Nick out of toon

Union finds new studio no laughing matter

The cartoonists’ union has launched a campaign — part tongue-in-cheek, part deadly serious — against Nickelodeon’s new animation studio, claiming that many of its artists are underpaid and do not receive overtime pay or adequate benefits.

In a two-page ad in today’s Daily Variety, the Motion Picture Cartoonists Union Local 839 spoofs two earlier ads placed by the studio, which opened in March with much fanfare in a converted facility in Burbank.

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“Welcome to the Nickelodeon Animation Studio, home of the Nicktoons, and a cartoon factory that doesn’t believe in paying the wages and benefits that 2,500 union artists and technicians enjoy at toon studios like Disney, Warner Bros., DreamWorks, Universal, Fox Feature Animation L.A., Hyperion, Rich Entertainment and a host of others,” the ad says. “Nick loves to talk about its golf course and latte machines, but its hard-working artists deserve more from a world-class Hollywood studio.”

The reference to golf and cafe latte harkens to the Nickelodeon studio’s pride in “the world’s first artist-designed miniature golf course,” as expressed in its March 4 Variety ad, and “the best coffee bar on the West Coast,” a claim made in an ad on March 10, shortly after the studio opened. The earlier ad said that “as part of our $350 million commitment to the artistry of animation, we’re giving today’s brightest animators a home,” adding that “we’re spoiling them with everything they need to do their best work.”

Everything, the union says, except the right compensation.

Cartoonists underpaid

“Many of Nickelodeon’s cartoonists are underpaid, there’s no overtime and the health and welfare benefits can’t be carried over to other employers,” a statement released by the union says.

“We welcome Nickelodeon’s new studio in L.A., but they have to understand that Toon Town is a union town,” Local 839 president Tom Sito said in the statement. “We may be Screwy Wabbits, but we have to draw the line.”

The union’s business manager, Steve Hulett, said in an interview that both he and Sito had spoken with the animation studio and were told “that they did not deign to sign a contract.”

“They’re not hostile,” Hulett said. “They’re just saying, ‘We can’t do it.'”

Without going into the question of union membership, a spokeswoman for the studio, Marianne Romano, issued the following statement: “Nicktoons and its employees enjoy an excellent working relationship and we are excited to be working in this new creative environment that was built for, and inspired by, our artists.”

Above union standard

A studio source said salaries there are “extremely competitive and higher than the union standard.” The source said cartoonists receive a fully comprehensive benefits package, the same as other employees of Viacom, Nickelodeon’s parent company; the package goes into effect on the employee’s first day of work, without waiting for a qualifying period, as some union contracts stipulate.

In today’s ad, Viacom chairman and CEO Sumner Redstone is shown as a topiary figure teeing off from a prone cartoonist’s lower posterior. The artist’s mouth is taped shut. Nearby stands a smug majordomo carrying a large bag of cash. A sign on the studio’s gate says, “No unions.”