Friday, April 25, 2014

Disney Animator Bonuses for "Frozen"?

Disney Frozen
"Frozen" (2013).
Will Disney animators get bonuses for "Frozen"? This is kind of a sensitive topic. It is not really for general fans of Disney who simply saw "Frozen," loved it, and now sing "Let It Go" in the shower.

Instead, this is for fans of animation itself, even practitioners of animation. You know who you are.

I'm going to try to get the facts right about this. If I mess anything up, my apologies, I am just going on what I can find out. No disrespect intended to any parties small or mouse-like, and if there is a political side to this, I'll state right up front that I'm not buying it. This is about animators in 2014, and that's it. Straight up. No taking sides here, this is as balanced a presentation as I can muster.

No matter who you may side with, this is intended to give a bit of peek under the hood at how the industry works. The issue is the nature of employment in the animation industry. Period.

Ok, now that we got past that, here we go.

There's a practice in the animation industry in which the studios hire animators as contract workers. The studios hire talented artists who are not employed elsewhere as "run of show" animators. These contract workers are hired to work on a specific project, and when the project ends, so does their employment. There is a start date and a pre-assigned end-date, and everybody knows what those dates are in advance.

So, sounds pretty standard, right? Just like, say, calling the local temp service and hiring a few more maintenance guys to stock the shelves one night at Wal-Mart.

Now, of course, there were many of these run-of-show animators hired specifically to work on "Frozen." Reports are that there were hundreds of these workers, but it could have been fewer. No matter the number, the studio would have had difficulty finishing "Frozen" at its high-quality standard and in time for its release date without them.

Parenthetically, let's note that it would be a thrill of lifetime for an animator to be privileged to say forevermore that they drew the paintings in the "Frozen" castle or the steps on the magic bridge that Elsa runs up during "Let It Go" or the ice on the pond where Olaf loses his nose, so it's not like simply working on the film wasn't a nice reward in and of itself. But this is business.

The run-of-show animators on "Frozen" were all gone from Disney by the time the film came out. That is as it was always intended - their contracts had ended, and their departures were pre-planned and, no doubt, accompanied by hearty handshakes and vows to work together again soon. Nice line on the old résumé and all that.

Later, the film came out and did its thing, whose success wasn't entirely unexpected (I can attest to the unusually high level of fan interest months before the actual release). Nobody could foresee the giant windfall in store for the studio.

"Frozen" blew out the lights at the theaters, grossing over a billion dollars (and counting), and that's even before the first blu-ray or soundtrack is figured in. There's no point giving an exact figure, it is an immense and endless source of cash.

Now, everyone knows that when money is involved, people get interested. That is only natural, and human nature. I defy you to claim that you would be different. No point being judgmental about it, that's life.

Here is where it gets controversial.

Some of these run-of-show animators (and perhaps others) noticed all that money, and then they heard a curious thing: the animators (and everyone else) who were still working at Disney were receiving nice special one-time bonuses, equivalent to ten-weeks' pay. One did not have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that the bonuses were from the "Frozen" windfall.

So, these now-unemployed animators (of course, some had moved on to other projects, some even at Disney, where they would have received the "Frozen" bonuses anyway while working on one of the other three films currently in production) started to wonder about the, you know, fairness of it all. Especially when the rumor surfaced that the bonuses were being paid to everyone still working at Disney, not just to the people who had worked on "Frozen." Share the wealth and all that.

What to do, what to do.... Why, call the Union Rep!

Animators are covered by The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada (IATSE), specifically, IATSE Animation Guild 839. You pretty much have to belong to the guild to work as an animator at a big shop like Disney.

According to Union Rep Steve Hulett, he was told by officials at the studio that the bonus “was because of 'Frozen' but not about 'Frozen.'”

So, no bonuses for you!

Well, sort of - some of the run-of-show animators were probably working while the "Wreck-It Ralph" (which made about half as much money in 2012 as "Frozen," still a huge hit) bonuses were handed out. As current employees of Disney, they would have received those bonuses despite never having worked on "Wreck-It Ralph."

So, many of the animators did get something extra. No matter how much work the animators had done on "Frozen," though, they received no bonus tied to that film if they were gone by the time the bonus was issued. Just how the system works.

But, the atmospherics were awful because of the magnitude of the "Frozen" windfall.

The issue ties in somewhat to thoughts I have shared elsewhere about the management/animator tensions always bubbling beneath the surface at major animation studios.

Let's be clear, this is not about legality, because rest assured everything was done completely legally. This is about what is right and what is wrong and what people feel. Without the studio, these folks would get nothing, period, so the studio is a huge asset to their lives. Conversely, without the workers, the studio would get nothing done and earn zero and owes the workers everything. So, this isn't about a big, bad corporation or greedy worker bees, but about people.

That's how it stands. Nobody was fired, and nobody was denied something to which they were legally or contractually entitled.

Does that make it right? Your call.

Disney Frozen
Disney Animators on strike, 1941.


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