Monday, November 12, 2007

Half of a Golden Calf

Had lunch today with two veterans of the animation industry, one an artist, the other a producer. I've known both like forever. The producer, my age but far richer and now happily retired, mentioned this article about where Hollywood's money goes and observed:

Studios could probably pay the unions and guilds more, but they're already giving away millions to the talent. It's crazy, but nobody wants to go to the mat with the CAA or any of the other talent agencies and tell them "no." So they pay an actor or director first-dollar gross because if they don't, somebody else will..."

It's pretty much like two execs told me some years ago when they were in a breezy frame of mind: "Sure, the studios could afford to pay artists and writers residuals. But they've got the power to say no, so they don't."

Studios' spines may have stiffened toward labor unions, but they remain amazingly limber toward the heavy-hitting, "must-have" players. As the New York Times says: turns out, the pot of money that the producers and writers are fighting over may have already been pocketed by the entertainment industry’s biggest talent ... Much of the income — past and future — that studios and writers have been fighting about has already gone to the biggest stars, directors and producers in the form of ballooning participation deals. A participation is a share in the gross revenue, not the profit, of a movie...

So it appears that the studios are digging in their heels ... now that the thoroughbred horses and high grade cows have left the barn.

It wasn't always like this. Clark Gable made $4,000-$5,0000 per week at his box office peak, no back end. And author Robert Birchard relates that Charlton Heston made a flat $50,000 playing Moses for Cecil B. DeMille over six months time, also with no profit participation. (DeMille had Heston's services at a cut-rate fee because Judah Ben-Hur owed C.B. another picture under an old contract. And so, Mr. Birchard says tongue half in cheek, "There was never any question that Charlton Heston was the actor born to play Moses.")

But Johnny Depp is not Charlton Heston. And 2007 is certainly not 1956:

Even Disney’s strong corporate performance in the last year does not necessarily bode well. The company’s studio unit, which was profitable for the year, had essentially flat revenue, at about $7.5 billion. Despite a huge hit in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,”...

So what accounted for a lot of Disney's recent "strong performance?"

[M]uch profit, company executives said, came from the mining of its library with clever ploys like the “Little Mermaid” Platinum Release DVD, which sold nine million units without the burden of star participations ...

Maybe I'm a fuddy duddy, but it seems to me, if the entertainment conglomerates were not so busy throwing large chunks of the golden calf into the pockets of high-powered actors and directors who are already weighed down with bars of gold, maybe there would be more left over for the poor wretches further down the food chain. You know, those people working hard to get the picture ... or television show ... out?


Anonymous said...

I am an aspiring animation writer trying to find his first freelancing job. My method so far has been write spec script, then find agents through the WGA that represent writers who work on animated shows, then query those agents.

In this search, I noticed many/most writers of animated shows are not WGA members. Which brings me to my main question - am I going about this the right way, or is there even a "right way"?

Do animation writers get hired the same way most other TV writers get hired? Is there somewhere I should be looking to find the players in the industry?

Also, are there specs that are "hot" like in the live action world (House, 30 Rock) ... that is, what would animation producers want to read right now? Spongebob? Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends?

-hungry for his first shot

Anonymous said...

Speaking of throwing gold bars at people who already are richer than God, has anyone heard details of Jerry Seinfeld's deal on "Bee Movie"?

How many tens of millions of dollars up front, plus how much of the first-dollar gross, is he taking home on that turkey? Guess that's why Dreamworks has to squeeze their junior animators so hard -- that money has to come from somewhere.

Steve Hulett said...

...has anyone heard details of Jerry Seinfeld's deal on "Bee Movie"?

No idea. It's probably lucrative, but who knows?

Some months back, we did a think-piece here on how much money some voice actors got on some animated features.

Didn't used to be the business model, but is, apparently, the biz model now.

Steve Hulett said... I going about [looking for my first animation writing gig] the right way, or is there even a "right way"?

There is no right way.

Some people get in by getting hired as P.A.'s on productions, then working their way into other more lucrative positions.

Some people have friends or relatives that give them a boost onto the bottom rung.

Some people come in through WGA writing gigs, other people come in through sample scripts and resumes, some people are just in the right place at the right time with the right skills.

It's a crap shoot, and everyone makes their own rules, and makes their own entry routes.

This is HOLLYWOOD, after all.

Anonymous said...

i've heard rumors that Bee Movie budget was far above the Mojo's claim of 150million. I wonder if that super high budget is mostly due to Seinfeld?

Anonymous said...

No, couldn't be. Jerry came into the project understanding the strengths and weaknesses of CG animation, and consistently showed a deft appreciation of what veteran animation professionals brought to the table.

Thanks to Jerry's canny knack for visual humor, and his willingness to listen to feedback from animators and story artists, the production was smooth sailing. As an animator, I've never felt so valued, and I hope and pray Jerry will blesses us with Bee Movie 2 and Bee Movie 3 and on and on, until I die and really go to heaven.

Anonymous said...

For the sarcasm challenged, put the word "not" after each and ever sentence please.

Anonymous said...

Or better yet, just internalize your bitter little snipes. Hot animated films = $$$ for the animation community...get over it. BTW, anyone care what Lasseter's salary is...? or Birds...? or Tom Hanks for that matter? I'm guessing not.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, didn't know DreamWorks producers read this blog.

Well, since you asked, yeah, I care a lot, especially when my bonus money disappears at the same time my salary is shrinking, which is all happening while more layers of management are hired and more money is shoveled at actors and mediocre comedians.

But hey, I just make these films. It's not like I have any importance in the process.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you should try stand-up...get discovered by Katzenberg or Lasseter...make a couple hundred mil, star in your own projects, and eliminate those pesky actors.

Oh, actually, I'm not a DreamWorks producer, (but, I play one in comment sections).

I might add, I also "make these films"...that's why I support them so I said, it helps us all).

Good luck...seriously. Okay, off to the WGA Strike Page...not as much angst:) Ha.

Anonymous said...

Can anyone from Dreamworks tell us how much artwork the production designer Alex McDowell did on the film? I got the "Art Of" book and didn't see anything by him.

As far as any profits the "writers" get, shouldn't the bulk of that go to the story board artists?

Steve Hulett said...

Good question.

Over at, there's been a lively discussion about just that subject.

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