Thursday, November 30, 2006

Disney/TSL Contract Ratification

The middle of the day was spent in the big, first-floor conference room at the Mouse House's hat building. There IA representatives Gavin Koon, Steve Aredas, and I set up shop for the ratification vote for a new Disney Feature/TSL contract vote....

This particular labor agreement is the IATSE's (our mother international), but TAG has served as mid-wife from the first contract in '99/2000 until now. (This is the third, three-year go-around.) The agreement blankets the development artists and writers, also the production employees working on Disney CGI features. The Local 839 agreement -- to which it is quite similar -- covers employees working on hand-drawn projects.

We've blogged about the latest version of the contract here and here. It took awhile in coming, but this past fall Disney Feature shop stewards assembled a negotiation committee, Disney employees were asked to prioritize drafted proposals, (which they did via the web) and in October, Disney management, the IATSE, and Disney employees sat down to wrestle a new agreement into existence.

Long story short: we reached agreement in one lengthy bargaining session, the negotiation committee unanimously recommended approval by Disney employees, and today those employees unanimously approved it.

These things don't often run this smoothly, but today -- happily -- they did. So now it's on to other things for the next three years, then we get to negotiate again.

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Ralph Hulett's Christmas, day IV


© by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett

A touch of Eyvind Earle influence, no?

Here are more Ralph Hulett Christmas cards.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Three years since Roy Disney's letter to Michael

Charles at Animation Nation just posted a reminder that today is the third anniversary of the infamous letter that Roy Disney sent to Michael Eisner, in which Mr. Disney resigned as Chairman of Feature Animation and Vice Chair of the Disney Board of Directors . . .

Here's a nugget from the letter:

In conclusion, Michael, it is my sincere belief that it is you who should be leaving and not me. Accordingly, I once again call for your resignation or retirement. The Walt Disney Company deserves fresh, energetic leadership at this challenging time in its history just as it did in 1984 when I headed a restructuring which resulted in your recruitment to the Company.

At the time, many people took it as a feeble, useless gesture. If Roy Disney couldn't help change things from the inside, how the heck could he do any good by quitting? No one imagined there was any way Eisner would leave even one day early, or that he couldn't engineer staying even longer, or that his hand-picked successor would make any real attempt to turn things around. It was a pretty dismal time at Disney, to say the least. Despair was not too strong a word for the situation.

Right after the letter, came out, one of our board members (Karen Nugent) had the great idea to invite Roy and his wife to the Guild's holiday party. To everyone's delight, they came. And Mr. Disney electrified the huge crowd with a few well chosen words ...*

We didn't know it then, but that last line, "It ain't over yet!", wasn't a boast. It was a huge understatement.

I know there are some layoffs coming at Disney, and that the changes there since Iger took over are a work in progress. But it's amazing how much things can change in a few years, isn't it?

Thanks to Floyd Norman for reminding us of those words.

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Disney Works at Dreams

My main task this week has been running to various studios and passing out Christmas Party fliers (like I do every year). The other assignment: raising awareness of the upcoming Disney Feature contract vote. So today Disney and DreamWorks were on my visits calendar (which maybe explains the visual to the left there. DreamWorks and Disney/ABC are now partners in "Shrek the Halls," right?)...

The usual challenge for a union rep trying to cover a lot of ground in a finite amount of time is to avoid long conversations. You go into a studio wing and bingo boingo, somebody has a bunch of questions and there goes the big plan to spread your toothy smile far and wide.

Happily, today at DreamWorks, I had a lot of holiday fliers that I was able to thrust into people's hands, nod, smile and duck out of the room. So I had little small talk, but enough to find out that a new feature that's been in development and "different" from DreamWorks recent slate, will be unveiled to staff in early December. Since it doesn't look like it's shown up in the MSM or blogsphere, I will keep my trap shut about it.

Over at Disney, I got swept up in a lot more discussions. People told me about Disney exec Andrew Millstein's recent Question and Answer sessions with the crew over future staffing levels and strategies; I urged people to vote in Thursday's contract ratification. Most folks were satisfied with the new agreement, but one employee gave me an earful of what they believed were the inadequacies of the contract deal. I did a less-than-perfect job of explaining it. (Like, I forgot to mention that the negotiating committee unanimously voted approval of the new collective bargaining agreement. Wouldn't have overcome, I don't think, the objections, but it might have helped. Naturally, you think of what you should have said after you've left the room.)

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Ralph Hulett's Christmas, day III

So here's a Christmas card that is almost a variation on the old "Coca Cola" Clauses of years ago, yet slightly different...

RALPH HULETT CHRISTMAS CARD ART © by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett

Lots of red...

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

WGA(w) Declines Early Negotiations

The L.A. Times and VARIETY today detailed the tap-dancing now going on between the Writers Guild of America (west) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. IATSE business agents and the International have been warning members for some time that they should squirrel away money and prepare for a real (or defacto) strike in 2007-2008.

Animation Guild members are a little more fortunate than many because, while it could impact artists working on "The Simpsons," "King of the Hill," "Family Guy" and American Dad," (the writers for which are under WGA contracts) animation personnel elsewhere should be less impacted by a WGA job action. Even so, a lot of the industry is starting to fret:

The Writers Guild of America is going to make Hollywood worry about a strike for the next year.

In a move underlining the souring relationship between the WGA and industry toppers, the guild's leaders have spurned an industry proposal to launch negotiations in January. Instead, they've insisted they won't be ready to start until September -- less than two months before the Oct. 31 expiration of the current contract...

On the film side, the delay means an acceleration of production and stockpiling of scripts, followed by a "de facto strike" next summer as studios stop launching film production once they can no longer be wrapped by Oct. 31. In TV, the prospect of a work stoppage means studios and networks will try to shoot more episodes of scripted series and will be less inclined to launch series while planning for more reality, news and sports programming.

I've thought for a while now that the motion picture business is headed for strikes, maybe big strikes, in '07 or '08. Both SAG and the WGA elected officers who ran on militant platforms to "get tough" with movie and television producers, so they are probably going to be, I don't know, militant in carrying out the agendas on which they ran. The guilds want a larger chunk of residuals from DVDs, mobile phones and Ipods. I don't fault them for wanting it, but I don't believe the multi-national conglomerates that they will soon face across the negotiating table are inclined to give it to them.

And on a related subject, I don't think it bodes well for the WGA(w) that its assistant executive director Grace Reiner, who I know and like, has departed the Writers Guild for an executive slot at the Disney Channel. Ms. Reiner probably knew more about the intricacies of the Writers Guild contract than anybody else in the Guild's building, so her exit -- eight or nine months before the contract is up -- ain't good. Evidently former WGA prez Dan Petrie Jr. doesn't think it's good either:

Some sad news for all writers came today: Grace Reiner, Assistant Executive Director of the Writers Guild of America, west, is leaving the Guild. A lawyer, Grace has played a vital role in every Guild negotiation in memory. Between negotiations she is a fierce guardian of the Writers Guild film and television contract, the Minimum Basic Agreement (or MBA); more than one writer has nicknamed her “Rain Man” for her uncanny ability to cite by page and paragraph every obscure provision in the 400+ page document.

This comes on the heels of a wholesale series of departures in the wake of the appointment of our new Executive Director...

One of the axiums of Hollywood is, new management usually sweeps out members of the old regime with a big broom. It happens at studios, so why not at guilds and unions? Well, often it does happen, and if the new top dogs at the Writers Guild or America and the Screen Actors Guild can achieve even half of what they campaigned for, then they'll be heroes. But if they fail, they will not be top dogs for very long.

The next two years will probably be interesting; if we're fortunate, it won't be in the Chinese sense of the word.

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Ralph Hulett's Christmas, day II

There are themes that are going to show up here. There are the "scenic" or "mood" cards -- like the previous example -- and then there are character cards...

RALPH HULETT CHRISTMAS CARD ART © by the Estate Of Ralph Hulett this one here.

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Monday, November 27, 2006

Ralph Hulett's Thirty-Six Days of Christmas

Disney background artist Ralph Hulett (my father), spent thirty-seven years at the Mouse House, working on shorts and animated features, from Song of the South straight through to Robin Hood. But he had other gigs besides his Disney livelihood. And one of the more lucrative was being a Christmas card designer...

Love is a gentle flow of softness

From the forties to the seventies, he turned out hundreds of Christmas card designs for the likes of California Artists, Designers Showcase and others. In those days, companies paid royalties, and Father made a lot of coin over the years painting and selling Christmas cards.

Most of these designs haven't seen the light of day for years, but that's what blogs are for, right? To resurrect neglected artwork? So without further ado, we'll present a sampling of Hulett Christmas cards, from now until New Year's Day.

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Future of Primetime Animation

VARIETY explores the viability of primetime cartoons on network schedules. Its conclusion? Hey, evening animation pays off like gangbusters when it works:

Toon title wave animates nets

Fox's success colors webs' plans for more projects


"The Simpsons" has made News Corp. as much as $2 billion over the past 17 years, while "Family Guy" is fast approaching the eight-figure mark for the conglom.

Those figures make the profits behind "Friends" and "Seinfeld" look like chump change. It's no surprise, then, that network execs are anxious to give the animated genre a shot despite high-priced failures of the past.

Fox is casting a wide net , with two pilot presentations already in the works and several more in development.

And CBS is next up at bat, bowing the Stateside version of hit U.K. animated skein "Creature Comforts" -- from Aardman, creator of "Wallace & Gromit" -- later this season.

You read the first two paragraphs above, and it's easy to see why the broadcast networks, their width and breadth shrinking year by year, are eager to create some shows that can earn them billions. It's not for nothing that Rupert Murdoch loves the pinkish "Simpsons." Homer, Bart, and company make his conglomerate billions.

... {T}he return to animation comes as the nets continue to languish in the half-hour sitcom department. And even if a laffer works, mega-backend coin is no longer guaranteed.

As for toon hits, once they develop any sort of audience, the shows offer up an ancillary market bonanza.

"The hits are so successful, you'd see how everyone would keep trying," says Al Jean, exec producer of "The Simpsons." "An animated show can be extremely profitable."

Shows like "Family Guy" and "The Simpsons" have been huge on DVD, as well as internationally. And the licensing and merchandising revenue can be enormous, as evidenced by the scads of Stewie and Bart Simpson T-shirts and dolls lining store shelves.

Fox has found out, as Disney learned long before it, that quality animation is an annuity that keeps on giving, decade after decade. Name one live-action feature film from 1937 that has sold 26 million units in video. There aren't any. But of course, there is the animated Snow White .

Expect things to crest next summer with the long-awaited arrival of "The Simpsons Movie." Pic is sure to bolster interest in the franchise, which could very well augment other animated skeins.

Did we mention "annuities that keep on giving"?

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Saturday, November 25, 2006

Turkey Holiday Box Office

Through Thursday, the penguins duked it out with James Bond for bragging rights to the top spot for North American box office. And through Thursday, the penguins came up a trifle short...

Box Office Mojo has Casino Royale slotted at #1 with a total of $63,450,000. Happy Feet comes in at #2 with $62 million. Flushed Away now bobs along at #11 and a total of $51,550,000. (New releases Deja Vu and Deck the Halls enter the list and #3 and #4, respectively. Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny debuts at #10)

UPDATE: Mojo's Sunday chart shows that Happy Feet spent a second weekend at #1 and has now crossed the $100 million mark (curse those talking animals.) Casino Royale settles for the second slot and a $94,223,000 total.

Meanwhile, Flushed Away hangs in at #8, rising 16.3% as it collects $7,670,000 for a total of $57,366,000.

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Friday, November 24, 2006

Another Financial Analyst Who Doesn't Get Animation

(The chart above tracks the stocks -- and fortunes -- of DreamWorks Animation and the Disney Co. over the past year.)

Stock analyst Travis Johnson of weighs in on DreamWorks, Pixar and other animation studios. He thought he knew who was going to turn out the hit films and who wasn't. He thought he had the 'toon landscape all scoped out, but he's starting to think he was a little wrong...

...{In feature animation} the brightest beacon by far was Pixar (now owned by Disney (DIS) ), with its steady release of hit after hit after hit. Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., later The Incredibles and Cars. From very early on, it looked like this Steve Jobs company could do no wrong, and that no one else was going to be able to master this business.

Then came Shrek and Shrek 2, one of the highest grossing films of all time, and Jeffrey Katzenberg's Dreamworks Animation (DWA) became a worthy competitor in the computer animation space. To take advantage of that success, they spun off the company from Daddy Dreamworks and had a very successful IPO -- at least for a little while. I bought shares of this one (I've since sold them at a loss), as it looked to me like Pixar and Dreamworks were the only two companies that had the creative juice to build the next generation of animation hits...

But now, Mr. Johnson admits, there seem to be some flies in his analytical ointment. Like Blue Sky Animation, which is cranking out money-making animated features there on the east coast (in White Plains, no less!). And all of a sudden Warner Bros. has released Happy Feet, which seems to be taking in some nice coin despite the anguished screams of Glenn Beck and associates.

See, what will always perplex stock analysts like Travis Johnson, who seek to find rationality in an irrational business, is that no studio can corral creative genius. Just when you think that Mr. Katzenberg or Mr. Lasseter hold all the answers, up pops some artist(s) with awesome creative chops...and the ability to make a film that connects with a wide swath of the movie-going public.

And suddenly Warner Bros., which previously couldn't launch a hit animated feature to save its life, has a money-maker like Happy Feet on its hands. Six to twelve months from now, it will be some other company that will come out of nowhere with a riveting film. Because there is no way to monoplize talent.

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The Offspring of Cartoon Network

Reading Animation Artist's interview with Mike Moon, the development Veep at Disney Television Animation, I was struck by this paragraph:

The TV animation workflow at Disney varies from show to show, although it is largely grounded on similar schedules and crew set-ups. Still, there’s enough flexibility to accommodate radically different kinds of approaches and techniques. Moon points to a new series of animated shorts running on the Disney Channel, called "Shorty McShort Shorts." Each one has a distinctive pipeline, he says. Some were done in Flash with an outside studio based in Dublin, Ireland. Others were based on cell action with animation produced out of London. And there are shorts produced in the States using 3D, Harmony, Flash, and traditional 2D pipelines.

Back in the early nineties, Fred Seibert, Hanna-Barbera's Big Kahuna, started a "shorts program." That program's strategy was to invite animation artists to come in and pitch ideas for eight-minute cartoons, after which the company would produce the best of the ideas and broadcast them on Ted Turner's fledgling cable channel dedicated to the showing of cartoons. It was called, remarkably enough, Cartoon Network. And it mainly showed -- then -- the Hanna-Barbera, Warners, and MGM 'toon libraries that Turner owned.

But H-B's embryonic "shorts program" changed that. The deal was, all the new shorts would be thrown against the broadcast wall, so to speak, via Cartoon Network. And the ones that stuck -- garnered the biggest audience reactions -- would be turned into half-hour series. Those first cluster of shorts spawned shows like "Johnny Bravo," "Dexter's Lab," and "Powder Puff Girls" and helped boost the careers of any number of young artists (wonder what ever became of Seth McFarlane?). And it laid the foundation of the Cartoon Network we know and love today. It also spawned "shorts programs" at Nickelodeon and Disney, and probably a couple of other studios that don't spring immediately to mind.

At the time, The Animation Guild dickered with H-B over the rates it could pay all the budding Chuck Joneses and Friz Frelengs. We got wages up a bit, but the overall development deals -- then as now -- favored the studio. It's the price almost always paid by young talent to get their first break in the entertainment industry.

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

At Disney TVA And Elsewhere

"Autumnal" was the word for the studios yesterday afternoon; everyone was heading off to turkey day. But I went through Disney Sonora and Warners anyway....

Warner Bros. Animation was quiet, awaiting its move back to Burbank. Skeleton crews on a few production tailings, mucho empty desks (as we previously posted, the company will be doing 4-5 series in the spring, along with some dvd features. No word yet on the upcoming titles or subjects)...

At Disney Sonora, thirty-nine new episodes of "Mickey's Clubhouse" have been greenlit, and staffers told me production boarders start coming back to work on the project in early December. A year's worth of work on the show is anticipated.

The other returning series now getting underway is "Emperor's New School", with 19 new episodes...

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Liberals Destroying Animation

Having seen only the trailer and not the film, I had no idea that Happy Feet was nothing more than an animated Al Gore film, destroying the soul and fabric of America. Thank God Glenn Beck is here to set me straight...

On the November 20 edition of his CNN Headline News program, Glenn Beck said that Happy Feet, an animated film about a dancing Emperor penguin, is "propaganda" and an "animated version of An Inconvenient Truth." Beck then discussed the film with Bob Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, who told Beck that "[o]f the 50,000 things affecting America's youth in negative ways today, I don't think the penguin movie is probably on that 50,000." Thompson then told Beck: "I don't think this story is going to get you a Peabody [Award]."

I thought Glenn was supposed to be the "common sense," "non-zombie" conservative. You know, the "guy who said what everbody is thinking." So why is Glenn whining about "liberal propaganda" in the new George Miller film? (Has Glenn whined about Mad Max and I somehow missed it?)

Because sorry, but I don't think everybody is thinking how Left-wing HF really is. I don't think most people consider Ice Age 2 a diatribe against global warming, or Bambi some anti-hunting tract. They're movies. With heroes and villains. With beginnings, middles and ends. With plot devices. I don't think most people spend much time considering the weighty question of whether Albert Gore, Jr., approves Happy Feet's message. Beyond which, I don't think people really give two craps, one way or the other.

I don't know why Glenn is in such a dither anyway. We all know that the polar ice caps are expanding like mad, and that this penguin picture is just some deranged, Australian lib's dark fantasy. So why worry?

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Robin Hood on DVD

Cartoon Brew points out that Disney's animated Robin Hood will be released on a special edition DVD on November 28.

This was the last animated feature that my background-artist father worked on from start to finish. The first time I saw it was in a third-floor sweat box in the old animation building, watching it back-to-back with "The Rescuers" (on assignment from Woolie Reitherman.)

What struck me back in 1977 was how involving and funny The Rescuers was, and how...well, lacklustre Robin Hood seemed to be. So I was stunned when, sometime later, I asked Ollie Johnston what his favorite animated feature was and he answered "Robin Hood." He explained it was his favorite because, he liked the characters he animated and particularly liked what he accomplished with the animation.

Which just shows to go you that, as story artists are mostly focused on sequences, acts and story arcs, animators are often paying more attention to scenes and moments through which their character is going than anything else. Oh yeah. And does the acting work?

I was working with Ken Anderson when I viewed RH, and remember seeing some of Ken's drawings for Robin and Little John that he still had up in his office. I was particularly intrigued with a long drawing of the leads surrounded by Robin's band of "Merry Men," which in this case was rabbits, squirrels, turtles, and a raccoon or two. Little of this group had found its way into the finished film, and I wondered why. Vance Gerry clued me in:

"Oh yeah, Ken did a lot of development on the outlaw band, drew lots of different animals in different kinds of costumes, nice stuff. But 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' came out while we were developing 'Robin Hood', and Woolie decided to push it in the direction of a 'buddy picture' like 'Butch Cassidy.' Which he did."

So there it is, for better or worse. I know some people who like Robin Hood quite a lot. I'm just not one of them. I recommend the '38 version. Or even the picture that Douglas Fairbanks made. Either will give you Mr. Hood straight up. (Of course, you won't get Andy Devine, but you can't have everything.)

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Holiday Party!

Save the date! Friday, December 8, starting at 6 pm, we're hosting out annual Animation Guild Holiday Party. As we've done the last few years, it's again at the Pickwick Gardens in beautiful Burbank. We're bringing back the Martini Kings for some live, cool retro holiday music. In addition to the finger foods and hosted bar, we'll have some extra special gifts this year. . .

It's been a hell of a year in the industry, and this is a great way to cap it off. Every year our party is a chance to reconnect with old friends, do a little networking, and spread some holiday cheer. Everyone in the animation industry and the community of labor is invited. The party runs till midnight, so slip on over after work. You all know where the Pickwick is, but just in case: 1001 West Riverside Drive in Burbank (just west of South Main Street).

And as always, please drink responsibly, or bring a designated driver.

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Disney/TSL Contract Moves Toward Ratification Vote

The TSL (Disney Feature) Collective Bargaining Agreement that was negotiated five weeks ago has been turned into a "Memorandum of Agreement" and mailed to Disney employees. A ratification vote will happen next week inside the hat building...

The new contract follows the outlines of the Local 839 agreement and was unanimously recommended by the Disney employee negotiating committee; among the major bullet points:

* Minimum wage rates increase $.75/hr in year one, followed by percentage bumps of 3% and 3%.

Employer Pension contributions increased by $.25 per hour, retroactive to August 1, 2006; a pension increase of 10% (trust fund balances permitting) in 2009, retroactive back to August 1, 2006.

A sick leave increase from five days per year to 10 days.

Employer Health Care Benefit contributions increased by $.25/hr.

In this day and age, the above is a good package, and remarkably good when you understand how flinty the studios and their conglomerate owners have become in recent years. It wasn't long ago that I heard Nicholas Counter, the chief negotiator for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, say: "We've told the unions and guilds they'll get a better deal if they negotiate early and reach agreement with us. If they strike, they'll get a worse deal afterwards."

Now, I don't know if Mr. Counter is blowing smoke or not, but I know that GE, Time-Warner and the others have way deeper pockets than SAG, the DGA, WGA and IATSE, and never hesitate to remind labor they have no problem waiting out a job action, if it comes down to that. I guess we'll see who wants to test Nick Counter's statement in the next few years.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Monday Studio Tour

Popped in and out of the Nick and Cartoon Network studios on Monday. At Nick, the new series "El Tigre" is in full boarding mode, with the crew creating boards digitally rather than pencil to paper. (I've watched the digital age come to story board at the studios over the past 24 months. By now it's pretty ubiquitous everywhere.) "El Tigre" is a flash animation show, and being animated in a Dublin, Ireland. (Hey, not everything goes to Korea)...

At Nick, a couple of people asked me about residuals for scripts and/or boards (and by residuals, they meant the kind that arrive in their mailbox via check, rather than IATSE-style residuals that flow into the health and pension plan). I gave them the history of TAG's negotiating for more residuals, how we spent the better part of a year talking to producers about it during the 2000 negotiations, etc.

I also told them about the WGA, SAG and DGA negotiating for residuals over the years, and how the WGA had a percentage of gross profits in the early sixties, and traded that for a bigger, front-loaded residual structure in '64 or '65.

Up at Cartoon Network, the pilot for Reanimated hits the airwaves on December 8. I'm informed that Cartoon Network hasn't made a final decision about turning el pilot into a series, but that the powers-that be are leaning that way. If it does, it will be the first series I can remember that's a combination live-action/animation television show with animation in-frame with live actors throughout.

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Monday, November 20, 2006

Robert Iger's On a Roll

Robert Iger -- former television weatherman and current Disney CEO -- has had a good year. I know it's been a good year because two longtime friends who bought a mess of Pixar stock a few years ago voiced satisfaction over their new mess of Disney stock. And how well is that stock performing? I went and checked...

The company's shares have rocketed by 42% in 12 months - making them second only to General Motors among Wall Street's top performing blue-chip stocks of the year.

There's been speculation in the press and on this blog that Disney paid far too much for Pixar, but nobody would know it from the Mouse House's stock valuation. Since Michael Eisner departed, it's been robust.

So much for the prophecy I heard from a Disney lawyer two years ago that Bob Iger wouldn't amount to much as Eisner's successor. (I guess that's why the gentleman practices law; he's not so good at predicting the future.)

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Stop the Presses! Glut Cancelled!

A funny thing happened on the way to the foregone conclusion that the public was sick of Computer-Animated Talking-Animal Pix . . . yet another CATAP dominated at the box office. All year Steve has been pointing out the dire and knowing and repetitive and superficial news articles decrying the supposed glut. It makes one wonder why these newspapers don't save some time and money and just keep reprinting the same article.

So this weekend, against all the expert's opinions, another CATAP put up huge numbers (as in a $42 million opening). Happy Feet bested James Bond, and it crushed the contention that we (the animation industry), had long ago maxed out our audience with too much product. . .

None of this is to say that making a CATAP is a guaranteed success. Lord knows they're ridiculously expensive and difficult to make, and there have been some genuine failures this year. But what have we really learned?

The conventional wisdom was that, for the viewing public, animation is animation. That they see all these films as a big, blurred whole. That's it's a zero-sum game at best, and if you put out too many animated films, they'll just cannibalize each other, or, worse, the audience will fatigue and ignore all of them. That, clearly, is false.

The real lesson is the same thing that many of us have been saying for a long time: Audiences respond to appealing movies, not to filmmaking techniques. Animation, whether CG or hand drawn or stop motion or some crazy combination, succeeds not because the audience is wowed by a new technology, but because a film promises to give them what they want for a couple of hours -- escape, excitement, entertainment, emotional catharsis, etc.

With animation, we have an ideal set of techniques to provide that. And based on the repeated successes of animated films this year, by a wide variety of studios, I have a feeling we'll get the chance to keep doing that for a while.

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The Morphing Roller Coaster

I've written before about what a roller coaster the animation business is: with theatrical features, big employment follows big grosses; then the reverse happens when box office goes south. Television employment is dictated by the number of shows ordered (and of course the budgets.) Work on direct-to-video features is usually months long, then it's on to another gig. (Only Disney direct-to-video sequels offer work that might go on a year or more. But then the Mouse House's budgets are way higher.)...

Over the years, business models have shape-changed like sci-fi villains as corporate income has flowed, then ebbed in the animation marketplace. When I started as a worker bee in the industry, the 'toon landscape was relatively simple: For television, ABC, CBS and NBC were the ball game; hiring and layoffs followed the networks' buying season. Every animator, board artist and cel painter knew that when the Big Three picked up their orders for a new season of shows, it was back to Hanna-Barbera, Filmation and Ruby Spears for six months of work, after which there was a half-year's unemployment and spotty freelance until the next season arrived.

Decade after decade, all this was as predictable as Southern California's sunshine, likewise for theatrical features: one full-length cartoon every few years, the producer of which was always spelled D-I-S-N-E-Y. Today, of course, all has changed. In television, seasonal employment has blurred if not disappeared altogether. Work slows down during the holidays and picks up in the Spring, but there are no hard and fast schedules anymore. Multiple distribution pipelines -- cable, network, dvds, foreign co-productions -- demand different requirements and deadlines, so artists might work for three months, six months, eighteen months on a series, then scramble to find their next project. No longer is there a guarantee of six months' work tied to network buys for "Saturday morning cartoons," then six months off. And the Mouse House is no longer the only feature player in town.

Theatrical feature employment, as always, moves to a different rhythm. Long ago at Disney, I used to watch production topkick Don Duckwall energetically lay off assistants, in-betweeners and non-supervisory animators the instant the latest feature project ended. That changed in the era of Katzenberg and Eisner, when jettisoning production personnel stopped due to multiple, overlapping productions. Long-term personal service contracts became the norm.

By the middle nineties, with Disney, Fox, Warners and DreamWorks fighting over a relatively small talent pool, wages skyrocketed, and twenty-two year-olds fresh out of Cal Arts were making two thousand dollars a week. Disney hired a background trainee for fifteen hundred, then complained to me about paying so much. (My response was, "It's a free country. Pay less if you want to." Guild rates for trainees were then forty percent below what Disney was offering.)

Those golden days are now long gone, and guaranteed employment in multi-year personal service contracts pretty much over. Disney is phasing out p.s.c.'s altogether, reverting to an earlier, pre-Eisner model, when every artist worked "week to week."

And that's not the only reversion. Sony Imageworks has long used a two-tiered production model, with permanent staff (Tier A) working year-round and temporary production hires (Tier B) hired in to get the big, labor-intensive assignments out. This is known as "the visual effects model," but it's similar to what Disney Feature Animation did with its lower-level animation staff from the 1960s to the 1980s. Word circulates that another animation studio will soon adopt this hiring model.

What this means for the working artist/animator is, long-term employment at one company is the exception instead of the rule. As TAG's President Emeritus Tom Sito often says, to be in animation means you'll work for a baker's dozen worth of companies through the course of your career. The one-studio-for-life model, being one of the "Nine Old Men" under a benevolent studio mogul, is gone. The seasonal work model -- six on and six off, year after year -- is also a memory. Now it's our skill sets, our portfolios/reels and our networks of professional friends that are important to career viability. We'd better get used to it, and plan accordingly.

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Allen Wade, by John Sparey

Our survey of John Sparey's portraits and caricatures concludes with this view of the late Allen Wade.


Allen started at Disney as an inbetweener in 1951 and three years later left for UPA. He went on to work as an assistant animator for Warners, Format, Detiege, Hanna-Barbera, Ed Love, Filmation and Marvel. He retired in 1987 and passed away in 1990.

We've been focusing on John's caricatures these past few months because we love Mr. Sparey's work, and because he celebrates industry employees who aren't well-known, even to animation aficionados. But well-known or not, all of these artists -- the Sudings, Herschensons, Zwickers, Crumps and Tamargos -- played a part in getting the likes of Lady and the Tramp, Huckleberry Hound and Gerald McBoing-Boing onto various-size screens and into the heads of generations of 'toon watchers. We're pleased and honored that John Sparey allowed us the privilege of sharing them with you.

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Friday, November 17, 2006

Will Penguins Triumph Once More?

Penguins helped Madagascar to become a theatrical (and dvd) winner; now box office guru expects penguins to propel Happy Feet into the stratosphere this weekend, anticipating a $40 million take on 3,804 screens. (And here is Box Office Mojo's prediction)...

The reviews for this new George Miller feature have been little short of rapturous, so we'll get to see how the ballyhoo helps HF perform across this pre-holiday weekend (and how Flushed Away holds up.) According to the pundits' recent conventional wisdom, it shouldn't do much, correct? I mean, it's just more talking animals like we've seen before, and there's an animation glut, and folks are just...well, satiated, aren't they? And didn't DreamWorks already do the penguin thing already?

Update: The Friday estimates are in, and to nobody's surprise, Casino Royale and Happy Feet finished 1-2, taking in $14,750,000 and $11,750,000 respectively. Borat dropped to third.

Update Again: Well, lookee here. Happy Feet collects $42.3 million -- just what BM Mojo thought. (See President Koch's commentary, above.) Although the film is second in per-screen average, $42 million is still a nice round number, no?

But it's a movie about talking animals!! What about the godd*mn GLUT?!!

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Seeing STARZ and Cartoon Networks

End of the year slowdowns are upon us. At the Cartoon Network Studio in Burbank, crews are rolling off their respective shows and onto hiatus as season orders wrap up...

Out near the airport at STARZ Media (formerly Film Roman, formerly IDT Entertainment) no large hiatuses are in evidence. A full crew still works on "The Simpsons" television series, and the feature continues to clock overtime. Staffer continue to think of the feature project as a large snowball rolling downhill, gathering force and momentum as it goes...

I talked to some production people, and more work on new projects could be coming through in the new year. The first animated "Hellboy" feature has had its world premier on Cartoon Network, and if it and Feature #2 perform well on dvd, then a third "Hellboy" might not be far behind. (Here's hoping.)

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

"Animation Glut" and Worldwide Grosses

To add fuel to the fire, THE LONDON TIMES has a lengthy article on the "glut" of animated product (doesn't everyone?) which comes to us courtesy of Kathleen Milnes...

Embedded in the article, the TIMES had a handy list of worldwide grosses for '06 animated films:

Ice Age 2: The Meltdown $647m

Cars $458m

Over the Hedge $327m

Chicken Little $314m

Monster House $135m

Open Season $134m

Hoodwinked $100m

Barnyard: The Original Party Animals $94.5m

The Wild $94m

The Ant Bully $54m

When you have six of ten films that gross north of $100 million, and two others that come close to the century mark, animated features aren't in some catastrophic economic meltdown, no matter what pundits say. While it's probably true that, after production costs, prints, and advertising, some of the above films will not be huge money-spinners, we're willing to wager that a majority of the above candidates are a) going to nudge into the black and b) provide their copyright owners with healthy income streams for years to come. From the TIMES article:

Flushed Away and Happy Feet find themselves in an overcrowded Toontown. “This year has seen the result of the gold-rush mentality that prompted many animation start-ups trying to get a slice of the DreamWorks and Pixar pie,” says Rick DeMott, the managing editor of the online trade magazine Animation World Magazine. “We have ended up in a kind of cracked, pop culture-saturated wonderland.”

If there's a gold rush mentality, it comes from CG animated films performing well at the box office. Unlike the mid-nineties, when everyone except Disney was flaming out with their hand-drawn animated product, a decade later there are plenty of profitable players, from Blue Sky to the Weinstein Co. in the animation business.

Doesn't sound like the glut has led to economic meltdown, at least not yet. Or are we missing something?

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Flushed . . .

Despite the fact that Flushed Away is exceeding expert's projections during its first two weeks in North American theaters, DreamWorks announced today that they're taking a "write down" on the film, declaring after 13 days of release that they expect to lose money on the film. The linked article goes on to say "The extent of the write-down depends on factors such as domestic and international theatrical results, revenues related to worldwide free and pay television, home video sales, and distribution and marketing costs, DreamWorks said." In other words, it will be a good nine months to a year before anyone knows how the film will ultimately do worldwide, in theaters and on DVD, but why wait? . . .

This Bloomberg article goes into more detail, especially about the already anticipated Paul Allen stock sell off. As was previously noted, it's in Mr. Allen's interest to sell these shares when the stock is at its lowest, so that his remaining shares will be worth more. The article also notes that the company may buy back some of it's own stock, so that's a second incentive for the stock to be lower for right now. One wonders if the seeming rush to write down Flushed Away is more related to those factors, and less to how well the film is actually doing?

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The Mantra of "Too Many 'Toons" Becomes Cliche

The following AP article is not only inaccurate, but also wrong-headed. But it's basic through-line has been repeated so often that it's racing past "conventional wisdom" to "cliche" without pausing for breath. But I'll let reporter David Germain weave his own fallacies...

...As with the initial novelty of talking pictures nearly 80 years ago, computer animation's early appeal resulted partly from its fresh look. Now, CGI films have become the standard, so commonplace that the story — not the style — is more crucial than ever in a movie's success or failure...

I've got news for Mr.Germain. Story has always been most of the ball game.

Does Mr. Germain honestly think that the first CGI feature Toy Story would have succeeded if the characters hadn't clicked, if the story hadn't added up to a satisfying whole? A hundred-plus years after motion pictures were invented (when audiences were happy to watch a train pulling into a station on a big white sheet) nobody would have plunked down money to see computer-generated toys if Woody and company hadn't riveted audiences. And it wasn't the artifical sheen on simulated wood and plastic that did it (although it helped with the overall effect.)

"What's happened is, no longer will people go see CG animation simply because it's CG-animated as they did when they first saw `Toy Story.' Everything will have to work on its own merits," Miller said. "Sure, when `The Jazz Singer' came out, people turned up to see sound pictures. In a handful of years, people no longer turned up to hear movies. They just turned up to see a movie they thought was good. The same thing is happening with animation."

Ten years ago, Hollywood released as few as three or four animated movies a year, with Disney the only steady player. This year, 16 films are expected to be eligible for the Academy Award for feature-length animation, only the second time in the six-year history of the animated Oscar that there were enough movies for a full field of five nominees, rather than the usual three.

"Happy Feet," the story of a penguin ostracized because he can't sing like his brethren but who can dance up a storm, features a voice cast led by Elijah Wood, Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman and Robin Williams. If the movie meets industry expectations and becomes a holiday hit, it should lift overall domestic revenues for this year's animated films well above $1.2 billion, according to box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations.

That would beat Hollywood's previous best of $1.18 billion for 2004's animated movies, which included the blockbusters "Shrek 2" and "The Incredibles."

Ah, I see. No animated features did very well this year, but overall animation box office is going to set a new record. Gotchya. Cars and Ice Age 2, mid-sized hits like Barnyard and Open Season were all optical illusions.

But no animated film in 2006 came close to the $300 million and $400 million returns of the all-time leaders, "Shrek 2,""Finding Nemo" and "The Lion King."

Apparently brother Germain didn't get the word about the $400+ million that Ice Age 2 took in overseas. Or the big bucks it took in domestically. And...oh, but why waste precious finger-time writing more? You get the idea.

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VHS, 30, dies of loneliness

That's the title of a great, slightly tongue-in-cheek article in this morning's Daily Variety . . .

I'm old enough to remember a childhood without the "Vertical Helical Scan" devices (who knew what VHS really stood for?). It was a time when you either saw a show when the network or theater owner decided to run it, or you missed out. Period. TV shows ran, then were lost to the ether.

I grew up with a long list of movies and TV shows I longed to see, based on the enthusiastic next-day descriptions of friends at school.* Somehow, the shows you missed always sounded so much more appealing than the ones you saw, and classics like It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown were the only shows you could count on getting repeat viewings.

All that changed with VCR and VHS. New worlds, and new markets, opened up. Studying classic animation and film suddenly became accessible to most everyone. Who, 30 years ago, could have predicted how this technology would change our industry (to say nothing of our social lives)?

So as we move on to bigger and better technology, let's all say a silent prayer for the passing of this old friend.

Yes, most of those shows and movies turned out to be junk. But the imaginary shows I conjured in my mind, based on those descriptions, were pretty cool.
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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Happenings at Sony Pictures Animation

Sony Pictures Animation still has a variety of projects percolating (I was there today and found this news out)....

Cloudy with A Chance of Meatballs, after definite story pains, seems to be "on track" again (per staffers). The feature's most recent screening for execs went well, and most everyone (we're told) thinks the picture is coming around.

Surf's Up is still being tweaked (even as it is animated), but the last story artists on it are now switching over to Meatballs. As one Sony artist related, "The picture's got a lot of heart. Now they're in the process of adding gags..."

On the industry-buzz front, word circulates among some CGI artists and TDs that Sony Pictures Imageworks (the Sony entity that produces Sony Pictures Animation's animated features), will be hiring some staff in March, around the time that Disney Feature Animation is slated to lay off a number of CGI animators, artists and TDs. A CGI artist at another studio told me: "I don't think the timing's accidental; I think Sony is going to be picking up staff from among people that Disney lets go. They'll go after the pick of the litter."

Is the rumor true? I just report what I hear; I don't come to any final conclusions until reality overtakes speculation.

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Golden Nuggets of Animation Wisdom, Yours for the Taking

One of the great things about this blogging explosion is the amazing information and expertise that is being given away for free. No longer do we have to wait for someone to publish a book to get their benefits of their study and experience. In fact, a few blogs out there have better info than I've seen in some recent animation how-to books. Among the goldmines of useful information, here are a few that have caught my eye recently . . .

Keith Lango has posted on the problems (and some solutions) regarding the typical CG-animated feature pipeline. His recent series of posts are really a "how to" for producers, not individual animators, but it's still great stuff. I enjoyed Keith's posts because he aptly pinpoints a bunch of issues that have frustrated me as an animator again and again. The great thing is that Keith has worked in a variety of supervisory roles, at several studios, and so he has both the perspective and the knowledge to describe the typical pipeline problems, and suggest some great-sounding solutions. Now, if only the folks with power will read those posts. . .

A visit to John K's blog is always thought provoking. While I may not agree 100% with all of John K's points, it's always a stimulating read. His recent posts on color theory are fantastic, and that's only the tip of the iceberg you'll find there.

The blogs of Mark Kennedy (Temple of the Seven Golden Camels) and Hans Perk (A. Film L.A.) both regularly offer graduate level studies in animation theory and technique (where else, for example, are you going to learn animation timing to a beat in this day and age?!?). Ignore these blogs at your own risk.

There are other blogs and websites out there that regularly offer excellent insights and technical expertise, and I apologize for only listing these four. My goal here wasn't to offer a definitive list, just to remind you that some dedicated folks are giving some good stuff away for free. And to say thanks to Keith, John, Mark, and Hans for the selfless service.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Monday Walkaround

Spent part of the morning at Nickelodeon Studios -- where everything is steady as she goes (meaning that the various shows Nick has in work are moving briskly through the pre-production pipeline) and the afternoon, as is my wont, at Disney...

I ran into another senior animator in the hat building's hall. He seriously doubts that Frog Princess will be heavily outsourced. "None of the talk that I've heard has run that way. Management's asking who they can get who's good, and can do the work." A supervisor on the second floor said much the same thing: "It doesn't make sense to me that they'd sub-contract a picture they want to prove will succeed. Quality issues are too important..."

I look at it this way: Supposing you were part of a new management team eager to prove that hand-drawn animation was viable, and its success was important to your reputation; would you farm a big chunk of it out where you couldn't control it? I don't thiiink so.

I got a peek at the new "Disney Animation Studio" logo that will run in front of the animated features coming out of Burbank. (Pixar, of course, has its own logo with -- the jumping lamp.) The Disney version is classy, involves a couple of well-known corporate trade marks, and is understated. I liked it.

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It didn't take long for this to happen. Can Broadway be far off? Can Toy Story! All Singing! All Dancing! soon be gracing our futures? Methinks we can bank on it...

Nemo swims to the stage

Visitors to Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom might find a chance to catch Disney's newest stage show, Finding Nemo -- The Musical, which has gone into quiet-opening preview performances in advance of its official premier in January.

Performances of the musical in the newly enclosed Theater in the Wild are running intermittently for the next few weeks, and will be open to all park guests.

Based on the blockbuster 2003 animated Pixar movie Finding Nemo, the stage show features the characters Nemo, Marlin, Dori, Bruce, Crush and others.

Featuring original songs by Tony Award-winning Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Finding Nemo -- The Musical uses puppets, dancers, aerialists and animated backdrops to create such acts as tap-dancing sharks and bicycle-riders.

The show replaces the Tarzan Rocks! show, which closed in February after a seven-year run. Disney has spent the subsequent time enclosing and updating the 1,500-seat theater and building the production that Disney officials have described as rivaling Animal Kingdom's big show, Festival of the Lion King.

I've long thought it would be nice if at least a bit of the money that cascaded off the musicals, toys, sequels and t.v. shows derived from the original features could find its way back to the people who created the original work. Will that happen in your lifetime or mine? Doubt it.
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Sunday, November 12, 2006

VARIETY Declares DreamWorks and Aardman on Brink of Divorce

Okay, not a huge shocker considering the recent rumblings, but reporter Ben Fritz at VARIETY now reports that it's all but over between DreamWorks and the well-loved British stop-motion studio...


Brit toon Banner's not a big draw for D'Works

Just two films into a five-picture deal, DreamWorks Animation and Aardman are on the verge of calling it quits.

After the second commercial disappointment in as many years from the quirky British claymation studio, insiders say DreamWorks Animation is unlikely to put any more Aardman 'toons on its sked. Instead, the Blighty company is believed to be looking for a new theatrical partner -- likely one that doesn't have Shrek-sized expectations for its releases...

Last year's Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit did well overseas, but grossed just $56.1 million at home, forcing DWA to take a writedown...after two subsequent misses, DreamWorks Animation seems to have concluded that the Aardman style just isn't appealing enough to American auds...

As for Aardman, it's hard at work on upcoming CBS series Creature Comforts. Studio does have one project still in development at DWA: John Cleese-penned caveman pic Crood Awakenings. But unless that film becomes a lot more sarcastic and a lot less British, it doesn't stand much chance of getting released by DreamWorks Animation.

Me, I don't think that Flushed Away can be considered some major box office disappointment. It's British, it's quirky. And given the competition that was out there on its opening weekend, it must have landed about where studio execs expected it to. (And sure, every studio always hopes their flick will do better, but none of the Aardman product has pulled vast hordes of American movie-goers through the turnstyles. So why would Flushed Away?)

OTOH, Aardman and DreamWorks will probably be going their separate ways. Who gets custody of the kids?

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

Weekend Box Office, or Borat, Round 2

Despite three new movies opening wide yesterday, so far this weekend looks a lot like the last. Borat, now on three times as many screens, is the 800-pound gorilla, with a $10 million Friday estimate, and the family films Santa Clause 3 and Flushed Away are again neck and neck in second and third. . .

In good news for the Aardman/DreamWorks toon, the Friday estimate of $5.4 million is actually above its opening Friday take of $4.7 million a week ago. Flushed Away just might just be a leggy film. Perhaps now we can look forward to The Slug Sequel?

As always, updates to follow . . .

Sunday Update: The estimate is in for the entire weekend, and the top three look a lot like last weekend. Borat picked up over 1,700 theaters and made almost 10% more than last weekend ($29 million this frame). Santa Clause 3 and Flushed Away again finished in a dead heat for second and third, holding their positions despite several new films. Despite the Variety article above, Flushed Away dropped a mere 11%, taking in $16.7 million for a cume of $39.9 million.

The other animated films in release are coming to the ends of their runs. Open Season drops out of the top ten, taking in another $1.4 million for a total of $83.5. The 3-D Nightmare Before Christmas padded it's rerelease take to just over $8 million.

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Friday, November 10, 2006

Froggie Goes a Boarding?

John M. and Ron C. Back at Disney after a six-month sabbatical courtesy of David Stainton

A Disney effects animator told me today that they're "having fun on 'Meet the Robinsons,'" and if the prospect of layoffs wasn't hanging out there, life would be totally good. Another effects person said that people who've done effects for various live action shows and who are used to short-term gigs, aren't particulary bothered with the upcoming cuts, they know it's part of the biz. His words: "People were talking about it for two weeks or so, but not now. I can't speak for other departments, but in effects, morale is pretty good."

Disney staffers up on the third floor of the hat building tell me that "Frog Princess" is close to having some sequences put up on boards. I'm informed that directors Ron Clements and John Musker's script has circulated among various parties and met with a positive reaction. I say, congrats to Ron and John.

"Frankly, it's best if you two leave the studio now. We've just been a ball and chain around your ankles."

-- Former Disney Feature Animation topkick David Stainton to Ron Clements and John Musker, July 2005

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What Do the Weinsteins Know That Others Don't?

Animation Magazine reports on how the Weinstein Company is snapping up foreign animated features left and right. Why would the Weinsteins do this, if there is this horrible glut of animation?...

Maybe because the Weinstein brothers know that there is gold in animation, particularly on the home video side. (Like, if you bring the animation in for a relatively inexpensive price, you can sell an awful lot of silver disks and open your own mint.)

As Animation Magazine notes, the Weinstein Co. is co-financing three direct-to-video cgi features entitled "Unstable Fables." The budgets for these films are in the $3-4 million range. Prana Animation in India is doing the animation, and the pre-production work (boards, designs, keys) is being created right here in Hollywood. (Non-union so far. But done here.)

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Animation Pensions Replacing Animation Wages


The subject of animation pensions was raised in "comments" a week ago, to wit: how much of a weekly paycheck does a pension replace? And what's the real world experience of some retirees with their pensions?...

I've talked to a number of seasoned animation citizens over time, and I've got a rough idea of how many are doing. All find their Motion Picture Industry pensions extremely helpful in maintainint living standards. In broad brush strokes, here's some specifics:

Most older artists who had 20-plus years in the biz and retired, say, two or more years ago, have a replacement rate of pensions to wages around 30-45%. This includes motion picture industry pension and Social Security. (For instance, yesterday I talked to a long-time animator and timing director who retired eighteen months ago; he said Social Security and the Motion Picture Pension has replaced 42% of his final weekly salary. He's also got other income sources.)

Another example: An animator who's now 78, who worked in the business roughly forty years, retired thirteen years back with a fifty thousand dollar lump-sum payout from the IAP (it was new then, and much less lucrative), and a combined yearly cash flow of thirty-six thousand dollars from his industry pension and Social Security. This has been enough for him to live on, but he's not independently wealthy (multiple marriages and divorces have seen to that.) This guy's wage replacement was around forty percent.

Now let's take a story artist to whom I recently talked. The guy is not yet retired, but he's getting up there. He's 58 years old, with 29 qualified years in the pension plan, and 68,000 hours. Round figures, he's looking at a monthly annuity of $2350 (after the latest bump-up), an IAP of $105,000, and a Social Security check of approximately $1650 a month, if he bails out and claims it at age 62. Social Security bumps up around $2100 (give or take) if he waits until he's 66. Now, he's also got money in the TAG 401(k), some investments, and a house with a clump of equity.

So this artist, assuming he works at least 400 hours in 2007, could retire in two years at age sixty with full Motion Picture industry pension and retiree health benefits. Health benefits would cover him, his wife and any dependent children. He would have to wait two additional years to pick up the minimum Social Security payout. Alternately, he could work until age 62 (three more years) and then retire. Working full-time (2000 hours per year), that would get him an industry pension of $2621 monthly annuity, and $139,500 in the Individual Account Plan (this assumes contributions of $4,000 per year, and an investment return of around 7%).

So is this guy ready for retirement? Guess it depends on the life-style he plans to maintain. He makes, on average, a bit over $100,000 a year, but 80-85 grand is what he takes home after deductions. When I talked to him, he said he would have a cash flow of around 55-60 thousand a year, if he pulled 4% out of what he's got in his 401(k) and investment savings, and his IRA money.

The point to all this is, everybody has different requirements. My basic recommendation is to salt away as much as possible on a weekly basis, because you can never save too much, and who the hell knows what pensions in this country are going to be like twenty or thirty years hence?

As I've noted previously, Ric Edelman's book, The Truth About Money, is a pleasant, easy-to-read primer on saving, investing, estate-planning and other money-oriented things. (He disagrees with other financial planners on paying off your house, but diversity of opinion is what makes this country great.) I'd say it's a good place to start if you're a novice.

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Leverage II -- Thoughts of Some Non-Union 'Toon Studios

Last week, and a couple of years back, and a couple of years before that, I was told about non-signator cartoon producers explaining to animators how, gosh darn it, they were on a tight budget and there was just no way they could pay minimum guild wage rates or health and pension benefits to the artists ("So sorry, wish we could.")...

In each case, the artists found out that the companies that were paying them squat were, at the very same time, signed to Screen Actors Guild contracts that had pension benefits, health benefits, and residuals with all the trimmings.

Fifteen years ago, I sat in Gabor Csupo's office on Highland and listened to him blather on about how awful how our guild was, how he'd never sign a contract with us even if we pulled his fingernails out, etcetera, etcetera. When he finally wound down I asked him if Klasky-Csupo had, like, a SAG contract. He stared at me like I was a retarded kindergartner.

"SAG? Oh, SAG's great! Sure we have a contract with them. They're great!"

Then he went back to telling me how crappy we were, with a strong assist from one of his production supervisors, a young woman named Sherry Gunther.

Well pardon me all to hell, but I don't think SAG is anywhere near as great as Gabor C. made them out to be, way back in 1991. I think that Gabor Csupo put his name on the dotted line of SAG's collective bargaining agreement because there were some voice actors that he had to have for his cartoon shows, and the only way he could get them was go sign a Screen Actors Guild contract.

SAG, you see, had leverage (or a great block and tackle, whatever). This is, in the final analysis, the only thing that really delivers. "Fair and "unfair" don't really enter the equation.

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Variety Animation Oscar Preview

Today's Daily Variety has a nice article by David Cohen discussing the animated features of 2006. (The print version has several accompanying animation-related articles and a nice chart, handicapping the cartoon contenders for the Oscar, which don't appear to be available online.) I thought the Cohen article interesting for what it didn't do . . .

It didn't declare that there had been too many animated features, or that they were too similar, or that our industry was going straight to hell. Instead, he writes,

"This was supposed to be the year the CG animation bubble burst.

Too many films, warned the analysts. A sure sign of the impending disaster, they said, was all those talking-animal movies. "Over the Hedge"? "Open Season"? Who could tell them apart? Surely, now that the novelty has worn off, auds would just skip them altogether.

But it turned out that it was the pundits, not the auds, who were confused.

My thoughts exactly. Yes, several films tanked. But most didn't, and three of the top seven films this year are fully animated.

Here's another bit I completely agree with:

"The more the merrier," says "Cars" director John Lasseter, who now boasts the title of chief creative officer for both Pixar and the Walt Disney Co. "Look, there's 52 weekends a year, and 14 to 16 animated films came out this year, so there's still plenty of room. I'd much rather be part of a healthy industry than be the only player in a dead industry."

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Info needed on Finnish-American cartoonists

Our Executive Board member Stephan Zupkas is working with historian Ilpo Lagerstedt to find information about cartoonists Veve Risto, Kosti Ruohomaa, and any others of Finnish ancestry.

If you can be of any assistance, call Stephan at (818) 504-6974, or mail directly to the historian:

Ilpo Lagerstedt Ulvilantie 29/2H 101 00350 Helsinki FINLAND

Thank you!

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Sito's History of Animation Labor Reviewed

Jim Hill Media has a nice review of Prez Emeritus Sito's new book ...

Copyright 2006 University Press of Kentucky

Having read it a while back, I concur with JMH's assessment. Tom did one hell of a job unspooling the long history of animation from working artists' perspectives. Their struggles, their anxieties and aspirations.

The story of screen cartooning is far more than the biographies of Walt Disney or Walter Lantz or Bill Hanna/Joe Barbera. It's about everybody who brought the art form to life, from the board artists to the writers to animators to the inkers and cell painters. High time that somebody told it.

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Tuesday Trifecta

I don't know if it's because it's election day, or I got up extra early, or because I've had an overdose of Vitamin E, but I hit a lot of studios today...

Over at Starz Media/Film Roman's "King of the Hill" unit (at the old Chandler Boulevard location in picturesque North Hollywood), work continues on the next 22 episodes of "KOH." The staff is happy because many have been extended through the Christmas-New Year's holiday into January and February. The crew's now boarding episodes #17, #18, etc. When the full season of 22 half-hours is complete, production brass hope that Fox will be ready to okay all or part of another season of "Hill." One board artist told me: "Our producers think we'll get a pick-up, but Fox always plays things close to the vest. They never tell us anything until they're ready to."

Disney Feature Animation now has a bright and shiney coffee/expresso/frappucino bar at the top of the hat building's central second-floor stairs. It's been under construction awhile, but it's now completed, and offers a vivid presence. What struck me when I climbed from the first floor were all the big hanging lights above large tables, and all the new carpeting. (If I had a picture of the space, I would post it. Maybe later.)

Disney Toons over on Sonora in Glendale continues work on "Little Mermaid III," which has been well-received by the test audiences who've seen it. It's been so well-received that the creators are adding scenes to punch it up even more. Toons is currently casting about for a title that's is a trifle snappier than "Little Mermaid III." (On another sequel note: I was told by Toon employees that "Tinker Bell," Diz Toons' CGI "Peter Pan" sequel, was viewed by John Lasseter yesterday. Whether Mr. Lasseter liked it or not, I've no idea.)

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Speaking of voting ...


I spent the first half of Monday at the National Labor Relations Board in West Los Angeles. We were there for a representation hearing, trying to get artists at a non-signator shop decent wages, also pension and medical benefits (currently they have neither pension nor health coverage)...

The employer didn't show up for the proceeding (first time that's happened in my experience), but TAG put on its evidence and witnesses and charged ahead. The NLRB's board agent was polite, professional, and positive, and we adjourned before noon.

This doesn't mean that the Board will necessarily grant our petition for representation and grant the guild and employees an election, but we should know in a week or so if the crew will get to vote on "going union" or not. And then there are about four or five other hurdles to leap before we get a contract ...

Speaking of voting, we strongly urge you to vote today. It's important. To find your local polling place, click the link below:

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Monday, November 06, 2006

There Was Walt, And Then There Was...Uncle Joe

Okay, we've all been fixated on the great animation icon Walt Disney, but have you stopped to consider that other unsung hero of animation? Oh, if we only had eyes to see...

Soviet Propaganda Films From Stalin’s Animation Factories Released

Shocking, Beautiful, Anti-American Collection Never Before Seen in the West

LOS ANGELES--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Soviet propaganda films, some over 80 years old, will be released to the U.S. for the first time on November 7, 2006, in coordination with the 89th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Films by Jove, the major distribution company for Russian animation, has packaged the Soviet propaganda films in a series on DVD which they will distribute with Kino International.

The eight-hour series, issued as a DVD 4-pack, will retail for $89. The series is based on more than four dozen rarely seen anti-American, anti-German, anti-British, anti-Japanese, anti-Capitalist, anti-Imperialist pro-Communist animated shorts produced by the Soviets from 1924-1984.

“This is a groundbreaking collection for both the unique insight it provides into the Soviet propaganda machine that was operating all those years, as well as the opportunity to appreciate truly beautiful, although sometimes disturbing, films by brilliant and creative undiscovered filmmakers,” said Joan Borsten, President of Films by Jove and producer of the series...

I don't know about you, but I'm going to run out and order my copy as soon as it hits Blockbuster Video....
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Duelling Shakespeareans

It's not clear why Alex Ignatiev and Paul Carlson are pictured below the fold in Shakespearean garb ...


At the time of this drawing in 1956, Alex Ignatiev, who had started in animation at Disney in 1937, had just returned to the studio after over a decade at other houses, including Warners, Cascade, UPA and Walter Lantz. In the 1960s he animated and did layouts for Hanna-Barbera, and later worked for Bakshi-Krantz, Fred Calvert, Ruby-Spears and Filmation, before retiring in 1981. He picked up a Golden Award in 1987, and died in 1995.

Paul Carlson had started at Disney as an inbetweener two years previous, and had worked on the "spaghetti kiss" from Lady And The Tramp. He also assisted "Nick" Nichols in the studio's commercial unit. During this time he also illustrated six How to Draw books for Disney. Paul worked with UPA, Quartet Films and Chuck Jones Productions throughout the 1960s. After incorporating as Paul Carlson Cartoons he did Disney film strips, science and flight instruction films and over one hundred TV commercials featuring Mr. Magoo as a spokesman for various products. Since 1998 Paul has been giving cartoon drawing lessons at art schools and galleries throughout the United States and Australia. Last year he picked up his Golden Award, in the same "graduating class" class as our artist, John Sparey.
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Sunday, November 05, 2006

"What Would Walt Do?"

This question was one that executives were heard to ask when I worked at Walt's Place in the 1970s. And it's still a parlor question today (distant cousin: "What would Jesus do?"). Now that author Neal Gabler has a massive new biography of Walt Disney hitting the bookstores, VARIETY editor Peter Bart devotes his latest column to the question:

In his exhaustive, and somewhat pedantic, new biography of Walt Disney, Neal Gabler takes 633 pages to paint a picture of this seemingly unremarkable man who "created a new art form..and built one of the most powerful empires in the entertainment world."

The Walt that emerges is not exactly "a fun guy," but rather an austere and distanced control freak whose boundless vision propelled him into a series of brilliantly precarious financial misadventures.

But while Gabler painstakingly recounts Walt's flights of imagination, he avoids speculating on what "the founder" would have thought of the global empire that he inadvertently spawned -- a corporate kingdom rather than a magic kingdom...

I don't pretend to have any unique insight into Walt's thought processes, though I met him a few times... But here are some guesses about how he might have assessed the various components of the present-day Disney empire:

Walt likely would be appalled that the studio's animation output grew ever more pedestrian in the later Eisner years and, indeed, that it now has been outsourced to Pixar which is now, to be sure, owned by Disney...

...Walt today probably would find (Disneyland) too crowded, too commercial and too pricey...

...Walt pleased to hear Dick Cook's pronouncements about focusing more on family films and building on the Disney brand and he would have been astonished by the "Pirates" franchise...

I side with Gabler in declining to speculate about what Disney might have thought about this or that. It's always dicey to pull some great personage out of his (or her) own time and speculate how she or he would have reacted to popular culture, new technologies, 3-D glasses or whatever. Times are ever-changing, and human beings -- both the great figures of history and lesser lights -- usually change with them. And we can't know with any certainty HOW they would have changed.

So what would Walt have thought? Or done? It's pretty much unknowable, isn't it?

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"Awright, who's got scene sixteen?"

John Sparey treats us to another look at Dick Lucas... DICK LUCAS Click here to read entire post

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Oscar Handicapping

The Hollywood Reporter (via UPI) is already drawing up its list of Oscar contenders for best animated feature (I dislike animation being ghettoized into its own category, but there it is)....

Large field eligible for animation Oscars

HOLLYWOOD, Nov. 4 (UPI) -- A field of 16 films from the United States and abroad have qualified for the animation category for the 79th annual Academy Awards.

The list includes current Hollywood releases such as "Happy Feet" and "Flushed Away" as well as "Cars," "Monster House," and "Over the Hedge."

Foreign qualifiers include "Paprika" and "Arthur and the Invisibles."

The large field means as many as five animated features could be formally nominated in January, the first time that has happened since 2002, The Hollywood Reporter said.

Me, I don't have a clue who will cop the gold statuette. If you go by box office gross, it would have to be "Cars" or "Ice Age 2", but the competition is wide and deep, so who knows.

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