movies they were to work on, what jobs they were doing. There was language warning to keep everything "confidential," and I started squawking about how the studio couldn't, shouldn't restrict the sharing of wage info because it was, like, against the law (see previous post.) After some foot dragging, Disney finally saw things TAG's way. In the early days of PSCs, they were heavily lopsided; some new employees were tied to contracts at scale, and without any employment guarantees. If they wanted to get rid of you a week from Tuesday, they got rid of you. The Animation Guild was able to get those kinds of contracts to go away. By 1992-3, PSCs were ubiquitous. Everybody had one, from trainees to veterans. And there was a happy moment from 1995 to early 1997 when the battle between Warner Bros., DreamWorks and Disney drove wages through the roof and PSCs became really WORTH something. I knew at least one lead key assistant animator that was making a salary that would have made Frank and Ollie swoon with envy. Personal Service Contracts changed as the grosses for hand-drawn animated features declined. Salaries fell. Terms of contracts got shorter. As the century turned, "run of picture" clauses pushed old-fashion three-year guarantees to the edge of extinction. The Animation Guild took the position that "run of picture" contracts were actually "at will" contracts; the studios could lay employees off when the studios determined there was no further work available, and employees could leave on a week's notice. (Some studios say they disagree with our legal position, but no studio we know about has stopped an employee from leaving.) Yesterday at Disney Feature Animation, an employee told me he thought Disney was phasing out Personal Service Contracts altogether. "They've laid off some of their contracts people. Pixar, I hear, doesn't have PSCs. Word's going around that Disney Feature is going to be the same. No PSCs." I don't know if this change will take place or not. But if it does, the move will return Disney Features to the way it was pre-1990, when artists all worked week-to-week, and stayed or left because they wanted to...or because a supervisor put a lay-off slip on their desks. It's anybody's guess if the other studios will follow suit.
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