Thursday, July 10, 2008

Salary Slavery

The past two days I've been in San Rafael holding new member lunches for employees at IM Digital. Lively groups. Lively questions.

But for me, one of the more interesting conversations took place right before the second noontime session, when a c.g. artist arrived early and said:

"This is like, a big change for me. I mean, getting overtime. I was working at a games company before this job, and everybody working there was salaried ... and working like, 100 or 120 hours a week. It was really abusive. The company said that 'this is the model for games' and just paid flats. People were told they'd be let go if they didn't do it."

This is a song I've heard before.

For the past dozen years, I've smacked up against the reality that many game companies use a 19th century beusiness model:

"Work them until they drop, then move on to the next group."

The reason that companies use the 100-hour a week format is because it doesn't cost them anything. (Well, it costs them employee morale, but that's another matter). I explained to the artist that Federal labor regulations classify "animator" as a non-exempt category (meaning that animators are required to be hourly employees who receive overtime after forty hours in a week):

This requirement generally is not met by a person who is employed as a copyist, as an “animator” of motion-picture cartoons, or as a retoucher of photographs ...

In spite of lawsuits and court settlements, a clear majority of video game employers continue to toss animators into the "salaried" category, and said employees thereby have the privilege of working an infinite number of hours for a very finite amount of pay.

When I brought some of these things up, the former games artist remarked:

"What can a game artist do? The company demands the hours, and the threat is that you'll be blacklisted at other companies if you don't do what the company wants ..."

I brought up the fact that there are laws on the books that protect employees who are organizing a company, but that's small comfort when employees believe that their careers will be smashed to small bits if they don't knuckle under and do the 100-hour workweek that Fire Breather Games, Inc. wants. (Forget the fact that people who work endless 100-hour weeks end up doing a lot of unproductive seat time starting at their LCD monitor).

Let's face it: today a wide swath of the game industry is like the movie industry in 1928: "Work them until they drop, then move on to the next group ..."


Anonymous said...

I have a question. How is it Disney can get writers to not only do outlines and scripts, but storyboard books as well? The writers must write these storyboard books as a "pitch tool" to executives, etc. They're not paying for this extra work, yet they make the writers do it. Is this in the contract and I'm just not seeing it?

Anonymous said...

Everyone in the Game industry puts in those hours and developers take the grunt of it.

Anonymous said...

Of course, game companies do somewhat "compensate" for the lack of overtime by handing out large bonuses. $80,000 or more bonuses are certainly not unheard of.

But that's only IF the game is successful, and that's a big if. Like all bonusess, they're handed out on a sliding scale, and animators are often at the lower end of the totem pole in games. Also, they usually don't hand out the bonuses unless you agree to stay for the next project, so they rope you in, and you're less likely to leave for a better opportunity.

Anonymous said...

I have one friend who got together with coworkers and successfully sued the game company he worked for because of unpaid overtime. The company(one of the largest) settled with him out of court by paying him close to three times what he was owed, and he still works there.
So there are ways to successfully combat these practices. Truth be told, too many artists are too easily kicked around.

Steve Hulett said...

How is it Disney can get writers to not only do outlines and scripts, but storyboard books as well? The writers must write these storyboard books as a "pitch tool" to executives, etc.

I'm ignorant about a "storyboard book" is, and who exactly is doing it.

We talking about a "bible"? Because if that's the subject, and it falls outside the unit rate (which it appears to do), then it would have to be paid on a weekly or daily minimum.

So. Whoever is doing this needs to contact me (818-766-7151) and I'll file a grievance.

Steve Hulett said...

Of course, game companies do somewhat "compensate" for the lack of overtime by handing out large bonuses.

The bonus that the artist above said he got was:

a) Many promises in the last weeks of game production (Bonuses! Long-term jobs!)

b) Then layoff after the game was completed and launched. No bonuses, no jobs, but plenty of nothing.

Anonymous said...

Imagine a games animator doing 80-hour work weeks for a year, at say a salary of $60k a year,then getting an $8k bonus. Since they weren't paid for that overtime, they were screwed out of $90k in weekly payments they should have gotten (remember, OT is time and a half).

So, if and when a games animator actually gets a bonus, they're getting pennies on the dollar of what they're owed.

Such a deal.

Anonymous said...

By the way, thanks for coming up north to meet and greet. I very much appreciate the time you and Kevin took.

I think it's a big step for norcal artists to get such great representation, and I hope it expands to other companies here.

Anonymous said...

Is this the first video game company that the Animation Guild has organized? How many employees are now joining the union ranks because of this organization? Also, how did this come about? Was it initiated by the employees, tired of bad working conditions? How has management there reacted?

Steve Hulett said...


We didn't organize a game company, and sorry if the post gave that impression.

Kevin and I have been up in Northern California for new member lunches with employees of IM Digital, a movie company owned by Disney.

The person I quote in the post was a former games employee explaining the game company experience to me. We don't rep game companies as yet.

Game companies will change their abusive ways when they have to. Their "this is the way the industry is" mantra is self-serving. It's like saying that all CEOs make $5-$20 million per year and "that's just the way it is" or the ten-year-olds have to work twelve hour days at the weaving looms because "that's the way it is."

Economic realities change all the time. Pies are divided up differently all the time. There are no immutable constants.

Justin said...

IM Digital is ImageMovers, the studio that Robert Zemeckis founded.

There is more to long hours than just morale. After a certain amount of time productivity and quality drops drastically. You end up spending more time fixing bugs and mistakes than you do making progress on the game. I think that companies are beginning to realize that it actually costs a lot more money to work people long hours than to simply staff the right number of people with the right timeline.

Anonymous said...

"Everyone in the Game industry puts in those hours and developers take the grunt of it."

If "Everyone" does it , then everyone could choose to NOT do it . That's what organizing yourselves into a Guild or Union means. It requires that "Everyone" sticks together and no one blinks until the game companies come to the negotiation table and give you poor devils decent hours and overtime compensation.

If you're going to spend your life hunched over in some cubicle making someone else rich you can at least get overtime for the 70 and 80 hour weeks. That way when you're old and used up and they don't want you anymore you might have something put away in a 401k and other retirement investments (yes that day is coming; doesn't seem like it when you're 23 I know, but it's coming) .

Anonymous said...

Geez. And I thought my 72 hour work week at South Park for very low pay was a long one. It doesn't hold a candle to 100 hours.

With the gaming industry making more than the movie industry now, you'd think they would be well beyond this business model. Apparently not.

Anonymous said...

All those libertarian game programmers have a lot of unpaid overtime to think about how awesomely "rugged" and "individualistic" they are. Paid overtime is for socialist, hippy, nanny-state wussies!

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