Sunday, October 03, 2010

"Freelance": it isn't a magic word

free * lance {'frE-"lan(t)s}, noun. 1: a. a mercenary soldier, especially of the Middle Ages. b. a person who acts independently without being affiliated with or authorized by an organization. 2: a person who pursues a profession without a long-term commitment to any one employer.

-- Webster's Dictionary

Animation freelancing in 2010 is a lot less romantic than the fantasy of board artists and sheet timers riding around in full battle armor on their war-horses, hiring themselves out to the lord of Castle Disney or the seigneur of Hold Nickelodeon.

Nor should anyone be fooled into thinking of the freelancer as some abstract ideal, the noble artisan who "acts independently" of the monolith of Big Animation. In this "buyer's market" for talent, it's less an issue of the artist having no "long-term commitment" to the employer, than it is the employer having no commitment whatsoever to the artist.

There's really nothing wrong with freelance work per se, and there's no reason why an energetic, well-connected artist can't make a living at it. But as with anything else in this business, you need to know the rules, and you need to be careful. We'd like to puncture some of the myths that surround freelancing.

Let's get our definitions straight: we refer to "freelancers" as those employees who work at home or away from the studio premises, typically (but not exclusively) at piece rates. Freelancers are not the same as independent contractors. Freelancers are employees, independent contractors are not.

  • MYTH #1: Freelancers have none of the protections of full-time employees, and they are not covered under the Guild contract.

Untrue: a freelancer is as much an employee as somebody who sits at a desk on the studio premises for forty hours a week. There is a simple test: is your employer taking taxes out of your paycheck? If the answer is yes, you're an employee. End of discussion.

  • MYTH #2: Freelancers don't get health or pension contributions for their work.

Again, not true. As long as you're an employee of a Guild shop working under the Guild's jurisdiction, the employer must make health and pension contributions, regardless of whether you work on the premises or at home.

For scripts and storyboards, pages 76 and 77 of the Guild contract booklet list the minimum per-piece contributions. For piece work in other categories, pay should be prorated so that the hourly rate and benefit contributions do not fall below the CBA minimums. Before you do any freelance work you should have a clear understanding of the basis on which you are to be paid, and the basis on which your benefit contributions are going to be calculated.

  • MYTH #3: The studio can get around the Guild contract by calling you an "independent contractor".

Independent contractors are not covered under the Guild contract since they are not employees of the company they are performing work for. If you're an independent contractor, no benefits, no contract protections ...

As an independent contractor, you will be responsible not only for health insurance, but also for taxes, Social Security, etc., and you will need to have a business license. In addition to sales and income taxes, you may owe business taxes and fees to the city in which you reside.

In order for you to be a bona fide independent contractor, you must be truly independent. State and Federal tax regulations define what kinds of work can legally be considered as independent contracting. Rule of thumb: the work must be of a nature that is independent of the direction and control of the company for which the work is being performed.

So, for example, it would be very difficult for an employer to claim that work such as animation, assistant animation, sheet timing, checking, or any form of clean-up, could be done by independent subcontractors, since the nature of the work is defined by the control and supervision exercised by the employer.

On the other hand, most writing and storyboard work could be subcontracted ... but not rewrites, revisions, story editing, cleanups, etc. Pre-production models and visdev could probably be independently subcontracted, but if the company starts to require any kind of revisions, then by definition the work is no longer "independent".

Bottom line: to survive in the dangerous world of freelancing, you need to have your lance sharpened and your faithful steed well-shod ... and you need to contact your Guild whenever the lord of the manor is shortchanging you ...

Reprinted and revised from my TAG Blog post, March 26, 2007.


Anonymous said...

I've been HAD.....

Cj Berg said...

"and you will need to have a business license." - I do not believe this to be true.

I think is great you are discussing this subject though.

Anonymous said...

'and you will need to have a business license." - I do not believe this to be true.'

It depends on where you live...Glendale, and Burbank, both are their own cities, and have their own rules. Los Angles, which is an all-encompassing overbuilt mess, requires one if you are working out of your house. However, the present day tax on your earnings kicks in at $100,000 at this time, and I'm sure that M*xican Chimp of a Mayor will fix that.

Anonymous said...

I think writers do not require a business license, regardless of income, if they work out of their house. If one is required, it has and will invite a whole lot of First Amendment issues.

pappy d said...

"...and you will need to have a business license."

This isn't true in Glendale. You do need a permit, though & no employees who don't live there or customers visiting the home. They're serious, too. It's $100/day if they find out.

Anonymous said...

What about freelance animators who don't have a guild to protect them on the east coast ? What do they do?

Anonymous said...

"Los Angles, which is an all-encompassing overbuilt mess,..."

what isn't a mess in California? I guess the woods up north maybe?

Ed B. said...

Myth #2. If you live outside "Los Angeles County" you will not get health or pension contributions for your freelance work at either Nick or Disney.

Anonymous said...

I've freelanced for years at almost every Guild studio imaginable - and I live outside LA county.
The ONLY studio that made an issue of it was Nick. No other studio paid any attention to where I lived.

Anonymous said...

overheard: Oh, that artist lives in Orange County. It's like he's not a guild member at all. we use him ALL the time!!

Anonymous said...

Nice blog!! i also know a very good site for Freelance

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