Saturday, January 31, 2009

End of Month B.O.

With Add Ons.

No tentpoles are showing up on Super Bowl Weekend because studios aren't stupid. But 20th Century Fox was pleasantly surprised with the movie atop the Friday list:

1. TAKEN (20th Century Fox) OPENER --> $9.5M [3,183 theaters]

2. THE UNINVITED (DreamWorks/Paramount) OPENER --> $4.4M [2,344]

3. PAUL BLART: MALL COP (Sony) 3RD WEEK --> $4.1M [3,206]

4. GRAN TORINO (Warner Bros) 8TH WEEK --> $2.6M [3,015]

5. (tied) NEW IN TOWN (Lionsgate) OPENER --> $2.5M [1,941]

5. (tied) UNDERWORLD 3 (Sony) 2ND WEEK --> $2.5M (-65%) [2,942]

7. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (Fox Searchlight) 12TH WEEK --> $2.2M [1,633]

8. HOTEL FOR DOGS (DreamWorks/Paramount) 3RD WEEK --> $1.9M [3,160]

9. MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3-D (Lionsgate) 3RD WEEK --> $1.4M [1,406]

10. BRIDE WARS (20th Century Fox) 4TH WEEK --> $1.1M [1,985]

No animated film is anywhere near the Top Ten at present, but of three recent inhabitants of the list, all are still out in the world spinning bucks. Current worldwide grosses for selected toonage is:

Madagascar 2 -- $567.5 million

Bolt -- $202,154,010

The Tale or Despereaux -- $71 million.

Add On: The Weekened is in, and Liam's the Man:

1. TAKEN (20th Century Fox) OPENER --> $24.6M Weekend [3,183 theaters]

2. PAUL BLART: MALL COP (Sony) 3rd week --> $14M [3,206] cume $83.3M

3. THE UNINVITED (DreamWorks/Paramount) OPENER --> $10.5M [2,344]

4. HOTEL FOR DOGS (Paramount) 3rd week --> $8.7M [3,160] cume $48.2M

5. GRAN TORINO (Warner Bros) 8th week --> $8.6M [3,015] cume $110.5M

6. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (Fox SL) 12th week --> $7.6M [1,633] cume $67.2M

7. UNDERWORLD 3 (Sony) 2nd week --> $7.2M [2,942] cume $32.7M

8. NEW IN TOWN (Lionsgate) OPENER --> $7M [1,941]

9. MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3-D (LG) 3rd week --> $4.2M [1,406] cume $44.6M

10. INKHEART (New Line/Warner Bros) 2nd week --> $3.7M [2,665] cume $12.7M

So Fox went against Conventional Wisdom and programmed a Guy Film on Superbowl Sunday and got itself a #1 film that came in way above smart-money estimates.

Next week, Coraline is released, and we have animation in the Contenders Column again. Meantime, here's running totals and analyses for toons recently in the domestic Top Ten:

Madagascar 2 stands at $567.9 million in worldwide grosses, almost 70% of that total from overseas. (The domestic gross was not shabby; over $179 million and still ticking, although faintly.)

Bolt's world grosses stand at $202.1 million, of which 44.2% comes from foreign venues. Domestically, it opened on the weak side, but had a box ofice multiplier of over 4 to 1, which ain't bad. I continue to believe that Twilight smothered the white doggie on the first weekend, eating into a chunk of its potential demographic. Others will, no doubt, disagree.

Lastly, if Universal-GE's pickup costs were reasonable, they probably will make money on their distribution of The Tale of Despereaux, the French feature that got fair to middling traction with its American release: opening weekend, $10 million, box office multiplier 5 to 1.

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Executive Board Meeting -- The Wrap Up

My Take Away from the five-day IATSE executive board meeting is that times are tough all over, and the International was fortunate to get the deal it did when talks wrapped in November..

The anecdotal conversations I've had with other union reps is that employment is down across the board. Most of my fellow reps have laid the blame with the slo-mo semi strike that the dysfunctional Screen Actors Guild has gifted the industry, but the deepening recession has also played a major role. (And now that SAG looks like it's going to move toward a deal, perhaps the sole role ...)

One thing I know is, we're not out of the deep pools of excrement, not by a long shot. Hollywood labor is going to have to stay on top of the ever-changing delivery systems for content if it's to survive in anything resembling good health.

Attorney Jonathan Handel thinks nobody should wait another three years until the next contract talks, since technology is moving fast:

I suggest that Hollywood guilds, unions and management form a joint New Media Working Group. This body should have members from management and from the Writers Guild (WGA), Directors Guild (DGA), Screen Actors Guild (SAG), AFTRA, IATSE, and management ...

The function of the Working Group would be to analyze and report on developments in new media and the possible resulting effect on existing labor agreements and relationships. The goal would be to track those changes on an ongoing basis and generate various options for addressing them in the collective bargaining agreements.

We'll see if something like the above comes to pass. I'm guessing, with all the bad blood gushing through the industry (and between unions and guilds) it will be tough.

But desperate times, as they say, call for newer creative measures.

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KFP Wallops Competition

So whattayaknow? Kung Fu Panda beats the little robot at the box office, and also at the Annies:

The DreamWorks Animation feature dominated the awards ceremony, held at UCLA's Royce Hall in Westwood and presented by ASIFA-Hollywood, the Los Angeles chapter of the International Animated Film Society.

Winning the top prize over such other nominees as the critical favorites "WALL-E" and "Waltz With Bashir," "Panda" swept the feature film categories as it picked up 10 trophies, bettering Pixar's "Ratatouille" run last year when it earned nine Annies, including best feature.

Additionally, DWA's "Secrets of the Furious Five," a 24-minute short that appears on the "Panda" DVD -- took four awards in the TV production/shortform categories, and Activision's "Kung Fu Panda" game won the award for best video game.

Whether this is an indicator for the Oscars remains to be seen. I think the wider world sees Wall-E as the odds-on favorite. But I'll be crass and self-serving here. It's nice to see the contract studio -- where the wages are better --walk away with the golden trophies.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Robert Broughton, RIP

Another of the animation old-timers who was there at the beginning moves on:

Robert C. Broughton, 91, a pioneering camera effects artist for Walt Disney productions who worked on nearly every Disney motion picture from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in 1937 to "The Black Hole" in 1979, died Jan. 19 at a nursing facility in Rochester, Minn., according to his son Dan. Broughton's job was to create spectacular effects in a subtle way, according to a profile on the Disney legends website. By using color traveling matte composite cinematography, Broughton helped Dick Van Dyke dance with animated penguins in the movie "Mary Poppins." He also created the visual effect that made Hayley Mills appear as twins in "The Parent Trap," his son said. And he worked on the Alfred Hitchcock movie "The Birds," providing the visual effects of the fluttering, menacing birds when Hitchcock contracted out the special effects work to Disney.

Born in Berkeley on Sept. 17, 1917, Broughton attended UCLA before starting in the Disney mail room in 1937. He eventually moved into the camera department and quickly graduated to the advanced multiplane camera, which gave depth to animated scenes in such features as "Pinocchio."

During World War II, Broughton was a cameraman in the field photographic branch of the Office of Strategic Services. The unit was headed by director John Ford

Bob lived three doors down from us for years and years, a half-dozen blocks from Disney's Burbank Studio.

He was always a smiling, upbeat guy. When the Mouse House relocated from its Hyperion address to Burbank, Bob's department was one of the first to move. After he hung up the nine-to-five thing, he was active in Disney's retiree group.

Bob took the long, philosophical view of changes at Walt Disney Productions. He was there for many of the studio's ups and downs, and now that he's departed, another witness to movie history is gone.

It was good knowing you, Mr. Broughton. Congratulations on your long and eventful life.

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This is the Holy Grail?

Okay, I admit I'm slow, but somebody explain to me why this is the end of the long quest:

The Holy Grail of Animation: Lifelike Humans

With a big assist from Silicon Valley technology, a movie superstar like Angelina Jolie could keep starring as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider sequels — forever.

Aided by increasingly powerful microprocessors and incredibly sophisticated software, moviemakers and video-game developers are getting closer to achieving the holy grail of animation: creating computer-generated actors that are visually indistinguishable from real people.

... [P]roducers have generally avoided even trying to make digital characters that look like actual people. And when they have, they’ve often blundered into what those in the industry call the “uncanny valley.” That’s where animated faces seem so devoid of normal human expressiveness they appear zombielike ...

Image Metrics ... used a device developed by the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, which can digitally capture enormous amounts of visual detail about human actors, including their faces.

... [A]n actor in his 30s ... recently asked [the company] to capture the man’s image with LightStage so the actor can star in future animated films without ever looking a day older than he does now ...

I've been around long enough to remember when the purpose of animation was to create characters that didn't look like forever-young Brad Pitts and Jennifer Anistons. When the purpose was to, you know, create a movie-going experience that didn't slavishly replicate live-action.

But I can't think of anything better than to have animation technology keep a 28-year-old screen hottie forever hot. Even when they're seventy. They can creak around in their 28-year-old digital skin and pretend to be young. Should be a trip.

But the whole idea of it creeps me out. You want a twenty-something actor, go get a twenty-something actor. Because seeing Harrison Ford young again will not, I don't think, cause audiences to flock to theatres. It will instead creep them out too, for they will know it's a gimmick. And Harrison, as hard as he tries, will not be able to move like a twentyish version of himself.

No doubt I'm wrong about all this. No doubt the above will become all the rage, and sweep the country. In the meantime, I'll hold fast to my delusion that animation is better and far more useful doing other things.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Mega Collector's Alice in Wonderland

Click the thumbnail for a larger image.

The Mega Collector strikes again, today with an Alice drawing from Milt Kahl for the 1951 release Alice in Wonderland, (Clair Weeks performing cleanup.)

Alice, released between between Disney hits Cinderella and Peter Pan, was the under-achiever of the trio. Terrific sequences and gorgeous animation didn't add up to the film being a major crowd-pleaser. And Walt didn't feel it really came off.

Below, the UnBirthday Party sequence:

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"No pain ... no pain"

Tuesday's membership meeting featured an informative lecture from SHELBY CASS, animation ergonomics expert, with simple and effective advice for keeping ourselves healthy and our workspaces optimized.

Shelby was instrumental in devising the Educational Ergonomics program at Pixar, reversing the trend of RSI (repetitive strain injury) problems at that studio. She has also consulted for DNA Productions, KeyOvation (Goldtouch), Wacom, ILM, Apple, Blue Sky, WETA, and Henson, and is currently working at Yahoo! while additionally operating her own Northern California ergonomic consultation business.

She described ergonomics as the science of:

  1. how you work
  2. how you could work better
  3. why you don't do that by default

Replacing and adjusting equipment is easier and cheaper than replacing body parts (unfortunately, this is something that sounds glib until our pain has become chronic). RSI risk is very high for those working in an awkward position (e.g., in front of a desktop computer or a drawing table) for more than four cumulative hours per day.

Using a laptop computer puts you at high risk after just two cumulative hours per day. Why are laptops more risky? Because the monitor, keyboard and trackpad are attached to each other and cannot be adjusted to optimum heights and angles. Shelby recommended an external keyboard and mouse and propping the laptop up to eye level if you use a laptop regularly at a workstation or at home.

The risk factors for RSI are:

1. Awkward posture.

2. Repetition.

3. Forceful exertion. Note that 'forceful exertion' doesn't mean high levels of force, like lifting heavy boxes. It means any exertion that requires force, and could be as simple as pinching a mouse or leaning against something.

RSIs occur when the body hasn't had enough time to heal after repeated trauma. Numbness and tingling are signs of restricted blood flow and nerve impingement -- these are signs that should never be ignored.

Shelby gave the members a lesson in "neutral posture" and correct sitting. Neutral posture has similar elements whether one is sitting or standing:

The ears are above the shoulders.

The shoulders are over the hips.

The elbows are directly under the shoulders.

Most of us don't sit that way, but the strain on our bodies is greatly reduced by following those simple guidelines. Other good rules for sitting properly:

  • Hips should be as far back in the chair as possible.
  • Feet should be planted firmly on the floor.
  • Knees should be at the same level as the hips, or slightly below.
  • There should be two or three fingers of space between the front of the seat pan and the back of the leg.

Your chair* should offer:

  • Adjustable lumbar height;
  • Independent adjustability of seat and back;
  • Elbow clearance and sidearm adjustment.

When sitting at your workstation, your elbow should be bent at a 90-degree angle or greater, your shoulders completely relaxed, and your forearms should be parallel to the floor. To achieve this, sit in your chair as described above and have someone measure from the tip of your elbow to the floor. Subtract one inch for the height of you keyboard; the result should be the height of your work surface.

Your computer monitor should be just high enough that you can view it without having to raise or lower your head. Sitting in the optimum position as described above, hold a pen pointing out from your forehead between your eyes. Have someone measure from the tip of the pen to the floor, and subtract the height of the work surface. The upper edge of your monitor's viewing screen should be that far from the work surface.

More of Shelby's suggestions:

  • The eyes are the most powerful postural dictators. Our body always tends to go in the direction we're looking, so if your monitor(s) or work surface are poorly located, you will get neck/shoulder/back strain.
  • "No reaching" for regularly used items. Pencils, coffee, phone, etc should all be within a three-inch radius of each forearm.
  • Shelby recommends shorter keyboards for artists, few of whom need a keyboard with a number pad. This keeps keyboard where it should be and the mouse/trackball/Wacom tablet close at hand.**
  • She recommends that right-handers use the mouse with their left hands to the left of the keyboard. Practice "straight-wrist mousing" with the hand over the mouse.
  • Cintiqs should be on an adjustable surface. If you're stuck having to use a workstation for both Cintiq work and keyboarding, and/or multiple monitors, be careful that the workspace is set up to maximize use of the equipment you use the most.
  • Be good to yourself. Get up often; stretch, breathe and relax, and drink lots of water.

Shelby's lecture gave us all a lot to think about in terms of how we interact with our workspaces and our equipment. Check out her website for more valuable information or to contact her directly.

*Shelby is a fan of Soma chairs, but cautioned that there's no perfect chair for everyone.

**She mentioned some CG animators have successfully and happily replaced their keyboards with X-Keys. She also mentioned the Goldtouch keyboard as a good alternative to the usual clunky keyboard.

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Tim Sarnoff Bids Adieu to ImageWorks

Tim Sarnoff, of Sony Pictures Imageworks (and before that Warner Bros. Animation), is departing the company.

Tim Sarnoff, the longtime topper of Sony Pictures Imageworks, has ankled the vfx and animation shop.

Sarnoff joined SPI in 1997 and has been president since 1997. He led the company as it became one of the major CGI shops in the industry, doing both high-end visual effects and feature animation.

A Sony spokesperson said Sarnoff will not be replaced ... [He] becomes the second top exec to exit Sony's digital production units in less than a year ...

Sarnoff announced his departure to employees at SPI's Culver City HQ on Wednesday afternoon.

Tim and I butted heads over the years, probably inevitable because he was focused on cutting costs and I was concerned about protecting TAG members, their pay, and their jobs.

But I'm never happy when somebody loses their job, no matter who they are. Sony, like most companies these days, is hurting and looking for places to cut. But I'm sure Tim will land someplace else. Entertainment execs usually do.

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"Imagi Debunks Rumors of Halt to Astro Boy"

From Animation magazine, an optimistic forecast from Imagi's CEO regarding the recent shutdown.

Amid reports of financial problems plaguing Hong Kong-based Imagi, president of the company’s U.S. operation Erin Corbett denied in an interview with that the Astro Boy feature film has halted production.

Corbett told the site that the studio has the money to finish the film, due out in October through Summit Entertainment, which she says is about 50 percent rendered and completed.

The company did have to temporarily shut its U.S. offices for a week while it awaits its next round of financing to kick in. The company had sought a bridge loan to fund the interim but was unable to secure that financing.

The closure will have a minimal impact on the film, Corbett said. While U.S. operations were put on hold for a week, the main studio operation in Hong Kong was already scheduled to be closed during this period to celebrate Chinese New Year.
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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Executive Board Meeting, Part II

More reports, more mingling, and a fund-raiser in the evening for the IATSE's political action committee.

For me, the day's nuggets were

1) That sanity seems to have returned to the Screen Actors Guild with old hand David White installed as SAG's interim national executive director, and SAG senior advisor John McGuire as chief negotiator.

The reason this is important for the IATSE is that between the economic downturn (see below) and the de facto SAG strike (growing more de facto month by month), the film business has been steadily shrinking. Spot checks with different business representatives reinforce the already obvious: work is down and many long-time film veterans have been hurting.

This was struck home to me last Sunday night when I asked a veteran cinematographer what his next project was going to be and he answered: "Knocking sense into SAG."

2) The industry is getting beaten up by the ongoing recession. Downsizing, salary cuts, project cancellations are all happening in major ways.

One proffered example: Jay Leno's show shifting to ten o'clock Monday through Friday wipes out hundreds of IA jobs. (It doesn't do SAG, AFTRA, DGA or the WGA a hell of a lot of good either.)

Another example: Disney is going through more staff reductions, and it's anticipated that more will follow (some rumored to be in animation -- there's a surprise.)

3) The IA cocktail party, where the gloom and doom is replaced by shop talk, political talk, and salacious gossip (the best kind).

A wise old IA officer said to me: "I think the Employee Free Choice Act is going to pass, because it's got a lot of momentum. I think it's going to get changed, but I don't think the Senate Republicans can mount a filibuster against it." (I hope he's right. I'm a deep-dyed cynic who tends to think game-changing pieces of legislation almost always slam to a halt against the status quo.)

And another wise old industry vet offered: "I was driving a [big deal Hollywood star] around, and she says to me: "See that studio? I got a contract there because I s*cked off [the big deal studio chief] when I was underage. I should have had him arrested, but I didn't."

An old story, often told, but always good to hear when you're eating, drinking and working to take your mind off glum reports.

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Imagi, the Update

I picked a hell of a week to be away from the office.

I'm informed through the magic of the telephone that the Animation Guild had a bunch of calls on Monday from suddenly unemployed Imagi staff: "What do we do now?" "Have you heard anything from the studio?" "Is it permanent?" "Is it temporary?" ...

We've been informed by a company top-kick that the company hopes to make good on all financial obligations to staff, and that Imagi corporate should have word about restarting production by Tuesday next.

Understand that there are no guarantees of a restart by early next week, but the fact that Imagi believes it's doable and possible is a hopeful sign.

In the meantime laid off employees have been advised by us to:

1) Apply for unemployment ASAP . (You can always cancel it next week if production reactivates, but get the paperwork going now.)

2) If you can, put off accepting a new job until next week. (Of course, it you were planning to move on anyway, that's a different story.)

3) Watch this space for further developments (or call the Animation Guild office.)

Me, I'm going to assume Imagi finds the financing to keep the machinery operating, because from the looks of it, they have some nice product in the pipeline. And it would be a shame if that pipeline were to, like, clog up.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Tintin in 3-D MoCap!

I read my first Tintin comic in 19-freaking-56. And now, fifty-three years later, Spielberg-Jackson are at last shooting footage.

On Monday, Paramount Pictures and Sony Pictures Entertainment began principal photography on their Steven Spielberg-directed motion-capture 3-D feature "The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn." ...

The "Tintin" film project has been in the works for decades. Spielberg first optioned the material in 1983, and he and Jackson spent much of 2008 running animation tests and developing the script ...

I hope the animation tests were up to everyone's exacting standards. Since I've wondered about a movie version since I was seven years old, it's only right.

Personally, I'm not sure mocap is the best route to take, but I'm willing to withhold judgment. (Big of me, innit?)

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I.A. Executive Board Meeting

Albuquerque is where the Mother International is holding its Winter executive board meeting, so that's where I'm presently hanging my hat ...

The I.A. exec board meets twice a year. Mostly, the board hears reports from its various locals across the Unites States and Canada regarding organizing, new contracts negotiated, political outreach. I.A representatives such as Yours Truly attend to find out the Big Picture, hobnob with other guilds and unions, and generally take care of any business needed to be done with the high potentates of the organization.

Today's reports covered a wide spectrum of activities, including new contracts on the right coast and the recently negotiated Basic Agreement hammered out on the left. (Guess what? It's a challenge to negotiate a contract when the economy is cratering, but the I.A. managed to equal the W.G.A. and D.G.A. deals.)

The take-away for me on Day One was this from the Actors Fund representative:

Health Insurance Resource Center

Our Health Insurance Resource Center (HIRC) has been connecting artists, craftspeople and entertainment industry workers around the country to health insurance and affordable health care since 1998.

Getting health insurance or finding quality medical care is a constant concern for anyone who is uninsured or who isn’t covered by an employer, union or government health plan. The Center identifies alternative routes to coverage and local resources for care for performers, visual artists, stagehands, filmmakers, musicians, artisans, and other self-employed and episodic workers.

With offices in New York and Los Angeles and a staff that is experienced in health insurance and health care counseling, HIRC takes a multi-faceted approach to the problem of health care access ....

This might surprise you, but apparently there is a recession on, and a lot of I.A.T.S.E. members and other industry workers are taking advantage of services the Fund has to offer.

And mid-afternoon, a couple hundred IA labor reps were informed of this bit of news:

A few minutes ago, Variety reported that [Screen Actors Guild Executive Director Doug] Allen had advised SAG staffers in an email that he was leaving his post ...

This was met with spontaneous applause. Not because anybody takes great pleasure in another labor leader's professinoal demise, but because everyone in the room knows that doing a job action with little leverage, the economy in meltdown, and the template for the deal already encased in cement is not a real swift idea.

In fact, it's borderline insane.

On the bright side, maybe now a new agreement between SAG and the AMPTP can be reached, and people can be slightly less freaked about soon losing their jobs.

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Save your backs! Preserve your shoulders!

The January 27 membership meeting will offer a discussion about ergonomics in the animation workplace, featuring noted expert SHELBY CASS, CAE, who will be interviewed by President Koch and take questions from the audience.

Ms. Cass is a Certified Associate Ergonomist. She began work in the field in 1998 at Pixar, where she developed the studio’s cutting-edge Educational Ergonomics program. Other companies Shelby has worked with include DNA Productions, KeyOvation (Goldtouch), Wacom, ILM, Apple, Blue Sky, WETA, and Henson.

Here’s how Ms. Cass speaks of her profession:

I know your type. You do things your way. You don’t have time for doctors, and if you feel ache, pain, or fatigue while you are working, you’re just going to work through it. No pain, no gain, right? Wrong. No pain, no pain. That’s my motto.

The most common question I get once my profession is established is some variation of: “How should I sit?” My answer is not short. It can’t be. But if you have time, I’d suggest starting by sitting on your butt. Are you laughing? Let’s see if you are sitting on it.

Most people plop down on a seat, and where the butt hits, it stays. If they have to recline from there to reach the seat back, they will. That means they are sitting on their tailbones, and not actually their sitting bones. If you’re not sitting well, the rest of your workstation won’t ever be as good as it could. Try this: Imagine you have a tail. Pick your bottom up, stick it out to get that tail behind you, and set yourself down again. You may find you are sitting on a completely different part of your body. This is a good thing. From here we can adjust your chair to fit you, and like Legos we can piece together the rest of your workstation to fit as well.

Your goal: To work without pain, but still remain productive. My goal: To build movement into your static posture and getting you to be as lazy as possible while staying as productive if not more so. To give you more energy; to help you feel better at the end of the day, and to keep your body going longer and stronger for the rest of your life.

The meeting will be open to members, active or inactive. Non-members may attend the lecture portion of the evening only.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Pizza and refreshments, 6:30 pm
Meeting and discussion, 7 pm
IATSE Local 44, 12021 Riverside Drive, North Hollywood

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Imagi closing down temporarily?

We were going to hold off on this till at least Monday, when we could get more information, but a commenter below has broken the news: it appears that Imagi, maker of Astro Boy and Gatchaman, may currently be out of cash and temporarily shutting down operations. We've heard from one of Imagi's Los Angeles animators that he was called at home on Saturday, Jan. 24, and told that the studio was out of cash, and that he should not report to work on Monday. Since this is all happening over the weekend, we've been unable to get any confirmation from official studio sources.

We've previously noted that the company informed the Guild in December that the company was having cashflow problems related to the credit crisis, and it's noteworthy that just a few days ago the studio reported it had found a new depositary bank for their American depositary receipt program, so clearly they're scrambling to get additional funds.

There's also this telling quote from a Jan. 14 article:

Their boss, Douglas Glen, Imagi's chief executive, had just come back from the American Film Market in Los Angeles, which was devastated by the gloom and doom spanning the globe. "If markets don't return to some semblance of normalcy, it is going to be difficult to keep operations going," an ashen-faced Glen told a visitor. Only two months before he had triumphantly secured $30 million in financing for his movie animation company. Then $20 million of it fell through.

We want to emphasize that right now we have only second-hand information from a single Imagi employee. We're hoping this is a temporary hiccup for a company that has a good-looking feature well on its way to completion, and a couple of more features well along in the development pipeline.

Imagi employees are encouraged to call the Animation Guild office this coming week at (818) 766-7151.

Hulett Add On: I'm in Albuquerque on business this coming week (In fact, I'm in Albuquerque now), but I'll be in touch with TAG's office by phone. As we receive more info, we'll disperse it.

Add On Too: Word spreads on the intertubes, probably from similar sources (employees who've been told not to come into work).

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Happy Days

Yesterday I got a call from TAG's President that Imagi was shutting down (see the post above). Today I get off the plane, step into the hotel, flip open the lap top and read this:.

[John Thain, the chief executive of Merrill Lynch] resigned on Thursday. Only then did we learn that he doled out billions in secret, last-minute bonuses to his staff last month, just before Bank of America took over and just before the government ponied up a second bailout to cover Merrill’s unexpected $15 billion fourth-quarter loss. So far American taxpayers have spent $45 billion on this mess, and that’s only our down payment.

... If we’ve learned anything since the election, it is this: We have not remotely seen the bottom of this economy, and no one has a silver bullet to arrest the plunge, the hyped brains in the new White House included. Most economists failed to anticipate the disaster, after all, and our tax-challenged incoming Treasury Secretary may prove as evanescent as past saviors du jour. As we applauded Thain in September, we were also desperately trying to convince ourselves that Warren Buffett’s $5 billion investment in Goldman Sachs would turn the tide, and that Hank Paulson, as Newsweek wrote in a cover story titled “King Henry,” would be the “right man at the right time.”

Well, some economists failed to anticipate the disaster. Others, Nouriel Roubini for one, saw it coming.

But it doesn't matter who was prescient and who wasn't, because here we are in the middle of the steaming, fetid swamp anyway. My main thought now is, do we collectively get educated from this lesson? Or do we all just stick to our philosophical guns, point fingers, and become no smarter?

I suppose the next three to seven years will tell the tale.

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Weekend Linkorama

I'm on the road today, off to the Land of Enchantment and the IATSE's Winter Executive Board meeting. In the meantime, the Festival of Links proceeds without me.

There will be another whack taken at Tom and Jerry, the Feature:

... Plans [by Warner Bros.] are to bring the constantly warring cat and mouse to life as CG characters that run around in live-action settings ...

Warners owns the rights to Hanna-Barbera’s slate of popular animated properties and has several of them in development for bigscreen adaptation.

Those include Robert Rodriguez’s version of "The Jetsons" and producer Donald De Line’s "Yogi Bear."

What was it about that old animation/live-action borderline blurring and blurring? (I guess they want to be away from the last feature incarnation, which wasn't an altogether fulfilling experience.)

Screenwriter John August will pen the stop-motion feature Frankenweenie.

He's set to write "Frankenweenie" for Tim Burton and Disney after first tackling the comic book adaptation "Preacher" for Sam Mendes and Columbia.

"Frankenweenie" is based on a comedic horror short that Burton made in 1984 while a film school student. The story tells of a man who brings his dog back to life after it is killed by a car.

While the original "Frankenweenie" was a live-action project, the new one will be made using stop-motion animation and be in 3-D. Like the original, the feature version is to be shot in black & white. Burton is producing, and many of the animation artists and crew from the director's "Corpse Bride" will be involved, with the studio aiming for a 2011 release.

The confused Hollywood Reporter seems to believe that director Tim Burton made the short, live-action version of Frankenweenie while a film student. Uh, no. Burton made the first pass of the pic while an employee at Walt Disney Productions, in 1984.

Samuel L. Jackson, who has acted in almost every film made since 1990, is headlining a new 'toon:

"Afro Samurai: Resurrection," a two-hour animated film that premieres this Sunday night on Spike TV and then hits stores as a DVD release on Feb. 3. In it, Jackson reprises his dual role as the Afro, a haunted warrior in a bleak world, and also his sidekick, the motor-mouthed Ninja Ninja.

The cartoon adapts the vision of manga star Takashi Okazaki and melds the stylized sword violence with the music of RZA, the hip-hop auteur of Wu-Tang Clan fame. "It’s a wonderful adventure about a black samurai in a post-apocalyptic world that’s a rich blend of the ancient and the new with a hip-hop beat," said Jackson, who is also executive producer. "It’s sexy, violent and extremely cool."

One of the things that the nation has long been waiting for: the Jetson's Movie coming to DVD.

Universal Studios Home Entertainment has recently added Hanna-Barbera's full-length JETSONS: THE MOVIE to their DVD release schedule for April 28, 2009 (SRP $14.98). The 1990 animated family film will be presented in its original widescreen ratio of 1.85:1 – at this time no bonus features are specified.

Enjoy the balance of your Sunday.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Movie B.O.

Now with delicious, low-calorie Add On.

Not a pure animated film in the Top Ten ... nor the Top Twenty (Of course, there's plenty of animation inside the live action pics, but that's another story...)

A freshly minted Underworld: Rise of the Lysol collects $7.9 million and the top spot on the Movie Hit Parade. (Love them tentpoles.)

The chubby Mall Cop hangs tough at #2, raking in $4.3 million (of a total $48.9 million) ... and steely-eyed Clint makes $4.3 million in the Show position. Mr. Eastwood has $85.9 million in his strong box.

Finally, Gore Fest 3-D has a $3.1 million Friday and now totals $30.8 million.

On the animated front, the White Doggie commands a worldwide total of $192.9 million.

Add On: The weekend prelims are in, and the Win-Place-Show positions go to Mall Cop, Underworld and Gran Torino, which looks to be shaping up as one of Cliont Eastwood's bigger hits.

Michael Sheen appears to be getting more traction in Underworld than he is in Frost/Nixon, but the real winner of the weekend is Indian Game Contestant picture:

Coming in fifth, just a few days after being nominated for 10 Oscars, “Slumdog Millionaire” totaled $10.6 million, a huge increase over last weekend’s take ($5.9 million). ... “Slumdog” came in first elsewhere over the weekend, though, when its producer, Christian Colson, won the Producers Guild of America’s top award on Saturday. He beat out nominees for “Milk,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “The Dark Knight” and “Frost/Nixon.”

In the animated category, Mad 2 now head-butts $179 million (domestic) while Tale of Despereaux claws its way toward $50 million (domestic).

And Bolt has a worldwide total of $192.9 million, just slightly behind Madagascar's $559.3 million.

But outside of Jeffrey Katzenberg, who's counting?

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Friday, January 23, 2009

At the House of Mouse

Friday afternoon was the Disney hat building for me, spreading joy and flyers for next weeks membership meeting ...

I got a chance to see some 3-D images for the retooled Beauty and the Beast, and I can tell you now, without fear of contradiction, that it looks like ... 3-D. Says an artist:

Part of what's hard is everything is hand-drawn, so you have lots of flat shapes, no highlights on hair, no individual strands, no texture on the sides of faces. That looks fine for hand-drawn animation, but getting the drawings into stereo mode is a challenge ...

Especially when it was never put together that way.

The other subject that came up as I made my rounds was the 45-hour workweeks staring Disneyites in the face. Apparently some are not pleased with it. One conversation I had went like this:

Artist: Is what management doing, expanding the workweek to 45 hours, is that legal?

Me: If you mean can Disney cut wages, since that's what they're doing, the answer is yes. As long as they don't cut anybody's pay below contract minimums, they're within their rights. I think most employees are taking a 15% to 18% hit.

Artist: No, I figured it out. Some people around here are taking a cut of more than 20%.

Me: Hmm. Well, you'd know better than I would.

Artist: The Personal Service Contracts. Did the company get rid of them to hold down wages?

Me: That's what I always thought, and what I told people. I never bought the company line it was to give everyone more "freedom". It was to help contain wage increases.

Artist: They tell us it would be unprofessional if we left in the middle of an assignment.

Me: Since nobody has Personal Service Contracts anymore, that's sort of what they tend to say, harping on the "professionalism" thing. But I've yet to see a company that worries about its professionalism when it lays an employee off at an inconvenient time. If you're leaving for a lot more money someplace else, go ahead and be unprofessional. Just don't expect they'll let you come back real quick. Some people here will probably remember your treason.

But in the long run, I don't think it makes much difference. I've had Disney managers tell me on more than once that this or that animator or tech director "will never work here again!" But whattaya know? A couple of years later, they're working here again. Amazing how that happens. If they need you, they hire you, because it's business.

As you can see, it was a fine afternoon. But then night fell, I got hungry, and so I left to go get dinner.

I'm only willing to keep the work thing going for so long.

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The Animated Line

Mr. Stanton weighs in about what's animated ... and what's not:

...[F]rom the live action side, animation-and computers in general-are being used as a tool in so many movies now. The line is just getting so blurry that I think with each proceeding year, it's going to be tougher and tougher to say what's an animated movie and what's not an animated movie. And what I'd love is to get to the point where someone just goes, 'I don't care.' Because I've been at the 'I don't care' point a long time now.

Recently I got a call from a corporate lawyer: "So, what does TAG consider an animated movie that it represents?" I said:

If it's animated characters -- even in front of live-action plates -- we cover it. If it's mostly live action characters, we don't.

This, of course, is the legalistic argument. And companies are interested because they want to know which guild's jurisdiction their movie falls under. Because there are higher and lower cash outlays, depending on where the jurisdiction ends up.

But beyond the legal, there is the aesthetic. Andrew Stanton is right. The line between animation and live-action diminishes year by year, month by month. The first trilogy of Star Wars films was clearly live action ... and models ... and Harrison Ellenshaw mattes. The second trio of SW films was so thick with animated backgrounds and animated characters as to make audiences wonder.

It's only grown more snarled and confusing since. Every big comic book tentpole has large chunks of animation in it. Years ago, I threw out the idea that at some future date, all the old movie stars would come back to act in new films. They would be animated, but they would be up on screen thesping with Robert Downey Jr., Will Smith and the newer crop of big-budget super heroes.

There's probably too many issues with dead movie stars' estates (not to mention the "creep" factor) for that to happen in a major way, but it raises the issue: where does "animated" end and "live action" begin?

Maybe when the tangle is unknotted, animated features will no longer be relegated to the second-tier position they have held in Hollywood for decades. Maybe, this year, that process has already begun.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

And the Nominees Are ...

So, no "Best Picture" nomination for the little robot, but it picked up some other kudos:

While Ari Folman's animated documentary "Waltz With Bashir," a critical look at Israel's 1982 war with Lebanon, was eligible in both the animated and foreign-language film categories, it did not make the 'toon list, where the nominees are Disney's "Bolt," DreamWorks Animation's "Kung Fu Panda" and Pixar/Disney's "WALL-E."

"WALL-E" showed strength well beyond the animated category, though, earning six nominations, including one for its futuristic yet also humanistic original screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon with an original story by Stanton and Pete Doctor.

Pixar, as it often does, also popped up in the best animated short film crowd, with a nom for Doug Sweetland's "Presto," a film about a magician and a pesky rabbit. The other animated short film nominees are Kunio Kato's "La Maison en Petits Cubes," Konstantin Bronzit's "Lavatory -- Lovestory," Emud Mokhberi and Thierry Marchand's "Oktapodi" and Alan Smith and Adam Foulkes' "This Way Up."

No awards for guessing which studio takes the "Best Animated Feature" Oscar. If it isn't Wall-E in a tractor roll, I'll have to turn in my crystal ball.

But I'll be totally surprised if the picture picks up a "Best Screenplay" award. It would mean all those Academy members would have to vote for a non-WGA script, and I don't see that as likely. Now ... if the Academy voted for "Best Storyboarded film", then we'd have something.

(Last night I toyed with getting up at five o'clock to watch the nominations roll out on the teevee. Then I discarded the idea. I only like to be moderately insane.)

Add On: The nominees speak!

I was trying to get the results on the Internet when my dad called from the East Coast, he was watching it live. He's so excited. As I was talking to him his phone was ringing off the hook, so he had a busy morning. It's truly incredible and bizarre and an incredible honor. For me it's particularly great because I was nominated for my short ten years ago.

--Mark Osborne, animated feature, Kung Fu Panda

I'm through the moon, it's awesome. We got six nominations, the most ever for a Pixar movie. I have business in L.A. so I was in a hotel and got room service to wake me up. I knew John Lasseter was up because this was like a sporting event for him, so I've spoken to him. We knew we had a real good shot at best animated feature but the rest is an unknown. I was completely ecstatic about original screenplay. I worked incredibly hard at that. It's the craft I probably worked the hardest at, so that really meant a lot to me.

-- Andrew Stanton, animated feature, original screenplay, Wall-E

I'm very happy. I'm in Barcelona right now, and we were getting a guided tour of the beautiful concert hall, and my phone started buzzing. I couldn't answer because I didn't want to interrupt the tour. It's beyond anything Chris Williams and I have ever experienced. It's an amazing medium and I'm so proud to be a part of the (animation) industry. It's a small industry so when anyone does good work we all win.

-- Byron Howard, animated feature, Bolt

It's always a fun morning to wake up and get recognized. Peter (Gabriel) is a very respectful guy and within a matter of a day-and-a-half we had the form for a song. We had a several digital conversations. It was thrilling to work that way and an effective manner of collaboration.

--Thomas Newman, original song and original score, Wall-E

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Of Negotiations and Job/Salary Cuts

Now with high-fiber Add On:

In one of my recent studio jaunts, an artist pulled me aside to say:

"I'm getting jerked around the admin here. I had a contract that was up for renewal, and they called me in and said they would pick up my option, but only if I signed an amendment keeping my salary at the old rate. I think this is pretty unfair, since I'm on the low end of department pay rates now ..."

Of late, I've heard variations of the above at various work places. There seems to be something in the air.

... Warner Brothers Entertainment is the latest to cut staff, announcing 800 jobs would be lost, or 10 percent of its worldwide staff. NBC Universal and Viacom have already cut jobs, and industry watchers expect more job cuts to be announced by Walt Disney and Sony Pictures ...

The thing of it is, I don't know a studio that isn't performing serious belt-tightening, and this is on top of previous belt-tightening And part of the tightening is walking back salaries.

The complaint I hear from members is: Why are they doing this? The company had a great year!"

There's really a variety of answers, and here are three: 1) There's an economic meltdown going on, and corporations, no matter how great their recent success, are running scared. 2) Companies really are experiencing problems. And 3) Employees are more receptive to now wage hikes when lots of people are unemployed.

I know there's been a lot of angst among artists and tech directors in the cartoon business, and rightfully so. When management holds meeting saying how tough things are, people start worrying after their livelihoods.

I mean, if Harrison Ford isn't getting his usual stipend, things must be bad, no?

But that didn't change the sad situation of the employee who thought he was being abused: "I'm doing better work than the guys in the other cubicles, but they're making lots more money than me. It's not fair ..."

My answer was ...

"Fairness has got nothing to do with it. If Gargantuan Cartoons can buy your services for less, why do you think they'll voluntarily pay more? They are not in this to be even-handed, they are in business to make money."

Your task is to negotiate wisely and well. That means you

1) Know what others are making and can make a cogent arguments why you should make as much ("I'm faster and more productive, my quality is better," etc.)

2) Know what the company's bottom-line is. If they are really not going to raise your salary because of some corporate wage freeze, then you need a strategy to work around that. (Like, an agreement for a pay bump at a future date?)

3) Know what your bottom line is, and be prepared to act if you don't get it (for instance, walking away from a bad deal.)

4) Not giving a final answer until you go off and mull the company's proposal for 24-48 hours.

Negotiating pay hikes right now is really, really tricky. My advice, go in with as much useful information as you can to buttress your arguments, but don't assume a successful outcome.

The only way you can guarantee the pay raise you deserve is if you know what cards management is holding, and what money they're willing to slap down on the green felt table to keep you happy. (In other words, whether or not you've got sufficient leverage.)

Add On: And on the macro level, there is more great news with unemployment:

The number of workers filing new claims for jobless benefits rose by a more-than-expected 62,000 last week, government data Thursday showed, as a year-long recession continued to chill the labor market.

Initial claims for state unemployment insurance benefits increased to a seasonally adjusted 589,000 in the week ended Jan. 17 from a revised 527,000 the prior week, the Labor Department said.

It was the highest level of initial claims since a matching reading in the week of Dec. 20. The last time claims were higher was in 1982 ...

Since employment is a lagging indicator and the leading indicators don't look so hot, we will no doubt have some ... ah ... choppy times ahead.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Mid-Week Linkage

A brief festival of links on a Wednesday, starting with the Martini Boys explaining why director Henry Selick dropped off the movie radar for so long:

... [F]or the most part it’s because he has been struggling to get Coraline made for the last ten years.

Selick first discovered Coraline in the 90s before the novella had been initially published. The story of a girl who discovers an evil alternate universe in her closet is perfect material for Selick, yet it has not been easy for him to bring it to the big screen. Selick hired Steven Soderbergh to help him adapt the book into a screenplay in the 90s, but the collaboration for troubled and ultimately unsuccessful (Soderbergh documented his hilarious procrastination-fueled failed attempt to write the script in his wonderful book Getting Away With It: Or Further Confessions Of The Lukiest Bastard You Ever Saw). He tried working with a few other writers over the years, but ended up just doing the script himself.

Then came the problem of getting the film made in stop-motion ...

Talented people at the top of their game often find themselves unemployed for long stretches. Not long ago my wife bumped into a veteran director with a mess of success behind him, who is currently trying to get something lined up. "Film financing is tight right now" is the way he described it.

The Animation Co-Op, skippered by Kevin Geiger and Moon Seun for the past five years, has shuttered its door:

... [E]xpended energy never truly disappears - it just takes a different form. Likewise, it is time for The Animation Co-op as we have known it to disperse into the community. Every person who has attended one of our events, pitched a project, or simply checked into our website now and then carries a bit of that flame with them ...

Having been there at a Co-Op get-together, which was great, I'm sorry to see them leave. But nothing is forever.

And something cartoon fans everywhere have been waiting for: an extended Kill Bill animated sequence:

“We’ve actually added some things to it. We did a whole little chapter that I wrote and designed for the animated sequence, that we never did, because we figured, back when it was gonna be one big movie, it was going to be too long, so we didn’t do it. So when we were talking about re-releasing it, they asked is there anything you can put in, and I said no I put everything in there, but… there’s one sequence that we wouldn’t even have to shoot! So we got together with Production IG and did it, and it’s really cool. So it’s this little seven minute sequence, it’s really cool, it’s in the O-Ren chapter.” -

It's the awards season, and the Visual Effects Society has jumped into the mix with its 'toon nominees:

Vying for outstanding animation in an animated motion picture are teams from "Bolt," "Kung Fu Panda," "Wallace and Gromit in 'A Matter of Loaf and Death' " and "Wall-E" ("Bolt," "Panda" and "Wall-E" animators are also nominated for animated character in an animated movie). For outstanding animated character in a live-action motion picture, nominees are from "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Hellboy II: The Golden Army," "Iron Man" and "The Spiderwick Chronicles." Nods for effects animation in an animated film went to teams from "Bolt," "Panda," "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" and "Wall-E ..."

You're almost to the midway point of the workweek. Press on toward Friday.

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Dow Jones Industrial Averages -- 75 years Apart

Bloomberg rolls out its chart of stock prices then and now ...

We post it not because there's any direct cause and effect (history doesn't repeat itself; sometimes it doesn't even rhyme), but because people who like to look at invented parallels can look at Bloomberg's invention here ... and come to their own conclusions.

(Me, I'm still weighted to short-term bonds. Cowardly of me, isn't it?)

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The MegaCollector presents Banquet Busters

In honor of the many banquets and balls being held today, we bring you a layout drawing, artist unknown, from the 1948 Walter Lantz cartoon Banquet Busters.This is the only theatrical cartoon featuring both Andy Panda and Woody Woodpecker.

And here's the complete cartoon:

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Steve Isn't Going Away

Not me, but Mr. Jobs:

Steve Jobs was nominated for re-election as Disney Director, and has consented to serve if elected. He became a member of the board in May 2006, when Disney purchased Pixar. ...

... According to the proxy, directors need to dedicate a minimum of 250 hours per year to their position with the company. Furthermore, Jobs attended at least 75 percent of last year’s meetings ...

So is he just in need or R & R? A new liver? Whatever the reality is, it doesn't sound like Steve Jobs is in a hospice someplace, as parts of the mainstream media imply. Hopefully he'll be firing on all eight cylinders in the near future.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Executives: A Meditation

A commenter below and Ms. Nikki Finke snark on Robert Iger:

It's just out in the Walt Disney Co's 2008 proxy statement. The CEO who signed a new five-year contract last February received $13.95 million in salary and bonus. Actually the figure is $30.6 million with all the bells and whistles, up 11% from 2007. And what’s up with that $645,368 for security? ...

Actually, I don't begrudge Mr. Iger his millions. Disney's stock has dropped 14%, but that is way less than the other entertainment congloms. And remember. Robert Iger had to endure for years as Michael Eisner's #2, which was anything but an easy assignment.

But while we're on the subject of executives, they're kind of a breed apart from regular working stiffs, and not just because of their salaries. Here's what a long-time entertainment exec told me last month:

If you're smart, you learn to delegate. And if you're very smart, you learn to delegate to very competent people who do the job well and make you look good. And when you've done enough delegating and do it right, you've got some serious free time on your hands ...

In the years I've been kicking around, I've noticed a few artists who have gone the executive route. When I first became a business rep, there was Michael Webster, a one-time assistant animator who became the head of Disney Television Animation in its early years. I never asked Mike about his move into the executive ranks, but a friend of his said:

Michael worked on the lightboard for years, but he figured out that it was a better gig for him to be an executive. More money and more longevity.

If you don't believe the longevity part, consider that Mr. Webster's major domo Tom Ruzicka is still working as an exec at Universal Cartoon Studios, twenty years further on.

But you want to know how smart executives operate, you need look no further than a small tome entitled Executricks. In a few hundred pithy pages author and corporate exec Stanley Bing gives you his take on the executive life, also his strategies for living that life in the most efficient and relaxing way possible:

Ronald Reagan was widely derided ... as President for sleeping during meetings and alowing his wife to act as ... chief executive.

... Today a huge number of Americans cite Reagan as one of the great Presidents in American history, with nary a word that the man snoozed through a fair amount of his second term.



1) Receive work.

2) Designate recipient.

3) Assign work.

4) Monitor as necessary.

5) Receive work.

6) Evaluate and redelegate.

7) Receive revised work.

8) Accept work with thanks.

9) Pass along work to original source; accept credit.

10) Continue policy of inattention.

The above sounds about right to me, both from direct observation and conversations with various corporate managers over the decades. Four years ago, a Disney staffer said about Michael Eisner: "He's a micro-manager who pays no attention." In a weird way, that also sounded about right.

And three years ago, I had a very cynical corporate lawyer tell me: "The company stock has taken a beating the last year and a half and the CEO just went to the board to get an eight and a half million dollar bonus because he 'needed it.' So of course the directors gave it to him. The guy put all of them in their jobs."

But if entertainment execs are overpaid, they are pikers compared to the potentates in the Financial Sector of our fine economy.

Consider Ken Lewis, the genius head of Bank of America. Old Ken has managed to make one brilliant decision after another over the past six to twelve months, all with sparkling results.

[Ken Lewis's] disastrous acquisition decisions--first on Countrywide and now on Merrill Lynch--have brought Bank of America to the brink of collapse. He has destroyed the firm's shareholders, and, once again, forced U.S. taxpayers to bail him and his demolished firm out.

So let's not rag on studio CEOs too much. Because whatever you think of Bob Iger ... or Sumner Redstone ... or Rupert Murdoch, remember this: They haven't driven their companies to bankruptcy while getting billions upon billions of taxpayer dollars.

Face it. That's got to be the best Executrick of all.

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So ... This Means Animation Has Arrived?

Hey everybody! The animated motion picture is now on the A-list:

For the first time in its 25-year history, Sundance began with an animated feature. And it's by an Australian. The claymation animated feature Mary and Max by Adam Elliot (Academy Award-winning short “Harvie Krumpet”) is receiving plenty of positive buzz ...

Actually, the entertainment congloms have noticed, I think, that animation can generate huge amounts of cash, and huge amounts of ancillary profits (toys, video games, bubble gum cards, etc.).

They have also noticed that the domestically-built animated feature creates the biggest profits of all. Which is why they still make many in the U.S. of A. (Might not always be the case, but it's the case now.)

Regardless, I wish all the best for the Aussie feature. The folks down under struck gold with Happy Feet. Maybe they'll hit pay dirt again.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Middle January Linkorama

The Links of the week, starting with animation tyro Craig McCracken talking about WhupAss Girls:

I had pitched Whupass [aka Powerpuff Girls] before the shorts program was developed. I had always thought it would have been a television program. It was in development as far back as 1992, 1993. I had originally shown it to the development department and they immediately loved it. We were already starting to negotiate for a television series. That was before What A Cartoon was developed. I was talking contract for a 13-episode series. While we were negotiating, then they came up with the shorts program.

That actually stopped the green light. Fred Seibert saw the potential in the Whupass Girls, very early on. The really weird thing about it is I thought I was going to get that contract when they called me in way back in 1993 and it took until 1997 for me to finally get it.

Animation master Hayao Miyazaki isn't overly thrilled with animation in the digital age:

'I can't stand modern movies. The images are too weird and eccentric for me,' Miyazaki told Hong Kong's Sunday Morning Post in an interview to promote his latest movie, 'Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea.'

Miyazaki said his recruits are tested in a boot camp where mobile phones, iPods and other electronic devices are banned.

'Young people are surrounded by virtual things,' Miyazaki was quoted as saying. 'They lack real experience or life and lose their imagination. Animators can only draw from their own experience of pain and shock and emotions.' But the president of Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli, a former Disney executive, was quoted as saying the studio is open to computer animation ...

While we're on the subject of edgy cartoons, Jerry Beck discusses animated shorts of yore that began life as family fare but somehow went bad.

... [S]everal cartoons, created as theatrical cartoon shorts in the 1930s and 40s ... though aimed at kids back then are no longer suitable for our children today. For example "No If's And Or Butts" finds Buzzy Crow (a black stereotype) trying to help his friend Katnip the cat kick his nicotine habit. It's extremely violent, promotes smoking and is racist! Several of tonight's cartoons are films that were personally disturbing to me. For example, the Max Fleischer Color Classic "Ants In the Plants" which concerns the battle of an army of ants against a hungry anteater. The anteater's snout looks like a giant male sex organ and it is shown chasing the ants through their ant tunnels... the whole thing is like a bizzarre sex dream.

But hey. Aren't cartoons supposed to be like bizarre sex dreams? I mean, isn't that why eager young artists got into the business?

(Jerry is showing some of these specimens at the Silent Movie Theatre here in L.A. The line forms to the right ...)

Keanu Reeves is going to become an anime action figure. Kind of.

[Keanu Reeves] is attached to topline a live-action bigscreen adaptation of the Japanese anime TV series "Cowboy Bebop" ... Reeves will take on the role of Spike Spiegel, an adventurous bounty hunter traveling through space in 2071.

Ah yes, another Scooby Doo-style franchise.

Variety reviews an Aussie stop-motion feature, and has its quibbles:

"Mary and Max" ... a glum tale of friendship between two very unlikely pen pals, writer-director-designer Adam Elliot's follow-up to his Oscar-winning 2003 short "Harvie Krumpet" has its share of deadpan amusements, but its combo of mordant whimsy and tearjerker moments winds up curdling in an unappetizing fashion. A strong voice cast headed by Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman could buoy the toon's otherwise uncertain prospects beyond Oz.

This could explain why Jeffrey had his talk with the staff in the DreamWorks commissary a couple of weeks back:

Wedbush Morgan analyst Michael Pachter on Thursday cut his fourth-quarter revenue and earnings estimates for DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc (DWA.N), citing lower-than-projected sales of the "Kung Fu Panda" DVD, released in early November.

Pachter said in a note he cut his fourth-quarter estimate of "Panda" DVD unit sales to 11 million from his revised estimate of 12 million in early December, which was down from an original estimate of 14 million units

DVD sales just aren't what they used to be.

Lastly, Bolt launches in the United Kingdom on February 6th, and Disney has begun the tub-thumping, with the British press aiding and abetting here ... here ... and here.

On Wednesday night [John] Lasseter ... gleefully revealed how he's been cutting a swathe through the Disney ranks since being appointed chief creative officer at the animation studio in 2006 following Disney's Pixar takeover, while also retaining the equivalent title at Pixar, where he oversees all projects as an executive producers.

"We just got rid of the executives who were controlling everything and handed the power back to the creatives," he said. "These guys were great animators and the best thing to do if you have great animators is give them their head."

History, as they say, is written by the winners. Have a fine Sunday and life-giving workweek.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Shuffling at Film Roman

Not only was I shuffling around over at FR on Friday, but people are going in and out of the place like passengers on a tight deadline at the Bob Hope Airport.

Down in the Goode Family unit, artists were carrying boxes of person belonging out to their cars as I walked in. A big chunk of staff was departing as their gigs came to an end; a couple asked me:

Know where there's any work?

I told them nothing came to me off the top of my head. I'm often full of useful information like that, but I also said that maybe I'd know something in a week, maybe two. (You just never know when a studio might need staff for something pronto.)

King of the Hill is also losing staff as the last of the half-hours wrap up. Everyone is still ignorant if another network (ABC?) will pick the series up, but various optimists remain hopeful ...

Up in the Simpsons unit, one of the artists, a person who's been with the show a few years and knows which heads are rolling and who's are likely to be lopped off next, confided:

None of us know if Fox is going to order another season of The Simpsons after we're done with this one. The actors are signed, but Fox hasn't said if it wants another twenty episodes. I think Gracie Films [the producing company of The Simpsons] would like another order, and so is offering up sacrifices to Fox to show that they're serious about cutting costs. Some old hands have been let go.

But the sacrifices are all coming from around here, not over the hill on Pico. Gracie seems to think that Richard Reynis is worth hanging onto. Don't ask me why ...

I think the cost cutting is getting to everybody. It's going on across the movie and cartoon business. There must be some kind of recession going on.

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El Box Office

Last week's turnstile winners move down the rope ladder as the top three positions are occupied by newcomers Mall Cop, Notorious, and My Bloody Valentine 3-D.

Body parts are lopped off. Pick axes are stabbed at the camera. There's even a completely naked girl chased by the killer, in glorious 3D. This movie spoke to me.

As, apparently, it speaks to avid movie audiences nationwide. Yum!

What with all the newcomers and epansion of art-house flick, animated features have been pushed out of the Top Twenty. But as of January 15, The Tale of Despereaux is closing in on $50 million, and Bolt has garnered $112 million domestically and a grand total of $185.3 million worldwide.

Add On: Paul Blart: Mall Cop rakes in $33 million and the top spot, as last week's crime fighter -- Gran Torino falls a mild 24.6% to #2.

My Bloody valentine 3-D -- clearly the date movie du jour, lands in the third position with $21.9 million. And as Mr. Mojo says:

“It was the highest-grossing MLK weekend ever,” said Brandon Gray, publisher of Box Office Mojo ... “‘Paul Blart’ certainly led the way with the most impressive opening for the weekend. ‘Paul Blart’ exceeded expectations based on historical antecedents.”

On the animated side, The Tale of Despereaux plunged 73.6%, falling from #13 to #24, and stalls out a million bucks shy of the $50 million mark. Funny about them foreign animations, they seem to lose engine thrust when they fly within hailing distance of that magic $50 mill.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

The Mega Collector's Reluctant Dragon

Another Woolie Reitherman original, this from the 1941 Disney feature The Reluctant Dragon.

The live-action/animated feature starred Robert Benchley as himself, touring the Disney studio (and running into Norm Ferguson and Ward Kimball among others. TRD is a strange amalgamation of actors and Disney staffers. Actor Alan Ladd appears as a Disney story artist, while animator Reitherman appears as ... an animator in a drawing class.)

The feature includes three cartoon shorts: "How To Ride A Horse" starring Goofy in the first "How To" cartoon, "Baby Weems", and the title short.

The Reluctant Dragon was released during the 1941 Disney strike and was not a barn burner at the boxoffice. Guild members dressed up in tuxes and evening gowns and rented fancy cars to arrive at the premiere, then got out of the cars and marched with their picket signs. Strike leader and future Local 839 president Moe Gollub's date was inker Nancy Bedell, who married designer Reg Massie a year later and parented our illustrious Recording Secretary Jeff Massie.

Below, the complete cartoon of The Reluctant Dragon (just the cartoon, not the entire feature).

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Cartoon Network Goes Live

The aping of the Disney Channel continues:

Cartoon Network is taking a big step into live-action, prepping a slew of programs that represent the channel's largest slate in a long time ... "They all fall under a sort of teenage-boy wish-fulfillment scenario," [Chief content officer Rob] Sorcher said . "They're action dramas for the most part."

What all this live-action development doesn't mean is that Cartoon Network is pulling back on animation. "This does not replace that in any way," Sorcher said. "This is a complement, an expansion."

Sure, you betchya. Doesn't encroach on 'toons in any way. Except that there are only so many broadcast hours in a day, and if you burn up a pile of them with live action, then there's less time for ... you know ... animation.

But everything goes in cycles. At some point thirteen-year-old boys will burn out on guys in Spandex and capes, and return to first principles.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Steve Jobs

Unsurprisingly, speculation is rampant over Steve Jobs' future.

... [A]s soon as Apple announced on Jan. 14 that CEO Steve Jobs was taking a medical leave of absence through June, speculation about Jobs' condition and the future of [Apple] began appearing—from screeds against the company for allegedly not being up-front about the seriousness of Jobs' health to speculation that Jobs has had a recurrence of cancer and is dying.

I've got no idea what Mr. Jobs' prognosis is, and given his long habit of keeping information tucked tightly under his arm, I doubt anybody will know until he's ready to say something ... or forces beyond his control make that decision for him.

There will be a sizable impact at Apple and Disney if the man never comes back to work.

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The Mid-Week Studios

Yesterday I dropped in on The House That Seth Build (otherwise known as Fox Animation) and today was Nick nick nick ...

FA was kind of hopping on Tuesday. I walk in the door and there is a BBC camera crew, readying itself to cast its lense on table reads for Family Guy and American Dad.

They were a little late getting the sessions going (they told me), but I wasn't around when they happened anyway. I was wandering through the cubicles, talking to artists and dragging my 401(k) books behind me (Few takers for the 401(k) applications, strangely enough. Could it be the economy, you think? Naah. Everyone's just shy,) One of the crew said:

I donno how long it's going to last, but since the WGA strike, the schedules here have seemed more doable than before. There seems to be more flexibility, more give and take ...

Probably there are Fox artists who would disagree with this, but I get the same kind of thing at every studio. Some artists are stressed out over the deadlines, others have less problems with them. And the stress levels vary from show to show.

Over at Nick today, I wandered among the crews of Fanboy and Madagascar Penguins.

We're coming to the end of the first twenty-six half hours of Penguins, which means we're about halfway through the work. It's nice to have a job that's going to last a while ...

Kind of the general consensus among working artists: "Happy to have a job". Even when things are less than ideal, everybody is glad to be employed.

Naturally, there were a few questions about the Screen Actors Guild, mostly along the lines of "Are they nuts?". Funny how I keep getting queries like that.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

My Second to Last Post on the 2009 SAG Strike

And put up now because I'm still getting anxious questions about SAG hitting the bricks. (Today it was board artists at Fox Animation, veterans of last year's WGA strike.)

If news reports are right, the fustercluck known as the 2009 SAG job action is on the cusp of messy implosion:

A coalition of Screen Actors Guild board members introduced a resolution calling for Doug Allen, the guild's executive director and chief negotiator, to be fired. The move was the latest sign of turmoil in a union that has a history of internal strife and warring among its members.

This is old news by now, but I lunched today with a TAG officer and we both agreed on one inescapable reality.

The leadership of the Screen Actors Guild is really, really loused up. "Dysfunctional" doesn't begin to describe these folks.

But there is one silver lining: There is probably next to no chance that the actors will drag the industry over the cliff as they brawl, at least during this contract cycle.

When SAG finally gets around to ratifying the AMPTP's final offer, I'll put up the final post on this subject.

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Three Useful Blogs

Not cartoon blogs, but blogs about the economy and investing.

I bring them up here because a) I don't think a lot of industry folk ... or people in general ... have enough knowledge about what makes the financial world, and therefore our day-to-day lives, tick.

And b) when things go south, it's important to have some road maps to which you can refer. ("Where the hell are we? How the hell can we get away from here?!")

Books are good, but an accessible blog might be a useful. ..and cheaper ... aid. You can read a few posts, check out the author, and see if it fits your needs, all without an outlay of cash at Barnes and Noble.

Today I talked with a wise veteran animator who recommended this financial blog to me. It goes by the name of "Marginal Revolution", and I found this in particular to be a useful primer:

Eight reasons why we are in a depression

1. We have zombie banks.

2. There is considerable regulatory uncertainty in banking and finance.

3. There is a negative wealth effect from lower home and asset prices.

4. There is a big sectoral shift out of real estate, luxury goods, and debt-financed consumption.

5. Some of the automakers are finally meeting their end, or would meet their end without government aid.

6. Fear and uncertainty are high, in part because they should be high and in part because Bush and Paulson spooked everyone.

7. International factors are strongly negative.

8. There is a decline in aggregate demand, resulting from some mix of 1-7.

I have two simple points, First, a large fiscal stimulus addresses factor #8 but fares poorly in alleviating the other problems. Of course it may give a band-aid for #5 or #6 and you can tell other stories but we are in a multi-factor depression.

Second, forecasting will prove very difficult. These factors interacted with each other in a unique manner on the way down and they may well interact in an unpredictable manner on the way back up, whenever that comes ...

When I got into the cartoon business, I was blissfully ignorant about economic markets and how they worked. I knew zip about Modern Portfolio Theory or Value Investing or anything else related to increasing my net worth. I just blundered along, relying on my friendly old stock broker, who lost me plenty of money over the years.

Investing is an ongoing journey that really never ends. (And why should it? You're growing and protecting your money.) Just when you think you've maybe figured out the supreme investing strategy, new information pops up to whisper "No, you don't."

Two other good sources of investment information are the blogs Calculated Risk (which provided the handy chart up top) and The Big Picture. Unlike Marginal Revolution, run by univerty economists, CR and BP are run by industry pros.

Below, the Big Picture offers up a sample of its careful, non-judgmental analysis:

Time to Fire Ken Lewis of Bank of America

By Barry Ritholtz - January 14th, 2009, 9:14PM

Step right up to the bar here in Bailout Nation, 2009 version. Open 24 hours, we never close. No bailout too big, no investment/money pit too dumb. Yes folks, we can handle your bad assets, recapitalize your bank, no muss, no fuss. Yes, here in America, we cannot be bothered with things like plans and strategies and maximizing returns for taxpayers.That’s right, we avoid the planning, and pass the savings onto to you, the home viewer!

Really, how the hell did we ever win WWII?

# # # # # # #

So the horrific deal Citibank cut with Treasury was a blueprint, an example for the next foolish investment — and here it is: Bank America, a supposed good bank, that couldn’t wait to get their hands on Merrill Lynch, now a bad bank.

And now that we all see what a terrible decision that was by supposedly sophisticated private sector players, well, then rather than take the hit, BoA has their grubby hands out begging for some taxpayer loot to paper over their idiotic decision-making. First they bought that giant manure pile CountryWide, and now they own another stinking pile of enzyme-free donkey-fazoo, Merrill Lynch.

There are hundreds of other financial blogs on the internet, and everyone no doubt has their own favorites. The examples above are three that I've found to be worthwhile.

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The January Studio Roundabout

Tuesday I pinged around to different Glendal Studios like a steel ball in an old arcade game.

At Disney TVA Sonora, Mickey's Clubhouse is winding down.

We've got a couple more months work on the show. We're doing a bunch of new two-minute shorts, and a pair of long DVDs, and then boom. We're over. The studio has all the episodes it wants, and in April most everybody will be looking for other work.

But the consensus seems to be the schedule for Clubhouse has been sane. One board artist said: "I haven't been stressed and crowded on this show. Lots different than other projects I've worked on ..."

And artists wonder aloud what projects are going to get greenlighted next. "What kinds of shows will Disney XD be doing? Nobody knows ..."

At DreamWorks Animation, crews are well along with the latest features (MvA, S4, HttyD) and told me about Jeffrey K's recent meeting with the staff:

Jeffrey had everybody in the commissary, telling them us that we've had a really good 2008 but that 2009 could be tough.

We only have one movie coming out this year [Monsters vs. Aliens], not our usual two. And in oh-ten there's three. Plus nobody knows what the economy's going to be doing, but probably it's nothing good. Jeffrey says the money is flying out of the studio and we've got to hold costs down. He talked for a long time, and then there was a Q & A. I like it that he lets us know what's going on ...

As I understand from staff, salary increases are probably going to be minimal over the next couple of years, but the company is working to avoid major layoffs.

Over on Sonora, Disney Toons still labors on the Tink franchise. Tink One is available at your favorite DVD retailer, Tink Too is in full-bore production ... and Tink Three?

John Lasseter saw our last story pass and decided to make changes, big changes. So things have been shaken up on the picture. We've got some new people working on it now, and we're waiting for the revised script before we start boarding again.

But the changes mean more work for everyone, and that's a good thing ...

Then, of course, there is Tinkerbell 4 still to come. CEO Robert Iger is a believer in franchises.

That, in a nutshell, was a large portion of my yesterday. Lots of walking involved, but it was informative.

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