Labor Woes No Laughing Matter for Cartoonists

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When the new Nickelodeon Animation Studio was unveiled by Viacom this year, it was touted as designed by animators, for animators. The company called attention to the funky interior design touches and a fanciful nine-hole miniature golf course featuring outsize renderings of characters from such Nickelodeon hits as "Rugrats" and "Ren and Stimpy."

A splashy party was thrown for executives, animators and the press at the studio--a converted warehouse/machine shop in an industrial section of Burbank--on March 4. Viacom chief Sumner Redstone made a brief appearance while young cartoon makers stood talking among themselves.

Meanwhile, more than 50 other animators were having their own get-together just outside Nickelodeon's gates. They were placard-carrying members of Local 839 of the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists, protesting Nickelodeon's nonunion status. Several weeks later, the union took out a two-page ad in Daily Variety skewering Nickelodeon. "Nick loves to talk about its golf course and latte machines," read the ad, "but its hard-working artists deserve more from a world-class Hollywood studio."

For decades, television animation has endured a series of booms and cutbacks, brought on in part by shifting work to cheaper labor forces abroad. Of late, animation has been on the upswing, driven by television demand as well as efforts by studios to compete with Walt Disney Co.

Overall membership in the cartoonists' union is near an all-time high: about 2,450 members, according to Steven Hulett, business representative for Local 839. Hulett estimates that about 70% of its members work in feature animation, and 30% work in television. Though many more hours of TV are produced than film, high-quality feature work is usually kept in the U.S., while the bulk of TV work goes overseas.

Hulett sees a tendency by TV animation producers to try to avoid the union because they don't want to pay overtime or union minimums, which rise quickly from a trainee rate of $723 a week.

So far, Nickelodeon is not a union shop, though Local 839 has been gathering signature cards for a union vote.

At Nick's party, one Nickelodeon animator expressed the frequently mixed emotions he and his colleagues have about the union. "I understand how they feel," he said with a shrug, referring to the demonstrators, "but I want to work, and I'm happy here."

Hulett admits that many animators are ambivalent about union membership. "A lot of younger artists don't want to join. They're just not joiners," Hulett said. "Artists are generally so glad to be paid for what they would do for free that they don't push too hard."

Although the cartoonists' union represents the animators at Disney, DreamWorks and other major studios, outfits such as Saban Entertainment and DIC are nonunion, and more and more TV animation work has been shipped overseas, where work is nonunion. At Nickelodeon, pre-production (scripting, storyboards, etc.) and backgrounds are done in the U.S., but most of the actual animation is done in lower-wage countries in Asia.

Some animators who started their careers 20 years ago can often find themselves without steady work, because their jobs have been exported. They frequently join young artists in jumping at nonunion work.

Nickelodeon's animators clearly find their new digs a step up from the cramped space above a North Hollywood X-ray clinic that many of them previously occupied (the rest were in a similarly dreary suite in Studio City). "It's always basically a warehouse that you work in," said Nick animator Rob Renzetti of the new offices, "but this is a choice warehouse."

Like a number of other Nickelodeon employees, Renzetti previously worked at Hanna-Barbera, which produced low-cost TV animation for years before being acquired by Ted Turner and eventually Time Warner. Nickelodeon touts the fact that its studio is the first independent animation studio to be built in L.A. since Hanna-Barbera in the '60s.

The construction of the studio followed Nickelodeon's announcement in 1996 that it would devote $350 million to new animation over the next five years. On the heels of turning the offbeat "Ren and Stimpy" and "Rugrats" into hits, Nickelodeon said it would focus on original shows, rather than ones based on existing characters such as comic book superheroes.

Although this presents an opportunity for creators with new ideas, Nickelodeon's animators give up ultimate control of their creations in exchange for Viacom footing the bill. While that is a fairly common arrangement, it has led to some acrimony, as when "Ren and Stimpy" creator John Kricfalusi was fired from his own show in 1992 (he later settled a copyright infringement suit against Nickelodeon for an undisclosed sum).

Though Nickelodeon animators aren't union members, they do get benefits, including health coverage and a pension plan. Hulett said, though, that those benefits aren't portable--and it's almost unheard of for an animator to remain at a studio long enough to enjoy company-sponsored retirement benefits.

A Nickelodeon representative says that the company offers such "soft" employee benefits as free lunches on Fridays, typically pizza, which draws many of the 300 employees to the lobby. The numerous bushy-haired, casually-attired young men give the gathering the look of a frat party, sans the beer.

The few small independent studios that remain are fighting just to survive. Six years ago, Kricfalusi's "Ren and Stimpy" was budgeted at nearly half a million dollars per episode by Nickelodeon. Since being removed from the show, Kricfalusi has been working on Web cartoons, short subjects and commercials while trying to launch another television show.

The problem is that nobody is offering even a proven talent such as Kricfalusi half a million dollars per episode, plus character ownership. The trend is toward long-term deals, such as the one between Saban Entertainment (which produces animated shows such as "X-Men") and News Corp.'s Fox, which provide a steady, cost-effective stream of programming from a single major supplier.

Kricfalusi now occupies a rabbit warren of offices above a chiropractic clinic and a medical business service in Glendale. He moved his company, Spumco, earlier this year, when El Nino rains began to leak through the ceiling of his longtime Hollywood office.

Kricfalusi says that if a new series he is trying to launch gets the go-ahead, he may well have to move the production out of Los Angeles.

"The giant corporations are eating up all the available TV time . . . and all the the talent in L.A.," said Kricfalusi. "We probably wouldn't be able to do [a new series] here successfully; we'd have to go someplace where people want to and are available to work [nonunion]."

Kricfalusi, like many smaller producers, feels he can't afford to pay union rates, which means he can't compete with deep-pocketed studios for union talent.

Cable channels that are looking for new programs often don't offer enough to cover the costs of producing an animated series, say those who have pitched to them.

An animator may get offered only $150,000 per episode and have to piece together more money from the sale of merchandise and foreign and home video rights.

There are no golf courses or free lunches at Spumco. Still, if Kricfalusi gets a new TV show off the ground, there will surely be eager young animators lining up to work with him--"soft" benefits or not.

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