Thursday, April 30, 2009

Disney Grabs a Piece of Hulu

Now with succulent Add On.

The Mouse House becomes a bigger player in the on-line distribution game:

Walt Disney Co.'s deal to put ABC TV shows on Internet video site Hulu suggests Google Inc.'s YouTube may have to rethink its revenue-sharing business model.

Google is under increasing pressure to add more premium content to YouTube in order to attract advertisers - and revenue - from the site. But on Thursday, rival Hulu scored a big victory when Disney agreed to take a nearly 30% stake in Hulu and put full episodes of its ABC TV shows on the site.

With the deal, Hulu will be able to distribute content from three of the top four U.S. television broadcasters, giving it a commanding lead in the online premium content market.

But the big question is, how will this impact Hollywood labor's residual deals with the majors?

SAG, DGA, AFTRA, WGA and IATSE all have "new media" participation percentages with the entertainment conglomerates, but how much cannibalizing is going to take place between one distribution platform and another? How big (or small) are the resulting payments going to be?

I've got no clear answers, but answers will be coming during the next few years, and they will possibly not be to everyone's liking ... Like for instance, SAG. There were picketers out in front of the Screen Actors Build building today, protesting the final deal, so ratification of a new contract and new media agreemnt are not ncecessarily foregone conclusions.

Maybe we're fulfilling the Chinese curse by living in interesting times.

Add On: ZD Net thinkks Apple might have a wee bit of a problem with Disney's Hulu deal. (And we know who DizCo.'s largest stockholder is, don't we?) ...

... [T]hat Disney will invest in video streaming site Hulu sent shockwaves through the video industry and turned the spotlight on Hulu competitors YouTube and CBS. CBS and it’s fledgling is the only remaining major TV network not part of the Hulu clique – NBC, Fox and now ABC.

The other major company that could feel some aftershocks from the Disney-Hulu deal is Apple. Business Week’s Cliff Edwards points out that Apple neither creates video content nor does it distribute it for free online. Both of course, are core features of Hulu.

The threat is that Hulu is streaming free (albeit with ads) what Apple is try to sell and rent ...

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Roger Rabbit Deux

So maybe Robert Zemeckis makes another feature with the frenetic bunny ... and maybe some of it is done with old-style, pencil and paper animation ...

“I’ll tell you what is buzzing around in my head now that we have the ability—the digital tools, performance capture—I’m starting to think about ‘Roger Rabbit,’”

Pressed, Mr. Zemeckis said that it could be a bit of hand-drawn, a chunk motion capture, but he didn't go into details.

So, if they do a new one (and it makes commercial sense, given the original's box office), will they set up a studio stateside? Will they hire back any of the old animation crew?

These and other questions remain to be answered. But they probably won't get answered for a while yet ...

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Our Pretty Corporatist State

Now with sweet and sour Add On. ... plus the Top Ten corporate Lucky Duckies!

Allow me to put on my union guy/class warrior head gear for a moment ...

This little screed by Matt Taibbi via Glenn Greenwald, hit me in the solar plexus:

... [W]hen the excesses of business interests and their political proteges in Washington leave the regular guy broke and screwed, the response is always for the lower and middle classes to split down the middle and find reasons to get pissed off not at their greedy bosses but at each other. That’s why even people like [Glenn] Beck’s audience, who I’d wager are mostly lower-income people, can’t imagine themselves protesting against the Wall Street barons who in actuality are the ones who fucked them over ...

Actual rich people can’t ever be the target. It’s a classic peasant mentality: going into fits of groveling and bowing whenever the master’s carriage rides by, then fuming against the Turks in Crimea or the Jews in the Pale or whoever after spending fifteen hard hours in the fields. You know you’re a peasant when you worship the very people who are right now, this minute, conning you and taking your shit. Whatever the master does, you’re on board. When you get frisky, he sticks a big cross in the middle of your village, and you spend the rest of your life praying to it with big googly eyes. Or he puts out newspapers full of innuendo about this or that faraway group and you immediately salute and rush off to join the hate squad.

A good peasant is loyal, simpleminded, and full of misdirected anger. And that’s what we’ve got now, a lot of misdirected anger searching around for a non-target to mis-punish . . . can’t be mad at AIG, can’t be mad at Citi or Goldman Sachs. The real villains have to be the anti-AIG protesters! After all, those people earned those bonuses! If ever there was a textbook case of peasant thinking, it’s struggling middle-class Americans burned up in defense of taxpayer-funded bonuses to millionaires. It’s really weird stuff ...

The banksters are reaming us, each and every one. What we have in this country is a dandy system where profits are privatized and losses are swallowed whole by the taxpayer.

Goldman Sachs -- of which I used to be a tiny little stockholder -- rules our world. And it makes no difference whether Republicans or Democrats are in power, for as Democratic Senate leader Dick Durbin says:

"... The banks -- hard to believe in a time when we're facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created -- are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place."

How else to explain how the banks can run us over the cliff, and then have Paulson, Bernanke and finally Geithner, pay them billions for the really bang-up job they have done on our behalf?

And of course these gents are amazed -- totally astounded -- that people who struggle to meet a mortgage and worry night and day about losing their jobs might get royally ticked off when these jokers still insist on getting paid millions in salary. Big money for our financial oligarchs is simply the natural order of things and we'd all better damn well get used to it.

The game is fixed, boys and girls, and it's been fixed for years. And don't whine to me about pathetic liberals conducting "class warfare." Warren Buffet weighed in on that subject years ago:

"Do we have class warfare in this country? You bet we do. And my side is winning ..."

Democrats -- political "liberals" -- are the operators of this charming carnival ride ... just as the Republicans are. They're just a little more opaque about it. And you and me, we're the toothless ride operators who stand around and yuck it up, smoking our cigarettes and snorting our crystal meth, waiting for an extra quarter or fifty cent piece from the oligarchs who ride in the hand-painted cars, waving to us as the Ferris wheel lifts them skyward.

Add On: One narrow ray of sunlight is that Bankster Kenny Lewis, until yesterday the Chairman of Bank of America, is Chairman no longer.

Bank of America Corp.'s (BAC) shareholders voted in historic fashion on Wednesday to strip chief executive Ken Lewis of his title as chairman, demonstrating just how precarious Lewis's hold on his other job - chief executive - has become.

It's useful to point out that this small rebellion was led by labor unions. Lewis is still the CEO, but you can't have everything.

Add On Too: And if you need to know the freaking grip in which the banksters hold the guvmint, you need only look here:

The Senate handed a victory to the banking industry on Thursday, defeating a Democratic proposal that would have given homeowners in financial trouble greater flexibility to renegotiate the terms of their mortgages.

The House of Representatives, meanwhile, overwhelmingly approved a bill backed by the Obama administration that would limit the ability of credit card companies to charge high fees and penalties. The bill, approved 357 to 70, still faces obstacles in the Senate, where — as the action on Thursday illustrated — the industry has more clout, particularly among Republicans and moderate Democrats.

I guess I should get over being amazed at how readily Senators will vote against their constituents. Because giving the banksters hundreds of billions just isn't enough ...

Add On the Third: This pretty much encapsulates the difference between Socialist Europe and "Free Enterprise" America:

Which region is the true Socialist state?

-- Europe has cradle to grave health care plans, generous unemployment benefits, and free or subsidized college costs.

-- The US gives away public assets (oil, gas, mineral rights) for pennies on the dollar, has huge subsidies and tax breaks, and bails out reckless speculators.

Pretty much says it all, especially since last Fall, when the Congress and President went balls out propping up banks, car companies and insurance conglomerates. It's ludicrous to call what we have a "Capitalist" system at the present time. But hey, maybe in the future!

Add On #4: And even as the economy craters and stock market sinks, a number of Lucky Duckies make out like reverse Robin Hoods:

The 10 highest-paid CEOs for 2008 at Standard & Poor's 500 companies based on calculations by The Associated Press.

1. Aubrey McClendon, Chesapeake Energy Corp., $112.5 million

2. Sanjay Jha, Motorola Inc., $104.4 million

3. Robert Iger, Walt Disney Co., $51.1 million

4. Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., $42.9 million

5. Kenneth Chenault, American Express Co., $42.9 million

6. Vikram Pandit, Citigroup Inc., $38.2 million

7. Steven Farris, Apache Corp., $37.2 million

8. Louis Camilleri, Philip Morris International Inc., $36.9 million

9. Kevin Johnson, Juniper Networks Inc., $36.1 million

10. Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase & Co., $35.7 million

Remember, these fine folks earned the money. The companies they lead are all worth far less today than they were a year ago, and the Financial companies have taken billions in Federal money (that's taxes from you and me).

So why the hell wouldn't they be worth every penny? It's the way things are supposed to be. Just ask any of them.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The New Wage Survey

Click the above thumbnail for a full sized image.

Above, the work of a member who failed to take the 2009 Wage Survey with the seriousness and gravity it deserved. But points for originality ...

I've finished the tallying of our annual Wage Survey. Version 1.0* of the full survey can be found here as a PDF file.

This year we had a 25.4% response (740 tallied out of 2,914 sent, not counting blanks and hand turkeys), a lower response than last year's 27.1%.

The survey calculates median averages (which can be found by arranging all the salaries from lowest value to highest value and picking the middle one), and compares them with the 2008 medians. Bear in mind that the weekly salary numbers are adjusted to a forty-hour week, to avoid apples-and-oranges salary comparisons. So, for example, a member who reported a salary of $2,400 on a fifty-hour week was tallied for $1,745.45 for a forty-hour week.

Here are some samples:

30-minute scripts, per script/outline
CBA journey minimum: $6,766.67 (script and outline)
Survey minimum: $6,500.00
Median: $7,000.00
Maximum: $7,000.00
2008 Median: $6,500.00
Change: +$500.00

TV directors
CBA journey minimum: $1,793.84
Survey minimum: $1,600.00
Median: $2,500.00
Maximum: $3,800.00
2008 Median: $2,400.00
Change: +$100.00

Production Boards (TV storyboards, per 40-hour week)
CBA journey minimum: $1,764.84
Survey minimum: $857.14
Median: $1,800.00
Maximum: $3,000.00
2008 Median: $1,900.00
Change: –$100.00

Half-hour production boards, per board
CBA journey minimum: $2,662.94
Survey minimum: $9,000.00
Median: $15,000.00
Maximum: $18,000.00
2008 Median: $15,000.00
Change: 0

CBA journey minimum: $1.534.64
Survey minimum: $1,000.00
Median: $1,818.18
Maximum: $3,000.00
2008 Median: $2,125.00
Change: –$306.82

Tech Directors (Generalists)
CBA journey minimum: $1.534.64
Survey minimum: $807.27
Median: $1,790.00
Maximum: $2,600.00
2008 Median: $1,884.67
Change: –$94.67

Cloth/Hair TDs
CBA journey minimum: $1.534.64
Survey minimum: $1,600.00
Median: $2,000.00
Maximum: $2,820.00
2008 Median: $1,760.73
Change: +$239.27

3D Animators
CBA journey minimum: $1.534.64
Survey minimum: $948.44
Median: $1,700.00
Maximum: $3,700.00
2008 Median: $1,745.45
Change: –$45.45

* I'll be double-checking my numbers and counts over the next few days. The final version, which might include a few adjustments, will appear in the May Peg-Board.

We're seeing more and more respondents reporting salaries and per-unit fees from Guild shops at less than the CBA minimums. This could be dues to several factors:

  • Some may have misunderstood the question about the length of the work week (40 vs. 45 or 50 or 56);
  • Some may not have reported that they're working as assistants, apprentices, first-six-months or trainees;
  • Unfortunately, many people may simply be working at less than union scale at union shops. For example, the industry standard for half-hour TV script/outlines hovered at $6,500 for years. This year the median kicked up to $7,000, but there were still reports of people making $6,500 ... which is below the union minimum of $6,766.67.

We're always pleased to file grievances over contract violations. We've filed them in the past and won them in the past. So let us know if you have a problem with being paid below contract scale.

-- Steve Hulett

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Working Overtime

So in the recent by and by, I had a meeting with the crew of a successful animated series at one of our signator studios. I advised them that it was a good idea to not do uncompensated overtime. (There's a surprise.)

My talking points:

Employee Practices

1. Work a full eight hours. If you take a long lunch, stay over at the end of your normal eight-hour day. If you go to the dentist for an hour or two, make up the time.

2. When you work a ninth or tenth hour, put it down on the time card as the ninth or tenth hour.

3. If you come to work on Saturday, understand that it's your sith day of work and paid at time and a half.

4. If you work on Sunday, know that it's paid at double time (this assumes you've worked Monday through Saturday.)

5. Encourage others not to work uncompensated overtime.

6. Fill out your time card accurately, (It's a legal document).

7. If you are asked to "put down eight hours" on your time card when you've worked nine, ask (politely) if the person is saying you are t0 falisfy the timee card.

8. Being honest about how long it takes for you to complete a job helps the employer accurately track how long production work actually takes. (You're really not doing the company favors by lying about it).

Overall, I thought it was a good meeting. Everybody understood the usefulness of declining to work extra hours for no pay. I said I understood that there's a lot of pressure on artists to "meet the schedule" even as management shortens it. But I pointed out (as I always do), that the more they work free overtime to meet the schedule, the more the bar gets raised and the more they're cutting their own throats.

As the meeting broke up, an artist came up and said: "You know, they've cut next season's schedule and the board people on staff are already pulling all nighters to keep up with the work."

I replied that it's important for them to work an honest forty hours and do as much as they can, but not knuckle under to an unreasonable schedule by cheating. (Which, of course, is easy for me to say since I'm not the employee who's under the gun.)

As the artist left, I said that I knew it was tough for board artists to hang together and not work unpaid overtime, but if they didn't, they faced a pretty lousy reality.

I guess we'll see what happens. In the meantime, I hope to have meetings at other studios.

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Some end-of-April news bites about Cartoonland, beginning with our Culver City friends.

Sony is like a motivated football player that gets knocked down. It just gets up and keeps going:

Sony Pictures and stop-frame animation house Aardman Animations are moving forward with two animated features, "Arthur Christmas" and "Pirates!"

"Pirates!" sees Aardman co-founder Peter Lord back behind the camera for a movie done in hand-crafted stop-motion animation, the company's signature style seen in films such as "Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of Were-Rabbit" and "Chicken Run," while "Christmas" will be produced wholly in CGI.

Aardman signed a three-year, first-look deal with Sony in 2007, though no projects had been announced. The company, which had parted ways with DreamWorks Animation in the wake of the disappointing performance of "Flushed Away," has spent the past two years hunkered down in deep development, honing several scripts. "Pirates!" and "Christmas" are the first two to land on the production runway.

Clone Wars is going to get explanatory text. I can't wait.

The network is replaying the entire first season, but has adopted a pop-up video-style presentation for what it is calling Star Wars: The Clone Wars: Decoded ...

... [E]pisodes ... feature text windows providing insight into various aspects of the galactic conflict. These pop-ups may include trivia, and background on characters and storylines ...

Pixar rolls out a chunk of its latest short subject:

Their new short takes place in the world of baby-delivering storks, and it’s called Partly Cloudy. ... “Everyone knows that the stork delivers babies, but where do the storks get the babies from?"

I was told babies are found by the storks beneath cabbage leaves. I might be misinformed, since my wife often stretches the truth.

On the other side of the globe, Thailand has been in the news lately with riots and demonstration against the central government, but at the same time its 'toon industry is going through growing pains:

... "Thai animation quality is high, but we can't compete with China, which quotes lower prices," said Monk Studio managing director Nitipat Somsaman. The company is a major subcontractor for Asian and Western markets.

He said subcontracting demand from Hollywood and Europe is huge, as the foreign producers want to cut costs. Boosting the subcontracting business is the fact that Thailand can offer high-quality products at reasonable prices, compared to China's cheaper prices and lower quality ...

Oscar-nominated animator Cordell Barker drops into Cannes with a new creation:

The nine-minute piece is about a driverless train that careens over bumpy tracks, its passengers oblivious to impending disaster. When the train breaks down, a class struggle ensues.

Barker says he's amazed the short was accepted at Cannes, noting it was far from finished when "a really hideous rough assembly" was sent in for consideration roughly three weeks ago.

"And amazingly enough, they accepted it," Barker exclaimed ...

And to remind us that hand-drawn animation is happening at other places besides the hat building in Burbank, there's this:

[Isle of Black Mor is set] in the year 1803, on the Cornish coast where a 15-year-old Kid escapes from the orphanage and lived the life of a hard-labour prisoner. His only possession is the map of a treasure island that fell from the book of Black Mor and with two wreck looters, MacGregor and Beanpole, Kid goes off in search of the famous island way across the Atlantic Ocean ...

“I could not help comparing this project to a boat which never manages to get out to sea: the script was turned down by French broadcasters, there was no producer, the development budget was pared down to a minimum. In the meantime we continued to believe in the project" ...

Thank God nothing like that ever happens around here, eh?

Here's how American animated features get made:

“You constantly want to think about how to get away from it all, and one day I had the mental image of a house flying through the air, and from there I developed the idea for the film,” [Pixar director Pete] Docter said ...

Simple, no?

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Monday, April 27, 2009

DreamWorks Animation Watch

Now with extra-crispy Add On.

DreamWorks Animation's sole animated feature for the year continues to do brisk business, but there have been rumblings in some quarters that grosses are not as robust as they could have been.

Given all that, stock analysts are remarkably upbeat regarding DWA's earnings report, due out tomorrow.

Analysts, on average, expect DreamWorks Animation ... to see revenue grow 34 percent to $209 million, with earnings up 61 percent to 45 cents per share, according to a survey by Thomson Reuters.

The company's small number of releases, generally about two per year, means that big swings in quarterly earnings from year to year are common ...

... The company's small number of releases ... means that big swings in quarterly earnings from year to year are common.

Some analysts have trimmed their estimates for DWA's cash flow, along with projections regarding its stock price. Me, I've been impressed with DWA's success under its challenging business model: Produce high-grossing features, one after the other, or fall off the financial high wire.

Tomorrow the stats come out, and we'll know how accurate the financial prophets are ...

Add On: Apparently, the DWA cash flow is doing okay:

DreamWorks Animation's strong first-quarter earnings report is getting rave reviews on Wall Street today: The company’s shares have soared 25%, and brokerage Goldman Sachs moved the stock back to its "buy" list.

DreamWorks late Tuesday said earnings last quarter more than doubled, to $62.3 million, or 71 cents a share, far exceeding analysts’ mean estimate of 45 cents.

... [T]he Glendale studio benefited from strong box-office and DVD sales from its "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" sequel -- exactly as CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg had predicted in late February, when the company otherwise disappointed Wall Street by reporting a 45% drop in fourth-quarter earnings.

DWA is on a roll, no doubt about it.

Add On Too: When you're the Master of the Universe, you're the Master of the Universe ...

DreamWorks Animation said [CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg] has extended his employment contract another four years.

Katzenberg's pact was set to expire at the end of the year, but he'll remain CEO through April 22, 2014, with much of his pay dependent on DWA's stock price ...

And ...

DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg will be honored at the 35th annual Saturn Awards, presented by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films, which will present him with its first-ever Visionary Award for his efforts on behalf of 3-D film.

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Freelancers Union

Animation Nation will be hosting an informational meeting in Burbank tomorrow night. The main topic: setting up an organization for freelance artists, writers, and graphics designers.

People have asked me about the idea, and I think it's a fine one. And I encourage people to go and find out what AN has to say about the deal.

I've also been asked, "Is something like this, like, a union?" My answer is "no, not really" ... but Kevin explains it well, so let me turn the floor over to him:

...[T]he Freelancers Union in New York isn't a union in the same way TAG is a union.

A trade union (like the Animation Guild) functions to collectively bargain for a group of employees. There are a few key words in there -- 'collectively' and 'employees' in particular. If the goal is to get some kind of benefits for people who are NOT employees (i.e., independent contractors, people working on their own projects, students), then a trade union isn't part of the equation.

By statute, those groups cannot join or form a trade union. So I don't think you're talking about forming a 'second union', but instead a completely different kind of organization that would be useful in obtaining decent health benefits and perhaps more retirement benefits than one can achieve as an individual. What you're proposing isn't an alternative to TAG, but an alternative to independent contractors being completely on their own ...

Let me chime in here about the term "freelancer."

The way many people use the term today they mean "freelancer"/subcontractor. You can recognize one of these folks by the kind of check stubs they receive and the compensation forms they get at the end of the year. The checks have no taxes taken out; the form is a 1099.

But some artists and writers sling the term "freelancer" around when what they mean is: "Employee working out of studio on a daily, weekly, or unit rate basis."

In this case, the "freelancer" is paid with taxes deducted from his pay check -- income taxes, payroll taxes, the whole nine yards. And they get W-2 at the end of the year, not the 1099 document.

As you can see, "freelancer"/employee is a different category from subcontractor. And as Kevin says, he or she can be part of a union or guild, while the subcontractor cannot.

In any event, if you fall into the subcontractor category, or just want to know about the "Freelancer Union" concept, hop over to Burbank tomorrow night and partake.

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Controversial Non-Controversy

The problem for any company ... or labor organization? ... in the 21st century is, no matter what they do, someobdy doesn't like it. For instance this long-percolating "issue."

While some of the changes made by Disney to its upcoming animated feature "The Princess and the Frog" ... have been applauded by critics, the UK's Times reports that others, including the princess' love interest, are drawing accusations of racial insensitivity.

... Oddly enough, though, Princess Tiana is black; her prince is not. That's right – even though there is a real-life black man in the highest office in the land with a black wife, Disney obviously doesn't think a black man is worthy of the title of prince.

Uh ... brief note to whoever:

The President of the United States is of mixed race, just like several of President Tom Jefferson's kids (Tom being white, Sally Hemmings being mixed race ... like the current Commander-in-Chief.)

Or as President Obama says of himself: "A mutt."

Given all that, I think the anger about the racial makeup of these particular cartoon characters is a trifle ... misplaced?

Besides which, who's saying the Prince isn't mixed race?

Just asking.

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Worldwide B.O. for Monsters

The 3-D epic keeps rolling:

... Par's "Monsters Vs Aliens" continued to tap into family coin with $11.2 million at 6,667 in 59 markets, led by $1.5 million in its fourth Brit frame. South Korea launched with $1.1 million.

With $143 million overseas and $174.8 million domestically, "Monsters Vs Aliens" has cumed $317 million worldwide ...

What with many animated features getting more than half their box office revenue overseas, I'm still projecting that MvA ends up in the $400-$500 million range when all the ticket stubs are counted.

The totals might not be all that Jeffrey was hoping for, but they're not going to be too shabby.

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Obsessive Box Office

With spanking fresh Add On.

A new contingent of moving pictures occupies the upper reaches of Friday's box office.

Critics defecate on it, but Obsessed claws its way through the guano to land at Numero Uno, courtesy of a big female demographic. Meantime, Fighting slugs away at #2 ...

Monsters Vs. Aliens glides down to #7, where it's collected another two million dollars for a new running total of $168.2 million domestic ...

Add On: The weekend preliminaries are in, and the newbies finish (mostly) on top, with the vets hanging onto lower rungs.

Obsessed comes in #1, with Fighting, The Soloist, Earth at #3-#5. (Zac clings to the second position after a 51% drop, the girls having ogled their fill and moved on.)

Monsters Vs. Aliens is in the fifth slot, with a $174.8 cume. The feature had the smallest decline (-35.6%) of any picture in the Top Twenty, and looks poised to finish at the higher end of the Koch Box Office Calculator (r) after all is said and done.

Which means, I think, it wil be hanging tough until Up lifts off at the end of May.

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While We're On The Subject ...

... of various animated product, Box Office Mojo does some dandy comparsons with dandy interactive charts between the 'Toon empires.

DreamWorks Animation vs. DreamWorks Animation

Monsters Vs. Aliens -- production budget: $175 million -- domestic gross: $166.3 million ...

Madagascar 2 -- production budget: $150 million -- domestic gross: $180 million

March Animation Madness

Horton Hears a Who -- domestic gross: $154.5 million

Meet the Robinsons -- domestic gross: $97.8 million ...

Animation Action

Star Wars: The Clone Wars -- domestic gross: $35.1 million

TMNT -- domestic gross: $54.1 million ...

Sure, it's comparing pictures by box office, but it's the only sane way to do it.

Otherwise, you have nerds, professionals and general-interest fans yelling at each other about which movie is best. And as the Romans tell us: De gustibus non est disputandum.

That's why horrid, disgusting moolah is the only concrete scorecard. All else is disputable opinion.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Like Jeffrey K. Cares

One of the dumber recent articles.

... [D]espite the life lessons kids have learned from Shrek and Kung Fu Panda over the years, people have come to think of Pixar as the "good for you" studio, despite the fact that there is still a fair amount of moral and educational value in many of Dreamworks' "for a good time" movies ...

The frustrating thing is that the Dreamworks movies share many of these elements. But they also have fart jokes and pop culture references, and that seems to prevent them from getting the respect they deserve ...

I'm sure Mr. Katzenberg is devastated. I'm sure Mr. Katzenberg weeps bitter tears ...

Kung Fu Panda

Production cost: $130 million

Worldwide gross: $631,908,951


Production cost: $180 million

Worldwide Gross: $534,767.889

...all the way to Fort Knox.

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The Animation Industry Squeeze

It's no secret that the movie business is on an economizing kick, and the cartoon sector isn't exception to that trend. Many studios are putting the screws to employees just like its live-action cousins.

A couple of days ago, TAG held a meeting with artists from various studios to strategize how employees should push back ...

Contract proposals to counteract perceived abuses were discussed, but it was pointed out that given the problems Hollywood labor organizations have had forging new collective bargaining agreement, 2009 wasn't the most opportune year to ride into town with a saddlebag full of fresh demands to rectivy abuses.

I pointed out that there were already numerous contract rules, along with state and federal regulations, that could relieve workplace stress. Some of the resulting suggestions:

* Holding crew meetings to build consensus about not working uncompensated overtime.

* Filling out time cards accurately. (Giving friendly reminders to fellow artists to fill time cards out accurately.)

* Reporting overlong storyboard and design tests to TAG so the guild can take the issue up with studio reps.

* Building an industry culture that will move toward self-policing abuses.

What I've observed over the last several years is: artists agree among themselves they won't work extra hours for free, then two people on a crew break ranks and start taking work home gratis, then other crew members see what's happening, get paranoid and take work home too. And the whole "we're not working free o.t. anymore falls apart.

I told the group that we need to find new ways to deal with the hours of free work that artists perform week in and week out. Companies get a false impression of how much work can be created in a 40-hour week, and keep raising the bar higher.

I said that the best way to deal with unreasonable schedules is to account for work time honestly. If somebody wanders around driking coffee for an hour, then takes a two-hour lunch, then that somebody should stay late and make up the three hours. But when an honest eight hours of work has been done, make sure that time cards -- which are legal documents -- show any and all extra hours worked.

I said that tighter schedules and pressure from production managers to "help out" with free o.t. have been going on since I started as biz rep nineteen years ago. There were abuses on "Tiny Tunes" in 1990, and there are abuses now. (The industry, if nothing else, is consistent.)

One strategy to combat the latest squeeze? Transparency and information sharing, both up to management and sideways to other employees. When artists work together to show how much work can actually be done in a 40-hour week, then studios will start building production schedules which reflect that.

But if companies can build schedules around a 60-hour week while paying for 40? Then hey, they will cheerfully do it that way.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

At the Diz

Today was the hat building on my TAG 401(k) meeting tour. Afterwards, I came across a Rapunzelite who told me:

"We've got to finish the picture by the end of next year. That means we're going to have a really full-tilt schedule to get everything done ... it's going to be a lot like Bolt, lots of seven day weeks" ...

I responded that I didn't know of many pictures that didn't have tight schedules, that back in the Jeffrey K. days, when I was wandering around the Flower Street facility, animation artists regularly complained about the six and seven-day weeks to get out Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, Alladin and other features. There's just always a concrete release date you're forced to hit, no matter how many story and production kinks there are.

The artist allowed that yeah, tight schedules had been going on for awhile.

On my way out, I saw a couple of kids -- who had been roaming around because it was "son and daughter day" at the House of Mouse -- enjoying the color clip of Princess and the Frog playing in the ahll display clip.

I'm going oout on a limb here, but I'm betting that Ron and John aren't going to be recycling older Disney 2-D animation like happened back in ye olden days -- the 70s and 80s.

(Woolfgang was partial to using the good old stuff more than once.)

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Voice Work!

Tom Hanks (who has earlier remarked on how strenuous voice acting is) tells Empire magazine about his latest assignment for Toy Story 3:

"I have been in and done three big complete recording sessions and will probably have at least one more to do, possibly in about eight months," said Hanks .... "Then eight months after that I'll do a mop-up and have three more sessions after that. Those movies are beasts ..."

Hanks remarks that he, John Ratzenberger and Tim Allen sat in a theater and watched story reels of the film instead of read a script.

Of course, in the horse-and-buggy days of of 'toon voice recording (pre Jeffrey K.), there wasn't a whole lot in the way of scripts.

Woolie Reitherman and the crew would have a couple of sequences up on boards, the actor would come in, and Larry Clemmons would walk the talent through what was happening with the character.

Then the talent would look over the script pages stabled to cardboard (the better to prevent the horrid rattling sound) and go to work.

But the actors seeing the whole film up on story reels early on? Didn't happen. Woolfgang was still trying to figure out was going to happen in Sequence Three.

But maybe Woolie's biggest challenge, back in those olden times, was trying to figure out how to work around actor Joe Flynn's bad timing of drowning in the backyard pool before his part in The Rescuers was fully recorded.

It kind of ... ah ... stopped further dialogue revisions for the character Snoops. Happily, they had enough to continue.

A simpler, more innocent time, wouldn't you say?

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Retirement Conundrum

I've been doing the 401(k) meeting thing the past few days, and this general theme has come up over and over, particularly with older employees:

"The last eight months, my retirement accounts have gotten killed. I had it worked out so I could hang up my job next year, but now that's all blown to hell. I'm going to be working 'til I'm seventy-eight ..."

Part of older workers' problems is that they bought into the conventional wisdom that you should, even in retirement, have a sizable chunk of money invested in stocks.

Since we're in the midst of the second worst meltdown of equities in U.S. history, this has turned out to be not great advice. And if you were in the wrong asset allocation, you could have really eaten it.

... An investor who put $1 million three years ago in AllianceBernstein’s 2010 Retirement Strategy fund (LTDAX) would have seen decent gains for two years. But the latest market turmoil would have knocked her balance down to nearly $750,000, because the fund had 68 percent of its assets in stock and real estate trusts when the market started to crash last fall. Had she invested that money in the Wells Fargo Advantage Dow Jones Target 2010 fund (STNRX), she would still have $970,000 today—in part because that fund holds only 27 percent of its assets in stocks. Seth Masters, chief investment officer with AllianceBernstein, says high equity percentages are necessary to help a portfolio last the 30 years people are likely to live in retirement. “Any fund with a longer-term investment perspective did poorly in 2008,” he says ...

I know few people who haven't been damaged by the cratering of equities. But for older workers, some with hundreds of thousands of dollars in retirement funds, the negative blowback as been huge.

One sixty-two-year-old artist came to the office and told me:

"My financial advisor screamed at me to stay in stocks when I wanted to get out. I've got half of what I had a year ago. My $600,000 nest egg is now worth $320,000 ...

This month's Smart Money Magazine notes the same thing that anguished TAG member did:

For years, retirement planning has been dominated by complex formulas of "models" that tell people exactly how much to save, how much to spend and how to invest. Guided by advisors who enthusiastically adopted these tools, millions relied on them to figure out the size of the next egg they'd need for retirement and how much cash they'd get to spend when they got there. But after a crash that blew a hole through many retirement portfolios, even the experts who design these models acknowledge they have serious limitations...

Yesterday a 401(k participant at Disney asked: "The advisors I've relied on for years don't seem to be working for me anymore. What's somebody trying to plan his retirement going to do?"

Now, I'm not a certified financial advisor, but I read a lot and shoot off my mouth a lot in 401(k) enrollment meetings. So here's my two cents:

1) Think about ratcheting down your stock allocation until the market stabilizes. (Are you 70% in stocks? Try 60%. Maybe even 50%.)

2) Get used to the possibility that stocks won't have the same robust returns going forward they've had for the past three-quarters of a century. Some experts believe that bonds will have competitive returns with stocks for lengthy stretches in the future.

3) Educate yourself. Don't rely exclusively on "experts" because those folks can be wrong. If you can't sleep nights with the idea of losing money, you might want to be more conservative in your investments (shorter term bonds, anyone?) so you don't lie awake moaning.

4) The standard wisdom is, you can pull 4% out of your retirement stash each year and never whittle your money pile down to nothing. But experts now say, welll ... maybe there's a 70% chance that you'll never empty your accounts. So maybe a better strategy is spending only 3% of assets every twelve months, or spending no more than half or three-quarters of your yearly investment earnings and dividends.

5) Be ready to adjust your investment strategies as market realities change. But adjust, don't drop them like hot rivets because stocks/bonds are going up or down.

6) If you're within hailing distance of 60, focus on preservation of assets, because you don't have as much time to recover from market losses as somebody a decade out of high school.

As I told one of the unhappy 401(k) investors yesterday, there are no total guarantees for anything. If the government collapses, even all those "rock solid" treasury bonds will be worthless. In the end, all you can do is estimate the odds, calculate the risk, and plan accordingly.

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M. Kahl

(Milt by Milt. That guy on the left? He's copyrighted by the Disney Co.)

The L.A. Times notes that animator Milt Kahl's centennial is being celebrated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

... [A]mong the veteran Disney animators, Kahl was considered the most accomplished and influential. Characters he brought to life included the animals in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the tiger Shere Khan in The Jungle Book, Peter in Peter Pan, Tramp in Lady and the Tramp and the villainous Madame Medusa in his last film for Disney, The Rescuers. ...

Uh. I think maybe Frank Thomas would have an issue over that "most accomplished" part.

Milt quit Disney before I got there, but I did have a few lunches with him. In retirement, he didn't come off as the fierce fire-breather that studio veterans had described to me, but a guy who was okay with moving on to the next phase of his life and enjoying San Francisco.

And he could also be admiring of other people's drawing skills. When he was down from San Francisco doing character designs for The Black Cauldron, I walked with him as he looked at drawings hanging in the caricature show in the studio library. He came to one of Dan Haskett's drawing, straightened up and said:

"Jesus Christ! This is great! Who the hell drew this?!"

I told him it was a young animator at the studio. Milt said: "Well, he draws like a son of a bitch."

Besides being a tyro top-rank animator (and ... okay ... a little crusty), Milt was an appreciator of talent.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Few Black-and-White Shoots Spring From a Frosty Marketplace

A dollop of good news:

In just a few weeks, the animated "Penguins of Madagascar" has claimed a royal perch at Viacom's Nickelodeon, the cable network famous for "SpongeBob SquarePants" and "iCarly." ...

We knew it was going to be a hit; we didn't know it was going to be quite this big a hit," said Brown Johnson, Nickelodeon's president of animation ...

Nobody working in television animation has to be told that the business has been depressed for awhile. Studios that ordinarily employed a hundred artists or more have lately fielded half that.

But in the last few months, formerly moribound studios have started to come back to life. Warners now has three series and DVD features percolating. The fact that Nickelodeon has a sizable Burbank crew working on the penguin franchise, including board artists, designers, and c.g. staff can only help improve the health of the L.A. animation business.

When a patient is sick, you're always glad when he gets better.

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The Fleischers -- Part Deux

Above, a Nick Tafuri drawing of Mr. Bumble and C. Bagley Beetle from Mr. Bug Goes To Town. Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.

Newsarama's second installment on Max and Dave's amazing Florida adventure.

... Then Mr. Bug came out. It was originally supposed to be released in October, but Paramount moved it back to the first week of December, 1941 in order not to go head-to-head with Disney’s Dumbo. The decision was disastrous as Mr. Bug came out two days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. No one was going to the movies that week...or for the rest of the month from the sounds of things ...

Mr. Bug Goes to Town was ... what's the technical term I'm searching for? ... a box office bomb.

And that pretty much was that. The brothers weren't talking to each other, their studio -- despite the success of Superman -- was a well of red ink, and Paramount ultimately pulled the plug.

The mythology is: the canny Disney brothers made their animation studio work, while the inept Fleischers, marooned in sunny Miami, went down in flames.

But that's not quite the actual story. The Fleischers were doing credible cartoons right to the end, and Disney was in serious financial trouble as World War II reared its steel-plated head. Disney just had the good sense to turn out a lot of wartime training films that went a looong way to keeping the studio in Burbank afloat.

Makes you wonder about those twisty turns in the long road of history: If Walt had moved to Florida?? ... If Max and Dave had shifted to California and gotten into government work?? ...

We might now be talking about the Fleischer conglomerate.

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Next Animated Feature Into the Marketplace

It's not Up, but this one:

Battle For Terra has something to do with the remains of the human race threatening to wipe out the inhabitants of Terra by colonizing the planet.

... WALL-E did well for Pixar, grossing $223 million, and Disney’s Lilo & Stitch pulled in $145 million, but those films had brand recognition in the Pixar and Disney names. Terra has Lionsgate. If you’re looking for films involving a serial killer forcing you to self-mutilate in order to save your life, Lionsgate is the go-to distributor. For an agenda laden sci-fi epic, you’d better get a more trusted name in animation ...

Terra has an interesting pedigree> A c.g.i. feature produced in L.A. over two-plus years, it toured various film festivals, and was ultimatelyh picked up for distribution by Lionsgate. And like several other animated features in recent times, got itself retrofitted with glorious 3-D.

I have no idea how Battle for Terra will perform in the marketplace. The one thing I know is, the film is being released between DreamWorks Animation juggernaut Monster Vs. Aliens and Pixar's behemoth Up.

But we'll shortly find out how it performs, since the feature rolls out on May 1st.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

DreamWorks Afternoon

I wandered around the Glendale campus after lunch today, and spent time in various brightly painted buildings ...

There's a lot of Disney transplants working at DreamWorks, and I fell into conversation with some of them. The view of the former Disneyites I talked to is that morale is better at DWA than DAS:

"There's more projects here and you feel like there's a more secure future than at Disney's right now. I talk to some people over there and they wonder if Rapunzel is going to get made." [I'm pretty dead-bang certain it is. -- Hulett] ...

"After Bolt opened weakly against Twilight, morale was low at Disney. We all worked hard on the picture, were proud of it, and the opening was discouraging." ...

"I think that Lasseter's first priority is Pixar. When he and Ed said Disney was #1 with them during the first meeting on the soundstage after they got there, nobody really believed that. We knew that Pixar was their top priority" ...

Going floor to floor in the Lakeside building, I got to see a lot of interesting development going on, some of it on announced projects, some of it on unannounced projects. One of the artists on How to Train Your Dragon observed that the picture's schedule was daunting, but that he was enjoying the dauntingness of it. "Some people are working on two projects at once, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, but nobody's complaining."

I did, however, get one set of complaints. The union staff has never had direct deposit on their checks, and more than a few are tired of schlepping paper checks to ATMs week in and week out.

"When I go to Human Resources about this, they tell me it's a union issue" ....

Herewith, on the internets, Hulett sets the record straight:

It's not a "union issue." DreamWorks Animation disavowed the practice of issuing weekly paychecks five years ago. They are free to bring payroll in house, cut bi-weekly checks, and activate direct deposit anytime they want to. But to date, THEY DO NOT WANT TO.


There. I hope that clears that up. As long as DreamWorks Animation uses the payroll company it does, there will continue to be no direct to deposit to banks because the payroll company doesn't have that service. It's a DWA issue, not a TAG issue.

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"Sit Down, Shut Up" Lifts Off

The latest Fox animated entry debuted last night. To encouraging results.

Fox’s new animated series "Sit Down, Shut Up" was off to a decent start last night, pulling a 2.3 average overnight rating among 18-49s, according to Nielsen overnights.

That’s 77 percent of the lead-in audience from "The Simpsons" which averaged a 3.0 rating. "Sit Down" also improved on what "King of the Hill" did last week in the same 8:30 timeslot, by 15 percent.

For years I've been asked: "How's animation doing?" My answer is always the same.

"Cartoons are market driven. They get good box office and television ratings, more cartoons get made. If the box office or ratings aren't there, neither are the 'toons.

(The rule doesn't apply as directly to live action. If the latest James Bond feature doesn't perform, the studios make something else ... like a Seth Rogen comedy. But they still make live-action.)

But it's good to see the comedy has made a credible start. If ratings hold up, it means that the crew will be picked up for more episodes later rather than sooner. This is a good thing, since television animation is still not robust, and every small victory means another job will get created.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Teaser Before the Deluge

As we savor the current animated favorite and bid adieu to the little stop-motion adventuress who's just gone away, it's sobering to remember that there will soon be a big pile of animated product at an AMC near you.

Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Group prexy offered up the first-ever public screening of the teaser trailer for "Toy Story 3." Custom-animated short shows Woody supervising the Toy Story characters as they improvise a sign for the pic, only to have Buzz upstage them all with a high-tech version.

The Mouse House will re-release 3-D versions of "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2" in a double feature. "Toy Story 3" bows June 18, 2010.

Forget the foreign releases and indy animated releases that will soon be sweeping across our shores. The majors' three-dimensional products will be plowing over the top of each other for the next couple of years. Gonna be real crowded out there.

The conglomerates know gold mines when they see them. And they will all be at the ready with pick axes and shovels, scraping out every vein to the last nugget.

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The Second Hurdle Cleared

Now with fresh, barbequed Add On.

SAG has now gone over the second jump in the steeple chase:

The Screen Actors Guild board of directors, moving a step closer toward resolving a nine-month stalemate with the studios that rattled Hollywood's nerves and roiled its largest entertainment union, narrowly approved a new film and TV contract for its members this afternoon.

In a split vote reflecting ongoing fissures within the union, the board voted 53% in favor of a new two-year contract that is largely modeled on one forged last year by other Hollywood talent guilds. Approval was expected because the board is now controlled by the union's moderate wing.

This deal, of course, is far from a done deal. Mr. Rosenberg wil go down with guns blazing, so it's hard to know how the membership will finally vote.

I'm sure there are various movie producers who secretly hope for a "No" vote and a return to the bargaining table. The longer the talks, the longer the payments to actors at 2008 rates. And the chance of a strike will continue to be minimal.

Such a deal for the production companies ...

Add On: Variety's Cynthia Littleton details the clusterfuck to come:

... The fall election will be an important barometer of how SAG's 120,000 members feel about the state of their union. But the political infighting won't be settled even if there's a landslide victory by candidates aligned with the Unite for Strength faction, the moderates who have effectively opposed the Rosenberg-led Membership First wing since UFS won seven seats on the national board last fall. SAG's Balkanization is too deeply rooted to be overcome in one election ...

"Tom Hanks is a Union Buster," read a picket sign at one of the demonstrations that about 200 or so SAG members have held in recent weeks outside of Warner Bros., CBS and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers headquarters. This contingent has vowed to mount a vigorous "vote no" campaign when the tentative contract is sent to members for ratification.

"Thank you for keeping the fires burning," Rosenberg said through a bullhorn April 2 at a rally outside the AMPTP. The next prexy will have a hard time containing these fires.

I can't wait to see Tom Hanks burned in effigy. Should be a hoot.

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Monsters Continue to Truck

DWA's 3-D extravaganza continues to gather in the sheaves around various parts of the globe:

Par's "Monsters Vs Aliens" remained the only other pic [besides "Fast and Furious"] with serious potency in foreign markets with $20 million at 7,058 in 58 territories, all from holdovers. Foreign cume has hit $126 million, trailing the domestic take by $36 million.

The U.K. led the way with $3.3 million, down only 19% in its third frame with 3D screens taking in an average of $9,000 -- three times better than conventional venues. French biz rose 34% to $2.7 million while Australian takings jumped 12% to $2.3 million and German grosses soared 71% to $1.8 million

Despite Wall Street's sour outlook, the flick appears to be tracking along normal lines in foreign venues.

Assuming the overseas take matches or betters U.S. totals, we're looking at worldwide box office of $400+ million. Thereafter, DWA falls silent until March of next year, when How to Train Your Dragon hits global multiplexes.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009


London's Daily Telegraph catalogues some marketers' reactions to the oncoming Pixar feature Up:

"We doubt younger boys will be that excited by the main character," said Richard Greenfield of Pali Research ...

"The film doesn't sound like much of a goer," said one buyer for a leading British toy retailer, who asked not to be named ...

Alan Dadswell, managing director of Toys N Tuck, an independent chain of shops in Essex, said: "We usually get people asking things weeks in advance but I'm not aware of anyone wanting anything to do with Up" ...

You get the idea. An old guy (voiced by old union Lefty Ed Asner) is the leading man of a big budget Pixar cartoon, and the marketplace yawns.

... The reaction has prompted accusations of ageism at the heart of the multi-billion-pound promotions industry that surrounds films aimed at children ...

Ageism is hardly a new phenomenon in Movieland. Every third week there's a media piece about "the youth market" and how every Hollywood exec worth his pinstripes caters to it. So it's no huge surprise that Brit marketers are reported as saying: "Heey. There's an old guy in this movie! How the hell we gonna sell that?!"

The reaction isn't a lot different than on this side of the Atlantic, if Wall Street's sniping is any indicator (and it is.)

What's laughably ironic is, if Hollywood gets bit in the wallet by the tyranny of youth, it will give the industry a taste of what it's been dishing out to entertainment workers for years.

I've watched older artists get shouldered out of studios ... and the animation business is a bright beacon of enlightened employment practices compared to the live-action side of the business. Show me an embittered animation writer and I'll show you a middle-aged live-action writer who's had the door slammed in his face by a snotty, thirty-something sitcom exec. And as an old live-action cameraman once told me:

"Everybody who's forty-five and up runs scared. Even cinematographers with a dozen big-budget features on their resumes dye their hair and get face lifts. They know there's thirty young guys after their job" ...

Time is a voracious, implacable monster who's appetite never diminishes. One day you are twenty-seven years old and the world is your oyster; three eye-blinks later and you're fifty-seven with thinning hair and a thickening waist-line, wondering where the hell all the jobs and opportunities went.

It will be interesting to see if the monster's hungry cousin ends up chewing one of Up's legs off.

Add On: Box Office Prophets prophesizes Up's ticket totals here.

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Seventeen Box Office

Now with minty-fresh Add On.

Zac Efron powers Seventeen Again to a Friday win, while other newbies shove older pics down the box office ladder.

Poor little Miley took a long tumble of 77% from one Friday to the next. The Tweensters do seem to front-load your movie. Once the little darlings have satiated themselves, business drops like an anvil ...

17 Again -- $9.5 million

State of Play -- $4.5 million

Hanna Montana -- $4 million

Fast and Furious -- $3.8 million

Monsters Vs. Aliens -- $3.6 million

As regards MvA, the 3-D spectacular is holding onto its fair share of box office. By Sunday's weekend tally, it will be within spitting distance of $160 million domestic, closing in on three times its opening gross.

If the movie doesn't reach the $200 million plateau, it'll be close.

Add On: The preliminary finals are in, and Zac and the street racers finish #1 and #2, with $24 million and $14 million respectively.

Third place Monsters Vs. Aliens displays the smallest percentage drop of any Tom Ten entrant with -40.9%. MvA picks up $12.9 million for a grand domestic total of $162.7 million. My guesstimate is, the way the DWA 3-D event feature is holding, the pic is going to come close to the high end of the Koch Box Office Calculator (r) before it's through.

Coraline hangs on at #24 with 197 theatres still showing the little girl on a regular basis. She's a smidge short of $75 million at this point ...

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Friday, April 17, 2009

A California Record

... at least since 1976, when records commenced.

Regional and state unemployment rates were nearly all higher in March. Forty-six states recorded over-the-month unemployment rate increases ... In March, the West posted the highest regional jobless rate, 9.8 percent ... Among the nine geographic divisions, the Pacific and East North Central reported the highest unemployment rates in March, 10.8 and 10.0 percent, respectively.

The California and North Carolina rates were the highest on record for those states. (All state series begin in 1976.)

California -- 11.2 percent

I remember that things got bad in 1982. I was gainfully employed through that downturn, but the news on the teevee was bleak for over a year.

I've heard politicians say as recently as a month ago: "Oh, this isn't as bad as the '82 recession." I think they will now have to reassess their earlier position.

We wouldn't be doing our job here if we didn't report how bad things were out in workplace land.

(If you're a student of history, you know that this sort of crap occurred on a regular basis in the 19th century and early twentieth centuries. Boom times were followed by a crash. Then a boom, then another crash. 1870s ... 1890s ... 1920s ... it was kind of monotonous.

Then for a sunny, fifty year-period we had regulations that prevented the banksters from leveraging everything to the hilt, but then the regs were meticulously unravelled ...

And here we are.)

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SAG-Producers AGREE!

...that their long, nightmarish fustercluck is finally over.

The Screen Actors Guild has reached a tentative agreement on a new contract with a coalition of major Hollywood movie and television studios, the two sides announced Friday.

People close to the talks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the union’s board of directors has not yet reviewed the proposal, said that the agreement provides the actors with no substantial gains over contracts previously signed by other show-business guilds.

The actors union achieved one major goal, however: a proposed contract that would expire in June 2011, at roughly the same time as those of the unions representing writers, directors and other television personalities.

So after nine months of dicking around, nine months of huffing and puffing and all-night executive board sessions and Alan Rosenberg doing everything short of rending his garments and throwing himself on Doug Allen's funeral pyre, SAG ends up with the DGA, WGA, IATSE and AFTRA deal. What a freaking surprise. You could knock me over with a Toyota Corolla.

So ... why did this happen?

Because. SAG. Had. Minimal. Leverage.

And it was getting less leverage all the time. It took actors who weren't clinging to a beautiful but unachievable fantasy to understand this and bring a deal to fruition, but better late than never, I always say.

Now, assuming the SAG board gives its blessing and the SAG membership votes "Yes" in sufficient numbers, we are in the clear until 2011.

I hope.

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That's the Disney Animation Studio, if you're not versed in animation acronyms ...

Walking in the tiled entrance of the hat building, I ran into the directors of Princess and the Frog. After I got up off the floor, they told me the picture is deep in crunch time, 75% complete, testing well, and that this was the first time in a long while they had actually gone to lunch outside the building.

Oh. And one of the more important things? Mr. Lasseter thinks it's swell.

Upstairs, I talked to a P & F animator who said:

"We're just a little behind our footage quota. I've been working six day weeks, eleven hour days, but I haven't seen my footage drop off, I've kept up the regular pace ...

Higher up, on the third floor, I fell into conversation with a group of story artists, one of whom wanted to number of board artists who were employed at DreamWorks Animation these days. His own estimate was eighty; I did a little research after the fact and found the board crew at DWA totals around fifty.

One of the story guys said that Disney Animation seems to have "a way smaller development slate than DreamWorks." I replied that this only holds true if you don't count the Pixar output, and I didn't see how you could not count it since it both studios were part of the Disney empire, and DreamWorks Animation is a stand-alone company.

The response was along the lines of "Well, when you put it that way, I see your point."

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Minnie Links

Cal Arts is getting a new endowment ... and it doesn't come from the House of Big Round Ears:

Nickelodeon, home to "SpongeBob SquarePants" and "Dora the Explorer," is establishing an endowed scholarship program at the California Institute of the Arts' School of Film/Video for students of animation.

"We want to do all that we can to support fledgling talent," said Brown Johnson, Nickelodeon's president of animation ...

Interviews for Fox Networks' new animated entry Sit Down, Shut Up, rolling out April 19th, are now arrowing across the media.

Sit Down, Shut Up revolves around the dysfunctional faculty at a high school in a small fishing town in Florida. The teachers there work hard, too -- work hard at doing anything other than teaching.

"Why did we decide to do it as an animated show?" [said creator Mitch Hurwitz]. "Oh, money. Not that we're worried about the state of broadcast television per se -- we're feeling pretty good about that, actually -- but we saw the original show as being very daft, very broad. There was a character who grew breasts during the course of their pilot episode. And we just thought animation would make the perfect fit."

Former TAG shop steward Kevin Geiger reviews Global Animation:

The global animation industry lies mainly in the U.S., Europe, Japan and South Korea, with China and India rising to prominence. Nevertheless, one may point to almost any country in the world for notable developments in animation within the last decade ...

As a major animation exporter, Japan has a precise industry chain and a mature operating mechanism. Japan’s animation industry ranks highly in the national economy, and the output value of Japanese animation products exceeds that of steel. Anime has a market value of nearly $2.5 billion USD in the United States alone, with global merchandising worth almost $5 billion USD. South Korea is second only to the U.S. and Japan in the output value of its animation industry, which has become one of the six “pillar industries” in South Korea’s national economy ...

To end: The tub-thumping grows steadily as release date approaches:

...Cute, round kid; grumpy old grandpa balloon salesman; a house that floats away while tethered to a ton of balloons? South American jungle adventures? The promise of a heartfelt, odd couple story? Yes, please ...

And we soon find out if Wall Street is right or wrong about Up.

Happy weekend.

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Charity Work

Wandering through a few chosen studios, I've come across heart-warming acts of charity. Allow me to share them with you ...

Apparently executives are asking special, laid-off employees to come in for work-related meetings that are "voluntary." And by voluntary they mean

We're ... uh ... not compensating you for the time you spend in the meeting. But, you know, you don't have to come (only if you're like, a good team player) ...

Now, you would think that, times being what they are and everybody struggling to rub two nickels together, that these employees would say: "Hey man! I'm unemployed right now! I don't have time to come in to do free work!"

But no!

These selfless animation folk, willing ... nay, eager to reach out a helping hand and provide the kind of charity for which American workers are justly famous (free overtime, that's out middle name, innit?) deserve our respect and thanks for a job well done.

So I stand and salute these generous souls who give unstintingly of their time so that our fine cartoon companies not only survive, but prosper.

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Union Thuggery?

Here's an interesting tale of the Fleischer studios, which includes this morsel about the Fleischer's departure from New York in the late thirties ... and why it happened:

“The unions were taken over by the Mafia,” recalls Steve Stanchfield, an animator in his own right, as well as a prominent historian in the field. “One of the major reasons why Fleischer wanted out of New York was union pressure. Dave Fleischer was beat up. Myron Waldman (one of the legends who worked under the Fleischers) told me they put Dave in the hospital. If the Fleischers made a big fuss about it, their families’ lives would be in danger. There was some definite malfeasance going on there.”

I think Mr. Waldman is using time-honored hyperbole here. The Fleischers definitely resisted the Commercial Artists and Designers Union through 1936 and most of 1937, but ... whattayaknow? .. the Fleischer studio in New York was signed with the IATSE (the union then run by the old Capone mob) for its camera operators.

To put it succinctly: there was no reason for dear old Max to have been beaten up by "the Mafia," because he already had a contract with them thugs.

Tom Sito in Drawing the Line offers another reason for the Fleischer's move to sunny Florida:

On October 19, [1937] the Fleischer Studio finally recognized the CADU ... The Fleischer brothers still had one more trick up their sleeves. Both Max and Dave owned property in Florida and were being courted with tax breaks by the city of Miami to move their operations south ...

The CADU knew this was a union-busting tactic but could do nothing to stop it. ... The studio began to move in the spring of 1938 and paid moving costs for all those who wished to relocate. Most hard-core union animators refused to move and stayed in New York; the rest were intimidated into forgoing further union activity.

So ... mob fists scared Max and Dave Fleischer to Miami? Not hardly. The prospect of tax breaks and a right-to-work state turned the trick.

The ultimate irony here is that Florida proved to be a far more expensive place for a cartoon studio to do business than unionized Manhattan. The Fleischers had to ship film to labs, had to lure animators from L.A. with high salaries. Within five years the studio folded, and the Fleischers' old distributor Paramount Pictures formed a New York-based union studio to continue its valuable Popeye shorts.

It wasn't union thugs that made possible the first Florida animation studio. It was our old friend M-O-N-E-Y.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Brief History of Taxes

I'm old enough to remember when many animation artists had sky-high salaries and people thought of them as lucky duckies who were super rich.

But not so much anymore. Now artists in the 'toon business make pretty regular money, sometime less than regular money, and have learned to adjust their living standards accordingly.

Yet they still pay taxes, and often more than they'd like. So here on April 15th, let us trip through a short history of the tax levies that everybody pays:

In 2011 the Bush tax cuts will expire, and President Obama plans to also close various loopholes. As Peter Orszag, Obama’s budget director, delicately says of the rich, “We are asking them to pitch in a bit more.” The current moment has the feel of an inflection point for the American wealthy, like the stock-market crash of 1929 or the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 ...

[T]ax rates on top incomes used to be far higher than they are today. The top marginal rate hovered around 90 percent in the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s. Reagan ultimately reduced it to 28 percent, and it is now 35 percent. Obama would raise it to 39.6 percent, where it was under Bill Clinton ...

For a married couple in 1960, for example, the 38 percent tax bracket started at $20,000, which is about $145,000 in today’s terms. The top bracket of 91 percent began at $400,000, which is the equivalent of nearly $3 million now. Some of the old brackets are truly stunning: in 1935, Franklin D. Roosevelt raised the top rate to 79 percent, from 63 percent, and raised the income level that qualified for that rate to $5 million (about $75 million today) from $1 million. As the economist Bruce Bartlett has noted, that 79 percent rate apparently applied to only one person in the entire country, John D. Rockefeller ...

I'm a classical cynic regarding taxes. They go up, they go down, we live with them.

And I'm a cynic about government spending. In the time I've been alive, the federal budget has been balanced under Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton. In each of those cases, it was never balanced for long. Mostly it was way out of balance, and we ran a large tab. (Startling, yes?)

The thing I got clued to years ago was: Sooner or later, somebody has to pay for all the expenditures, it's just a matter of who and when. You can have 1) progressive taxes (where the rich pay more), 2) regressive taxes (where the middle class pays more), or 3) under taxes where everybody pays less than the government is spending.

Most times, we opt for 3), with a dash of 1) or 2) thrown in for spice. The 3) scenario is always enticing, because that shifts the costs to the future where inflation becomes the tax and chews away at everybody, but mainly the middle class and old people living on fixed incomes.

I used to get ticked off and whine about the "unfairness" of it all, but I don't anymore. It's like complaining about the weather, or our charming corporatist state, or global warming. You don't like those things, work to change them to something you like better. But constant complaining, that gets old, you know?

So. Go pay your taxes. Know that taxes will always be there, often in amounts that displease you, but you'll (probably) survive. And know that whatever the tax rates are now, they'll be changing.

They always do.

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Tax Day Linkomatic

Linkage to animation foreign and domestic, beginning with China International Business's overview of the Chinese animation industry:

Back in 2004, the Chinese government realized the need to offer additional support to the development of the local animation industry. In April of that year, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) released its Principles for the Development of China’s Animation Film and Television Industry, a policy document stating that domestically-produced animations should make up no less than 60% of all animated programs broadcast on Chinese TV ...

These policies have forced the development of what was previously seen as a weak industry. “In just a few years, both the quantity and quality of domestic animation has improved greatly,” says Deng Lili, animation research director at Peking University’s Institute of Culture Industries. According to her research, total domestic animation output reached 130,000 minutes in 2008, up from 20,000 minutes in 2004.

... But this growth is not necessarily benefiting the industry. “We have found there are many problems within Chinese animation companies,” says Deng. “Many companies don’t have the potential to fully explore the market or enough capital to support their productions, and are not making valuable or interesting programs.”

At the same time as developing original content, most domestic animation companies continue to work for US and Japanese clients. “They have to do this – they need to survive,” says Lu Shengzhang, director of the Animation School at the Communications University of China in Beijing.

So ... what we're looking at here is China's Five Year Plan for Animation, yes? ...

Newsarama offers up a capsule history of Warner Bros. Animation:

80 years ago, a number of under-employed animators banded together, struck a deal with a title-card manufacturer, and would so go on to make history.

The animators, Hugh Harmon, Rudolf Ising, and Isadore “Friz” Freling, were veterans of the first Walt Disney Studio. In fact, they all initially worked with Walt when he still lived in Kansas City. They had lost their jobs over Disney being robbed of his first true hit series, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit ...

Yet another take -- this time from Dvice -- on the permanence of 3-D. Unlike Jerry, they believe "3-D movies are here to stay":

... This 3D technique is yet another part of the language of film we can learn, and for me, it took all of five minutes in the DreamWorks screening room to become comfortable with the depth of 3D movie viewing.

And, because of the precision of digital video production and projection, 3D is more pleasant to watch this time around. "Captain 3D" at DreamWorks demonstrated to me how he's learned to use the 3D technique sparingly, and showed me the precise point where the depth becomes uncomfortable and gimmicky to watch.

Me, I don't really have an opinion on 3-D's long-term viability, although if it gets cheap enough to retrofit 3-D to older movies and there's money to be squeezed out of the deal, I imagine we'll see a lot of old titles popping off the screen at our defenseless eyeballs ...

Jay Stone at reviews a new French offering Fears of the Dark:

The animated compilation film Fear(s) of the Dark - Peur(s) du noir in the original title - includes black-and-white stories by six animators that are meant to frighten us, or perhaps just unsettle us or, in some cases, to impress us with the art of their drawing. I was neither frightened nor unsettled, but the artwork is great.

There are four mini-movies joined by two connecting stories that don't actually connect anything but set the mood, which is very dark and, in some way, very French ...

This is a tad old, but still useful. Animation Magazine questions Josh Weinstein about the upcoming Sit Down, Shut Up:

"The combination of the live-action backgrounds and animation was a look we didn't know for sure would work, but we wanted to take that risk—because if it works, it's such a totally new look. And, now having seen color animation back, I am really excited to see it does work, even better than I imagined. After a few seconds of watching it, it really appears to be one unique world you're looking at ..."


Sita sings the Blues proves that the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles features more than just the latest Bollywood imports. The film is an animated version of the Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic several thousand years old. The film oscillates between the modern couple in a troubled relationship and the ancient love story of Rama and Sita ...

One of the highlights of the film is the use of shadow puppets who give comments on the story of Rama and Sita which works on a number of levels. The shadow puppets explain backstory, provide snarky comments, and offer insight into story itself.

Any film that provides snarky candidates has more depth than most can imagine.

You're halfway through the week. Don't slack off now.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Declining L.A. Film Shoots

Now with Add On.

So far, overall animation production hasn't taken a major hit in total employment numbers here in the California southland. (Thank heavens for medium-sized favors).

But such is not the case for live-action filming:

Location filming for movies and TV commercials on the streets of Los Angeles, once as prevalent as the corner taco truck, is rapidly fading to black. Double whammies of the recession and out-of-state economic incentives for producers have caused on-location film shoots in the Los Angeles area to fall to their lowest levels on record.

Since the collapse of Southern California's aerospace industry a decade ago, the labor-intensive entertainment industry, in which hundreds of people are needed to make a single movie or TV commercial, has picked up the slack in the local economy. But as Hollywood and Madison Avenue respond to lower consumer spending by reining in production of movies and commercials, the pullbacks are having a dire effect on workers in the industry ...

The Times talks about the hard times Los Angeles found itself after aerospace cratered in the early nineties, but it's worse than that today.

The shipping business -- all those big freighters that steam into Long Beach and San Pedro to get off-loaded -- generates 400,000 jobs when all the stevedores, truckers, switch yard employees and warehouse personnel, supervisors and accountants are factored in. But with the shrinking world economy and collapsing trade, the import business isn't generating 400,000 jobs anymore. (There's a surprise).

So why should Los Angeles-based animation workers care? Because with higher unemployment, the overall quality of life declines. Added to which, we are attached to Pension and Health Plans that depend on money coming in from all segments of the movie industry in order to remain viable. To put it succinctly: if our trust funds eat it, then we all eat it.

The state governor, whatever you think of him, has long known California needed to be more competitive with film tax incentives, but it's taken a considerable while to get tax breaks and subsidies shoe-horned into the California tax code, largely because legislators in the Central Valley and Northern California didn't see the point. (A tax break for Godless Hollywood didn't help them, after all.)

As everything has trundled to hell in a hand-cart, however, more eyes have been opened:

... After refusing for years to get on the incentives bandwagon, California recently decided to jump onboard. A five-year, $500 million tax-break plan for California's entertainment industry, with an annual $100 million limit, was slipped into the state budget recently passed in Sacramento. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, long a proponent of helping Hollywood, signed the bill in late February ...

It's going to take some time for the new incentives to kick in, but since we are all in the movie industry together, we better hope that they make a difference.

Add On: There's this startling news: Variety relates how hiring in the entertainment biz has declined over the past year:

Overall, the entertainment job market is down 19,200 posts from a high of 141,400 in 2008, according to Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

But for animators, there is one small silver lining:

Vidgame companies are eliminating the use of live-action footage in spots and relying on animation from their games to push new titles.

So ... animation will keep getting done, even as live action gets cut. We don't rep games (yet?) but it's good that those animators aren't losing their jobs.

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Closer and closer ...

They're now painting the exterior and interior of our new building at 1105 N. Hollywood Way in Burbank. Above is the south lobby door.

A few days ago they removed the scaffolding ... and we now get to see the front stairway leading from the lobby to the second-floor auditorium.

And here's the view of the auditorium from the top of the stairs. In the center is the kitchen; to the left is the hallway to the restrooms and the A/V closet.

The board room will feature a skylight and a vaulted ceiling.

We're still anticipating a move sometime this summer.

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