Union representation is murky, upfront payday is the norm

Another year has gone by with writers not seeing a penny of residuals from animated feature films, even some blockbuster toons.

The WGA West recently told members it had processed $136 million in residuals on feature films last year, without mentioning that virtually none of that went to animation writers. Animation writing, unlike most other areas of Hollywood scripting, is a hodgepodge of union coverage and non-coverage that leaves writers with little leverage.

The WGA shares jurisdiction on animation writing with the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which covers most feature work at terms that aren’t as sweet as the guild’s. And significant titles are produced without any union contract, such as Pixar’s “Up” and Blue Sky’s “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs.”

Those two titles will probably eventually sell 5 million to 10 million DVD units. If writing were covered by the WGA, the scribes would receive about a nickel per unit in homevideo residuals, so a hit film would deliver as much as $500,000.

Because of split jurisdiction, the WGA is forced to organize on a project-by-project basis. IATSE covers some features (Sony’s “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog”) but with a far different residuals structure, with IA residuals going directly into the health and retirement plan.

Union officials, who have battled each other over jurisdiction for years, admit there’s little hope of change.

“I doubt that there will be checks in the mail slot anytime soon,” admits Steve Hulett, business rep for IATSE Local 839, better known as the Animation Guild.

Tom Schulman, VP of the WGA West, recently told a gathering of about 60 toon writers at the guild’s Animation Writers Caucus that producers will resist signing a WGA deal when an IATSE deal is available. When members are offered film work, he urged them to insist it be under a WGA contract.

Schulman had even suggested during his VP campaign that the guild enforce Working Rule 8, which bars members from working for non-signatory producers. Under Rule 8, the WGA can fine the member for the entire amount of compensation, but it has not taken that step yet on animation writing.

Even if employers had agreed to the WGA’s strike demand for jurisdiction over animation, guild leaders would have had to work out a deal with the IATSE national leaders. That’s unlikely, given the dismal relations between the unions — with neither willing to comment for this story.

The situation is a bit brighter for WGA members in TV animation. More than a decade ago, the guild gained coverage of “The Simpsons” and it now covers a few other primetime shows, such as “Family Guy.”

“During the strike, there wasn’t a willingness to stay on strike over the issue of jurisdiction over animation, and there was no groundswell of protest when it was taken off the table,” admits writer Stan Berkowitz. He was recently honored by the Animation Writers Caucus with a lifetime achievement award for his work and efforts to organize.

Berkowitz, who also belongs to 839, says part of the blame for the lack of WGA progress should be assigned to the Animation Guild, since it’s perceived as a union that’s not willing to ask for residuals for its writers — particularly since it allows employers to subcontract nonunion work — and has no equivalent of the WGA’s Rule 8. “Local 839 exists because employers want it to exist,” he adds.

Berkowitz urges members to insist on WGA coverage when offered work, noting that he was able to do so when he signed a deal for the feature “Fang and Feather” with producer Gary Kurtz.

“We have to organize one show at a time,” he added. “It’s not hopeless and the WGA staff is very helpful. It’s actually less expensive for producers to sign a WGA deal since it only covers writers while an IATSE deal covers everyone.”

Currently, the Animation Writers Caucus has about 600 members while the Animation Guild counts 200 writers among its 2,900 members — which include artists and designers. The Animation Guild contract dates back to the 1950s with Disney. It covers all DreamWorks features, Disney Feature animation product and Sony Pictures Animation, while TV shows include product for Nicktoons, Warner Bros. Animation, Sony Adelaide, Warner Bros. Animation, Disney TV Animation, Disney TOONS, Cartoon Network, Sabella Dern Entertainment, Film Roman/Starz Media and Fox TV Animation.

For Fox TV Animation, the Animation Guild covers board artists and designers, but not writers at the Seth McFarlane shows. (“Family Guy” writers are covered by WGA for writing as are scribes at “The Simpsons”.)

Post-strike, the WGA and IATSE continue not to get along. They clashed again last year over which union covered “Sit Down and Shut Up.” Hulett says that’s the last time he had any discussions with the guild.

“I have told the WGA over the years that the IA is the body they need to talk to about jurisdictional issues,” he added. “I don’t have the authority to cede or change jurisdiction. The studio would also have to sign off on jurisdictional changes. The WGA is free to organize whatever nonunion animation work they can organize, as we are.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more