Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Personal Service Contracts - I

The devil is in the details

The saga of Personal Service Contracts (also known as Personal Service Agreements, or PSCs):

Simply put, PSCs are employment agreements between the studios and various departmental employees that guarantee the employee a certain length of employment. Sometimes it's a year, sometimes two. Years back, I saw five-year agreements that had no breaks or option pickups.

Back in the Dawn of Time (the 1950s), Walt Disney Productions had a few key employees under PSCs. Everyone else? Well, they were "week to week," which meant you got your forty-hour notice on Monday morning, and you were gone at closing on Friday. "Week to week" was the standard deal at most animation houses.

All that changed in the late 1980s, when Disney began to generate big bucks with their animated features and decided it would be smart to tie up experienced animation talent with, as they say, "multi-year pacts." The length and richness of these personal service contracts depended on the employee's perceived worth to the studio.

By the mid-1990s, PSCs were ubiquitous. Animators had them. Assistants had them. Painters in the ink-and-paint departments had them.

In 1994, 1995 and 1996, Personal Service Contracts were everywhere, even in television, and got to be real rich. Key assistant animators were making three and four and five grand a week. Some animators were making eight or ten.

DreamWorks and Disney were in then in a death-struggle, trying to grab each other's talent, and Warners Feature Animation was also in the mix, signing artists right and left. For a brief moment in time (like three or four years?), animation artists were the kings and queens of the world; the national media dubbed them the "new stars of Hollywood."

Then -- as we now know -- the balloon rapidly deflated and salaries came back to earth. The long-term guarantees and big signing bonuses came to an end. And today, Disney Animation is phasing Personal Service Contracts out, going back to the 1970s and early-1980s model of "at will." Other studios still have contracts, but many are "run of project" deals, which are essentially overscale "at will" agreements, wherein the studio can lay an artist off when it so chooses. The operative language goes like this:

Artist shall render exclusive services to Aardvark Productions for the run of the project, until such time, as determined by producer, that artist's services are no longer required.

I mention all this because lots of folks come to us believing that the words "run of project" in their PSC guarantees them employment until the, ahm, end of the project. We always say, "No, the language gives the company the right to lay you off when your 'services are no longer required,' and that requirement part is decided by Aardvark Productions. So...maybe you're there for another year, maybe a month."

We usually get confused looks. It's a hard concept to fit your brain around because the language is a little tricky. As it's designed to be. And the contracts are usually lengthy, eight or more pages of single-spaced legalese that make most people's eyes glaze over.

We also mention this because we once helped employees at a New York studio who were working under "at will" PSCs -- and being told that they "couldn't leave because they had long-term contracts." These folks were making $800-$900 per week. And the company said explicitly that they could be laid off at the conclusion of any half-hour show they were doing.

But nobody was a lawyer, so nobody knew that, since the company could lay them off at the drop of a hat, they could leave under the same circumstances. This is called reciprocity.

The company, sadly, pretended otherwise. Companies, even more sadly, are sometimes like that.

Good citizens that we are, we clued the employees in about their rights.

Many PSCs over the years have been useful and good for the employees who signed them. But almost every Personal Service Contract that we've ever laid eyes on has been drafted to benefit the company more than the employee. Only because Time is an ever-flowing, ever-shifting river have employees often come out smelling like a large, floral bouquets.

UPDATE: We inadvertently turned off the comments on this post yesterday, but it's all better now. Have at it.


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