The cartoons Lou Scheimer makes for kids follow a predictable pattern. When the half-hour is up, Good triumphs and everyone is happy.
Unfortunately for Scheimer, in real life endings aren’t quite as easy to write as in his cartoon scripts.
Twenty-five years ago next month, Scheimer started Filmation with a $5,000 loan from his mother-in-law, a one-room office and two employees. With such hits as “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” and “Shazam,” Scheimer built one of the nation’s top cartoon factories.
He also made himself rich. He sold Filmation in 1969 for stock to cable operator Teleprompter. In 1981, Westinghouse, an electronics and broadcasting giant, bought Teleprompter. At the time, Scheimer’s Teleprompter stock reportedly was worth more than $5 million. Scheimer has stayed on as Filmation’s president.
But Scheimer, 58, is hardly enjoying Filmation’s silver anniversary. Westinghouse (1986 sales of $10.7 billion) has told him to cut costs. So Scheimer has given his workers and their union six months notice that he must move some of the studio’s production work from its Woodland Hills headquarters to the Far East, thus alienating a veteran work force.
“This has been a very stressful few months,” he said.
With nearly 600 employees, Filmation is the largest cartoon factory in the United States, based on number of workers, and it is the last to do all of its television cartoon work domestically. The others, including Disney, have shipped much of their coloring and drawing work for television overseas, leaving only creative functions such as script writing and story development in the United States.
About 125 Filmation workers will lose their jobs once the work is shipped overseas, Scheimer said. Leaders of the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists Union are fighting the plan and insist their contract with Filmation prohibits the company from moving the work.
But Scheimer argues that he has no choice. Filmation, he said, will suffer only its second loss in 25 years this year, but won’t disclose details. Filmation is believed to have revenue of more than $20 million annually.
Part of the problem is a glut of cartoons that has fragmented the audience for children’s programming. Thirty-second ads on syndicated cartoon shows sell for less than $7,000 today, Scheimer said, compared to about $15,000 four years ago. The added competition puts a premium on cutting costs. In Japan, Korea or Taiwan, Scheimer said, a $350,000 half-hour cartoon segment can be produced for 40% less than in the United States. Some animators overseas earn less than $1 an hour, he said.
Adding to the dispute is that for years Scheimer campaigned against shipping animation work overseas, arguing that it put control of the product and costs in foreign hands.
“He believes in trying to support the U.S. animation industry,” said Andy Heyward, president of cartoon rival DIC Enterprises in Encino. “He’s held out longer than anybody, but in doing so he’s found it very difficult to compete.”
Scheimer is reluctant to discuss the pressure he’s under to cut costs from Westinghouse, noting only that, “you always know they are there.”
Friends, however, say the pressure is intense. “I know Lou is agonizing over it, but I know he’s in a bind. If it weren’t for the fact he has a parent company, I think Lou would resist it. But Westinghouse is in business to make money,” said Allen Ducovny, one of Scheimer’s best friends and a vice president for Filmation in New York.
Most of the Filmation workers likely to lose their jobs will be those in the “ink and paint” department, who hand color the cartoons and earn about $900 a week, and those who transfer drawings to clear, acetate strips.
These jobs would be lost eventually anyway, Scheimer said. Moving production work overseas is just an interim step. Next year he hopes to install a $7-million complex of minicomputers at Filmation in time to work on shows for the 1989 fall TV season. Then cartoons will be colored by computer.
Things were different in the 1950s, when Scheimer started in cartoons. An outgoing man who wears a gold monocle on a chain and has a booming voice, Scheimer grew up in Pittsburgh, graduated from Carnegie Institute of Technology with a degree in art and moved to Southern California where he worked as a cartoon designer until forming Filmation.
Shortly after starting the company, he took on former radio disk jockey Norman Prescott as a partner and scored a hit in the 1960s with an animated version of “Superman.”
He’s had some misses as well. In 1974, the company produced “Uncle Croc’s Block” starring comedian Charles Nelson Reilly dressed in a rubber crocodile suit that ran on the ABC network for a few weeks.
“It was the worst show I’ve ever put on the air,” said Squires Rushnell, an ABC vice president who buys children’s programs.
By contrast, Filmation’s “Fat Albert,” developed with comedian Bill Cosby based on ghetto kids featured in his popular night club routines, was a big hit in the 1970s.
Other television executives praise “Fat Albert,” but note that Filmation’s reputation over the long run is still as a studio that specializes in action adventures oriented to boys, such as “He-Man,” a muscular, sword-carrying superhero now in reruns.
“Lou has done a lot of things he can be proud of, but no one accuses him of being Walt Disney,” ABC’s Rushnell said.
This year, Filmation is producing 65 half-hours of “BraveStarr,” a cartoon about a space-age cowboy, and it has in the works about a half-dozen more shows. Scheimer insists that he still wants to keep as much work in the country as possible, but that he is more realistic now about the economics of making cartoons than in the past.
“The only thing that matters is how I feel about myself. If I can save 500 jobs by reducing 100, that’s a lot more reasonable than losing 600 jobs,” Scheimer said.