Thursday, August 20, 2009

Sony Pictures Animation

An interesting morning spent at Sony Pictures Animation, which is intermingled with Sony Pictures Imageworks in sun-drenched Culver City. The first thing that greeted me as I walked into SPA's elegant building were stand-up posters for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, out in a cineplex near you the middle of September. A couple of artists who worked on it said:

"It's really funny. We worked on it a long time, but it ended up being an entertaining, funny picture."

Which could sound self-serving (Movie crews are sometimes the best judges of how well the movie they've been part of works ... and sometimes not.) Sony has made some credible animated features; its problem, I think, has been timing. Open Season came later in the funny animal cycle, and Surf's Up arrived late in the penguin era.

How Cloudy fares at the box office is anyone's guess (I won't venture one.) Sony Picture Animation/ImageWorks has gone through hard times lately. SPA is on its third wave of execs, and SPI has recently bid adieu to long-time honchos Tim Sarnoff and Barry Weiss.

Happily, various projects are in development. Hotel Transylvania is moving forward again, and Open Season 3 is also in work (OS 2 -- a direct-to-video offering -- was animated in Texas; I'm told that the third installment will also be done in Texas.)

There is also the Smurfs live-action/animation project, and I'm delighted to say that the Blue Crew look a lot like the H-B Smurfs of yore, and won't be morphing into Gollumesque live-action characters. (They've got a little muscle tone, but hey. That's the price of c.g.i.)

But on a less happy note, one of the SPA artists whispered to me:

"The Sony Imageworks staffers are regretting they didn't vote for that union contract when they got the chance. A lot of them have come up to me and said what a big mistake they made ..."

For those of you just tuning in, Sony ImageWorks was voted on a union contract five years ago. The permanent employees, then blessed with profit-sharing, a lush 401(k), dandy health coverage, and they decided if they voted in favor of the union package (Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health benefits, wage minimums, overtime requirements) some of the benefits they liked would go away.

Well, they voted against the deal, and all the spiffy benefits departed anyway. Funny how that happens. (President Kevin Koch and I talked to a number of SPI employees about this unfortunate possibility at the time. I remember telling a couple of skeptical animators: "The company could take all this stuff back at any time. There's no guarantees." I don't think I swayed anybody. Then.)

Now, of course, some SPI survivors have their regrets. So do I. I wish the IATSE and TAG had run the organizing campaign better, I wish we'd answered questions better, I wish we'd countered some of the hostility from the permanent staff more gracefully. Wouldn't have changed the electoral result, I don't think, but the final tally wouldn't have been quite as lopsided.

Ah well. Life is a learning experience.


Steve Hulett said...

Fun fact about the picture up on top there: When we published it here on TAG blog a few years ago, I got a stern phone call form Sony saying I shouldn't be posting development art from the picture.

I told them I wasn't. I told them it was just a random image grab from the intertubes that visually fit the post.

They responded: "Oh."

Anonymous said...

So what would need to be done to have another vote?

I don't work for Imageworks anymore but many other facilities are gutting their benefits and staff positions. If we are looking at a situation where we bounce from place to place we need some way of retaining benefits.

Steve Hulett said...

So what would need to be done to have another vote?

Collect representation cards from staff, file a petition with the NLRB, have an election, fold everybody into the SPA contract.

I stand ready to pass out cards to anyone over there who wants one. I just have to be contacted.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what you are hearing about our SPI benefits, but they aren't being "gutted". My 401k, health, and other benefits aren't changing. We are only losing a few minor benefits.

And yes, I think Cloudy is pretty funny and a fun movie overall. It has a quirky sense of humor, thanks to the directors.

Anonymous said...

This is the second post I've read where you've indicated Imageworks is taking away significant artist benefits. I'm an employee and health insurance, 401k (with generous matching), and all the other important stuff is in fact unchanged for myself and all the other artists as far as I know. The only things that did change are things that the union never offered anyway (paid jury duty, slightly discounted child care, and some other stuff I can't remember right now because it doesn't effect me).

During the vote a few years ago, one of my biggest issue was that the union couldn't offer an accurate comparison of benefits between Imageworks' and the union. I'm reading more of the same here today.

Kevin Koch said...

Actually, TAG did put pass out a sheet with a comparison. I helped put it together. I heard from some friends that, internally, people were told the union benefits were inflated (they weren't), and people didn't want to believe the information they were getting. The union health plan was especially misrepresented.

Another problem was that different Imageworks employees had different benefits packages. Also, we got conflicting information on what kind of copays and deductibles those who had health benefits actually paid.

Regarding the retirement benefits comparisons, there was also the issue of apples to apples comparisons. At the time, stocks were great, and some people wanted to project endless stockmarket gains in the comparison to the more conservative long-term benefits of the IAP. People were also confused by the variety of union retirement plans. Trying to directly compare a package that includes an Individual Account Plan, a Defined Benefit Plan, and a 401(k) (the Union package) with a 401(k) with partial match (Imageworks) isn't straightforward, and a host of assumptions have to be factored in.

But we did print up a sheet with sample numbers and tried to get it out there. A lot of people just didn't want to bother with it.

Anonymous said...

"We are only losing a few minor benefits."

The profit sharing is a HUGE benefit. I don't know of anyone getting that now.

Anonymous said...

Sure, but I haven't been paying union dues either.

Sorry, I really have no interest in being in a union. If other people want to, fine, but the problem is that if a facility goes union, then I have to be in the union to work there. Not much freedom there.

Anonymous said...

To Anon above,

How much do you think the union dues are?

Anonymous said...

Not in Union: Can only work where there is no union.

In Union: You can work anywhere your heart pleases and always maintain good benefits.

I don't see a downside to being union.

Steve Hulett said...

if a facility goes union, then I have to be in the union to work there.


Federal law allows any employee at a union facility to refuse union membership.

They have only to pay those portions of dues and initiation fees that goes to administration and contract negotiation/enforcement. (That means, with TAG, 94.5% of dues and initiation fees.)

henchman said...

I tried to unionize audio post in Vancouver when I lived there. Nobody thought it was necessary then either.
I know a lot of folks now wish they had.
I left Vancouver for LA 6 years ago. Best decision I ever made.

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