Saturday, July 05, 2008

A Child's Garden of Sit Down, Shut Up

This past week, a number of animation writers have published a letter of support for the writers on the half-hour show Sit Down, Shut Up who have walked off. In it they say:

Sony should know that we applaud the actions of these writers. We would not work on this show and we will dissuade all other writers from taking these jobs if they are offered. We are all part of this fight, and we must stick together. We support the writers of Sit Down, Shut Up who stood up and spoke out ...

A week ago, I talked to one of the writers who departed SDSU. He told me that he didn't see any solution to the impasse, that he was looking for other work, that he didn't think all or most of the writers would ever work under an IATSE/839 contract.

This is a fustercluck of Sony's own making. A decade ago, the company didn't have a problem with putting Dilbert writers into a company named Appleton that wasn't covered by an 839 contract, the boys and girls just went ahead and did it.

At the time, I drove to Culver City to complain about the move. The execs in Sony Labor Relations looked it at me as if I'd stepped out of an interstellar craft with a dead space alien under one arm.

And a couple of months later, the WGAw swooped in and organized Appleton.

So here we are, ten years further on, and Sony in its brilliance is now screwing the proverbial doggie yet again. From what I've gleaned from various sources, the following took place:

1) Animated show based on live-action Australiam sitcom Shut Up, Sit Down is set up at Sony-Adelaide. Writing staff that's hired is 80-100% WGA sitcom writers.

2) Writers' agents told by Sony the production is under an 839 contract. This isn't acceptable to writers. Big exec at Sony Television says "Not to worry, we can make it a WGA show." Reassured, the writers soldier on.

3) Other execs at Sony say: "Uh, no we can't make it a WGA show." Writers walk.

The WGA maintains that it represents all writers of prime-time animation. I agree, with the proviso: "Except when the WGA doesn't."

We are now at a point where the show could very well be permanently shut down. If that happens, there will be no writers working (14 jobs). There will also be no designers or board artists or animation directors working (35-45 jobs).

You can probably deduce why I'm just a teensy bit ticked off about all of this. See, my job as an IATSE rep is to protect traditional IATSE jurisdiction, but my job is also to aid and abet the creation of as many animation jobs as possible under TAG 839 contracts. Because Sony couldn't figure out how to cobble a crew together that would do the work, fourteen writer jobs look like they're going down, and taking 40 or so other jobs along with them.

Craig Mazin at the Artful Writer has a take similar to mine:

According to one of the writers on the show, when the staff was being put together, the writers heard that the show was going to be IATSE and asked that the show instead be WGA. The creative execs didn’t think that would be a problem…if the show got picked up they’d be able to figure that out.

I propose that if this recounting is true, then the creative execs either lied or simply didn’t understand how the world of labor-management works.

Flash foward…and Sony business affairs informs all of the writers involved that no, the show is going to be IATSE, all Sony Adelaide shows are IATSE, and that’s it, end of story, period, full stop.

So the writers walked.

And so we sit in the middle of a conundrum.

Sadly, Sony can't unshit the bed, because if it moves Sit Down, Shut Up writers to another company now, the IATSE will likely litigate.

The writers are off looking for other jobs/ working on other jobs. None of them -- from what I know -- will be coming back without a WGA contract.

And if Sit Down, Shut Up ends up going the way of the Titanic, then several dozen animation artists will not be working.

Neat. Not.


Anonymous said...

Steve, I agree with you (and with Craig M.) that Sony management is primarily responsible for this mess, but I also think the agents have to share a lot of the blame.

Agenting 101: if management is telling your client one thing ("Sure, we can make the show WGA, no problemo") while you're being told another ("The show will be IA. Period. End of discussion. Have a nice day."), then someone is being lied to. And figuring that out -- and protecting your client from it -- is what an agent is supposed to do in exchange for their percentage.

Isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Who needs the writers, ANYway? Why not just let the storyboard artists write the shows? They tend to do it anyway.

And as far as the term "writers," you might well consider renaming them "typers."

Anonymous said...

Yeah, who needs writers! Who needs a story or intelligent dialogue! Screw it! Just draw stuff! I'm sure that's all a successful animated show requires.

Steve Hulett said...

figuring that out -- and protecting your client from it -- is what an agent is supposed to do in exchange for their percentage.

Isn't it?

I donno. Do agents usually do that? Are they paying that much attention?

I really wouldn't have great knowledge about that. Certainly there are good agents, but then ... there's the other kind.

Steve Hulett said...

Look, I know there's a dislike by some board artists for some writers, but really ...

Let's keep it halfway civil. Mike Maltese was a WRITER, for chrissakes. You want to dis Mike?

(And if you don't know who Mike Maltese is, that was what Google was designed for. Look him up.)

Anonymous said...

I hear tell the high Sony exec that said the writers could be WGA was the Prez of Sony Television.

Anonymous said...

What the heck is the IATSE? And what is the difference between it and the WGA's contracts?

hoopcooper said...

Believe me, from my experience, writers who come out of Sit-Com's have NO IDEA just how hard fought either a WGA contract or a Cartoonists union contract is. I've done a ton of cartoons where I brought a friend in off a sit-com and when he asked if it was WGA I had to explain the whole history. And I've had friends stared down by an angry Tom Short 'cause they suggested the much reviled writers be released from their IA commitments.

When a primetime cartoon is building it's staff from the ranks of Sit-Com writers, they're hiring a different animal that we're used to in the animation world. There is tons of crossover of course, but the gift for writing jokes for people who are standing in a room (Sit-Com) is vastly different from writing visual jokes and story (and dialog) for animation. They come from a different union, and are hired for the skill they honed in a different world.

Steve, you do a great job of reporting this information, and I understand that one of your jobs is to cheerlead for the union, but the image of the WGA "Swooping in" to organize the Dilbert writers tires me out a little. As I remember from friends who worked on the show (and of course I may be wrong) it was a situation almost identical to SDSU. A bunch of sit-com writers hired to write a sit-com where the characters happened to be drawn instead of birthed. They wanted a WGA contract, as Sit-Com guys writing a Sit-Com...and they got it.

If Sony could have made good on the same promise to the SDSU guys then a lot of other IA members would be working.

Anonymous said...

The writer-hater vitriol is overdone, but understandable considering the bigger picture of the last fifteen years. Cable animation opened up the creative world to cartoonists and artists for the first time in a very long time after having to sit on the sidelines watching tv animation become pure dreck and relegated to Sat. morning toy sales. They were able to bring a new level of passion to their work. But it was always a precarious deal, as prime time animation writers owned the core tv animation market with the Simpsons, and subsequent Fox writer-driven shows, fed by a sit-com history.

Fast forward to now, and what has really happened - the sit-com market has evaporated with other traditional tv models, while animation and reality remained bright spots. Animation has the added bonus of being more tied to ancillary profits, making it more attractive to networks and studios.

Pure market pressure is shifting many traditional writer-players onto the rest of the landscape, and tossing artists and cartoonists aside to a large degree (at least in terms of creative control - which is really what makes the difference in furthering careers long term.) I see way more live action tv people getting animation dev. meetings than animation story people. On top of all of this, childrens tv has rediscovered live action, and animation story people have even fewer options. Then add a WGA strike and SAG making waves, and what do you get? Some angry artists. Story artists want their history heard, too. It's why we are drawing. And a piece of the back end, of course.

There should be law that one has to pass a ten page Fox-show storyboard test to get back-end.

Anonymous said...

There should be law that one has to pass a ten page Fox-show storyboard test to get back-end.

Although I realize this is intended to be a joke, it is also indicative of what I wish were different about the artist vs. writer viewpoint. As a writer, I totally believe both the writers and the artists should get a piece of the backend. The companies are the ones keeping it from them, and that's who I have a beef with.

Why do so many artists fall into the trap of artist vs. writer when the real beef is with the companies? You want backend -- strike and get it. Writers aren't keeping you from getting the backend. The companies are. I don't see any executives taking any storyboard tests before they put money in their own pockets.

hoopcooper said...

Anonymous...two up from here. Let me suggest and amendment to what you said...beginning with Spongebob, writers were actually pushed OUT of the creative process in cable animation. The "Artist Driven Show" was the only thing that was selling...and animators were the ones who were optioning material and seeing pilots picked up...with a couple of notable exceptions.

The days of the writer were back when Rugrats was king. But while Steve Marmel was a vital part of Fairly Odd Parents...all this stuff was Artist driven.

Who you need to blame if that is shifting is executives. They come from primetime...or aspire to prime time...or in Disney's case (at least a few years ago) saw such overwhelming success with their multi-camera shows and simultaneously had so little experience in animation that they spent a lot of time wishing for "Animated Sit-Coms." With the Simpsons it was James Brooks who brought the Sit-Com pedigree to the show from its very, very inception...and his involvement that prompted the move from Klasky /Csupo to Film Roman.

When Sit-Com writers come to animation, it's to write Sit-Coms. If that's what executives are ordering for their networks, then it just shows how little affinity they have for animation and how little respect they have for the market.

Hardest thing in the world to get a sit-com guy to write you a real cartoon.

Steve Hulett said...

...the image of the WGA "Swooping in" to organize the Dilbert writers tires me out a little. As I remember from friends who worked on the show (and of course I may be wrong) it was a situation almost identical to SDSU.


No, you remember it right.

Sony cut a deal for a primetime Dilbert and plunked its writing staff into a non-TAG company called Appleton. (This time around, Sony put writers under Sony-Adelaide, where there's a long-standing 839 contract).

Back during Dilbert, the WGAw organized non-union Appleton. (Totally legitimate, by the way).

If you interpret me saying "the WGA swooped in" as pejorative, then I hereby change "swooped" to "came."

The whole Dilbert thing left me more cynical than I was before (if that's possible). But here's the deal:

Companies pay the amount of freight they have to pay, no more. If the WGA controls the work-force a company believes it must have, then the WGA prevails.

If not, not.

The proof of this is the animation landscape. The Writers Guild hasn't been able to control the story workforce in daytime or feature animation, and so has few contracts there. It's done far better in nighttime, because corporate execs are convinced they have to have WGA sitcom writers.

Now, I think this is a flawed conviction, but it doesn't matter what I think. A mid-level exec runs the risk of getting bounced if he goes outside the Conventional Wisdom box ("We gotta have WGA sitcom writers!") and it doesn't work out. But he won't get fired if he fails under the CW unbrella (hire sitcom writers).

If you're a development exec, you stick to the formula the geniuses above you think is the way to go, because you want to keep pulling down that three grand a week.

Simple, no?

Steve Hulett said...

With the Simpsons it was James Brooks who brought the Sit-Com pedigree to the show ... and his involvement that prompted the move from Klasky /Csupo to Film Roman.

Gracie Films' Richard Sakai told me years before "The Simpsons" left K-C that Gracie had real problems with K-C, hated them in fact.

"They hide things from us," I remember him saying.

Steve Hulett said...


Two years ago, a feature director at DreamWorks -- who's a former t.v. board artist -- told me:

"There's never been a successful primetime animated show created by a sitcom writer. Not one.

Every successful prime-time animated show was hatched by an animation artist."

Anonymous said...

Hey Guys,

The artists seem to be the real losers in this situation. We hear a lot about the writers from Sit Down Shut Up, but how are the artist doing? Are they laid off, or working. What's going on with them? You guys posted about them when this debacle first began, but what about them now? As an artist I am concerned for them.

I think we can all safely say that the writers either got screwed or screwed themselves over depending on whom you talk to. It was either they were swindled by someone at Sony into thinking that they could turn the show WGA, or they didn't look that closely at the deal. Personally, I am still not sure why they started working without a supposed contract. I know it's common practice to do that in Hollywood, but that don't mean its smart. Isn't that what producers want? Don't they want you to work while the contract is being hammered out. Now I wonder why that is?

The one tip I have for the writers of SDSU is to get the book The Writer Got Screwed (but didn't have to): Guide to the Legal and Business Practices for the Entertainment Industry. It's $10.17 at Amazon. That's a savings of $4.78 off the cover price. Sounds like a good deal, but I am sure they will screw you over with shipping.

I kid about that book, but these writers should have had lawyers looking over this deal. It doesn't seem like it would have taken that much time to see that Sony had a deal with IATSE. It sure wouldn't have taken the two months that they were working for free.

The good news is at least writers have a book with some common knowledge outlining how not to get screwed in this town. There is no book titled The Artist Got Boned (and there was no way around it): A Guide to the Global Economy and an Understanding of How and Why We are Going to Send Your Job Overseas.

Side note- Does TAG have a seminar or a series of seminars in which an Entertainment Lawyer comes and talks to its members on how to cover their asses? Something that could help both writers and artists of TAG? If not maybe we should, and maybe afterwards we could all get a beer together and learn how to get along with each other. We do need each other and we need to learn to accept that. I am sure after a few beers we'll start talking about our anger for those boneheaded execs that don't understand a thing about this medium. Then we'll be like one big happy family.

Peace and I hope all (both artist and writers) had a great fourth.

PS- I am sorry if this post has grammatical errors or if I used a past participle at the wrong time. I am but an artist whom is always willing to admit I could always use a writers help.

Anonymous said...

*The days of the writer were back when Rugrats was king. But while Steve Marmel was a vital part of Fairly Odd Parents....*

He was a vital part of its fall from popularity, you mean.

Vincent Waller said...

"..beginning with Spongebob, writers were actually pushed OUT of the creative process in cable animation."

Not at all true.But the artists were for the first time since Ren and Stimpy allowed into the creative process.

Anonymous said...

>>allowed into the creative process.

they sold, created, and controlled it - the work and the process. allowed gives nickelodeon way to much credit.

most important of all, the actors actually READ the storyboards. i would guess that they still do, judging from the shows. imagine that revolutionary concept. actors that are encouraged to actually read the hieroglyph comics they are voicing to television. tom would even go out of his way to be at pitches.

i seriously doubt hurwitz's crew understands that something like that could be a possibility - reading the storyboards and enjoying the work of some amazing cartoonists. but sadly, its not the priority of prime time. story sessions, table reads, and voice records - then animatic/quicktime it to death with people with pencils.

But hey, its all about pleasing 'the mid-level executive who runs the risk of getting bounced if he goes outside the Conventional Wisdom box.' because that guy is the one who makes such a BIG difference in the long run, right?

sorry, but hurwitz sounds like the last person to listen to conventional wisdom. it shows in his work, yet everything about this show deal sounds like he got sold down the river by a 'just-add-water' pipeline.

hoopcooper said...


"There's never been a successful primetime animated show created by a sitcom writer. Not one.

Every successful prime-time animated show was hatched by an animation artist."

Can we have a little sympathy for writers who actually work in animation? You make it sound as if there are only "Sit-Com writers" and "Animation Artists." I made most of my development money helping artists form their designs into stories that would sell. And that goes for most of my animation writing friends. So while I agree completely with the idea that a Sit-Com writer never developed an animated show that worked. I wonder if it wouldn't be more fair to amend the second half to suggest that animation writers can bring something positive to an artists dynamite designs and sometimes unfocused concept. Just the same way a writer's decent animation idea comes to life with the right designs.

That's always been my experience, and by the way, unless everyone's committed to arguing who's good and who's evil, a pretty good argument why we should respect our own, whether their roll in creating animation begins with words or pictures.

Anonymous said...

You've all gone off track again and forget how the post originally ended " if Sit Down, Shut Up ends up going the way of the Titanic, then several dozen animation artists will not be working." Scheduled crews for the show have been placed on an unknown hiatus. It's easy to pass blame to some unseen/unknown corporate entity, but that isn't going to get these artists working again. Squeaky wheel may get the oil, but all this useless complaining isn't going to get those artists back to work.

And TAG, unfortunately, has no power to get the writers working or get the artists back to work.

One of the earlier comments mentioned artists striking for a backend deal. That will never happen. Most animators are introverts and don't want to rock the boat. Especially when there are dozens unemployed artists and fresh grads waiting to break into the field. I shouldn't have to mention this. TV is a writer's market and the writer doesn't give the artist as much consideration as they should. And why would they when popular, VERY FUNNY shows like South Park and Family Guy get HUGE ratings despite limited animation and weak, stylized designs?

In the end, it is up to the channel showing the program to promote the hell out of it to get viewers, and someone with the title "writer of" or "producer of" has more weight than "Artist of".

P.S. That letter of support is nothing but a hollow threat to writers. I'm positive that there are plenty of writers who would love a shot at an animated show, without caring if "Family Guy" "King of the Hill" or "Simpsons" would ever hire them as a result. Hurwitz doesn't need to write on any of those shows. I'm sure he can find some new writers to fill the void. Hopefully new writers will be signed on soon and the show can continue. Animators NEED to get back to work. ANY new animated show is good for our industry.

Anonymous said...

I would argue that another animated bomb is exactly what animation does not need, and watching yet another clusterf*** unfold between the Harvard grads and the CalArts grads, I would bet that's quickly where this show is headed.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to point out that the anonymous above me lives between the lands of Ignorance and Delusion.

First off, are you really that ignorant to the understanding of how this industry works that you think where people graduated from has anything to do with this situation? Can you please show me how does the SDSU story have to do with the someone's prior education. This "clusterf***" is all because of legality and some left over animosity from the writer's strike. This is a pissing contest between some writers and Sony. Sad to say, but my money would be on Sony. The reason I say this is because I have heard nothing about Mitch Herwitz walking out. He is the shows "creator" (even though he is probably just a part of some package deal that Sony used to got the show sold). So my guess is that Sony still has him. It was just some writers that walked out. These writers can, and probably will, be replaced over time by some "Harvard" writers.

What a great segue for me to talk about the land of
Delusion that Anonymous can see from his/her bedroom window. Honestly, do you think that this industry only hires writers that are Harvard grads and artists that are Cal Art grads? I mean some studios like Disney enjoy Cal Arts grads, but let's not forget Walt Disney did CREATE the school in the sixties, so they might lean towards them first. Some of the other studios really only care about a great portfolio or the ability to a take a test (I would like to thank everyone in advance for not following this post with an angry rant about how studios use tests in animation). Writers are the same way. Not all writers come from Harvard. I looked up Mitch Herwitz as an example, since this blog post is about his show, and low and behold he is a Georgetown grad. I also know some of the artist, that are apparently now on indefinite hiatus, and they are NOT Cal Art grads. So lets all forget about where people graduated from in this discussion,

Lets all hope that this show can be saved so some artist can get back. And maybe these artist and writers can start entertaining us with some amusing animation. I only pray that Herwirtz will create something even remotely similar to Arrested Development, that way I'll actually enjoy watching a FOX Sunday night show again.

Steve Hulett said...


Yep, I'm just rabidly anti writer. Of course, the only reason I'm here is because I wrote animation. Period.

I quoted the director to demonstrate -- again -- the divide. Writers bring a lot to the table, always have. But the few that are condescending to the visual artists tend to raise hackles.

Let me say this: I've stood in the hall of a well-known studio andd had my past work denigrated, and it wasn't a board artist that did it, but another writer.

So I know first hand about the nastiness of some writers.

Anonymous said...


Good article.

As someone who has done some work in animation (under TAG), and as someone who knows quite a few screenwriters who've done theatrical work (under TAG or non-union), I think it's safe to say that many of us recognize the vital role the story artists play in the authorship of the film.

What's going on here isn't a case of writers saying "We're too good for what the story artists and animators have," but rather "We're *all* too good for this, but since we've gotten better before, we specifically aren't going to settle for less."

Whether or not this backfires remains to be seen. I hope it does not, and I have to believe that the writers involved are keenly aware that there is a dragon's tail to all of this, and that other people are going to get hurt.

By and large, the writers and artists seem to get this.

Their respective union leaderships (present company excluded) too often do not.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure why H.C. came off as such a personal attack to be defensive about. Frankly, I felt the same way about the quote, because you just stated the quote without adding any further explanation or thoughts of your own. It wasn't clear exactly why you were saying it.

Plus, I also didn't read H.C.'s remarks as nasty -- especially with his overall point being that both writers and artists bring a lot to the table. I've seen many personal attacks on you on this board, and this didn't feel like one of them to me. Perhaps it just may be a case where you may have been trying to make a point but because of some missing context it didn't quite come across the way you wanted to say it.

Anonymous said...

Board artist's? Guess what, those board artist's will be working at a non union shop on this one if at all, Rough Draft to be precise. Let's not confuse the issue here. The execs on the lot sold it down the river, TV Animation had no part in this going to Rough Draft and being non union for the artist side. I'd like to slap the shit out of the little exec who brokered the deal that sent this show to a non union shop. We got screwed as much as the writers on this one.

Anonymous said...

Let's all remember that part of the Simpson's movie was done at Rough Draft and those artist were union.

Let's also remember that the writers of this very blog site have already visited whichever studio is doing this show and commented about the artist. It was a few blogs back, but it's there. So, whomever is doing this show must be a union shop otherwise why would the TAG blog writers visit it.

Please get the facts straight before venting in the comments section, otherwise you may end up looking foolish.

Also can we stop using all these water references. I mean the titanic picture and "sold down the river."
I'm getting a bit seasick here.

The Landlover

Anonymous said...

Dear GlandLover,
Fox didn't have a choice about the Simpson's Movie, since the crew was interchangeable with the union tv series and some of the union artist's during production went back and forth between the show at Starz/ Film Roman and movie at RD during that time.
So you are telling us SDSU will be a animation guild show? Great! Maybe mom & pop really do have the best interest of the animation artist talent working at RD. If the show gets made, and is a guild show that will be the proof, if not, the Simpson's crew that worked there doesn't translate to other productions artist's getting fucked over by those cheap bastards at RD

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