The Animation Guild is gearing up for its contract negotiations next week, with animation writers looking to see a significant boost in pay as part of their new deal with studios.
Animation writers are organized under the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, and have long been paid much less than their live-action counterparts, who belong to the Writers Guild of America. They have begun campaigning on social media, using the hashtag #PayAnimationWriters, and are hoping to ride a wave of labor activism to make significant gains in talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
“We really deserve parity with the WGA,” said Mairghread Scott, who has written on the “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Transformers” animated series, and who chairs the union’s writers committee. “There’s no difference in quality and no difference in difficulty. We deserve to be paid commensurately with writers who do the same job.”
Animation writers make a minimum of $2,064 per week, while WGA weekly minimums range from $4,063 to $5,185. The disparity dates back to the dawn of labor organizing in Hollywood, when animation writing was largely performed by storyboard artists who were part of the Screen Cartoonists Guild. The WGA stuck to live action, and was able to win better terms for its membership. The WGA got into animation only when “The Simpsons” writers voted to organize in the late 1990s, and now represents writers on Fox’s adult-oriented animated shows.
The difference in pay scales is something that many people even in the industry don’t fully understand, said Colleen Evanson, who has written for years on “DuckTales.”
“It’s this weird dirty little secret,” she said, adding that she sometimes has to explain that she’s not as well off as people might think from her resume. “It feels like I’m going to rent an apartment my entire life, while my friends in live action are going to buy a house and retire early.”
The issue has been the source of turf battles in the past between the WGA and the Animation Guild, which is otherwise known as IATSE Local 839. Steve Hulett, who led the Animation Guild from 1989 to 2016, said he tried to win greater residuals for animation writers in 2000, but was unable to do so. He said that members would sometimes complain, and he would tell them there was little he could do.
“It’s all about leverage,” Hulett said. “There’s no ‘fair.’ There’s no ‘unfair.’ There’s no ‘right.’ There’s no ‘wrong.’ There’s what you have the ability to get.”
One of the problems is that animation writers make up less than 10% of the Animation Guild, so it’s hard to threaten studios that the entire guild will strike on behalf of writers.
Mike Scully, a longtime “Simpsons” writer, has recently argued on Twitter that all animation writers should be part of the WGA. But that’s a lot easier said than done.
“That’s not the way it works,” said Hulett, who heard that argument a lot during his tenure. “Everybody’s got their turf, and everybody has to defend their turf. Otherwise I would get canned from my job.”
The “Simpsons” writers were non-union when they used their tremendous leverage over Fox to win recognition under the WGA. But the animation writers on children’s programs are already represented by IATSE.
“One union cannot poach from another union,” said Bill Wolkoff, a writer on both live-action and animated shows who belongs to both unions. “The best way forward for animation writers is a stronger IATSE 839.”
Animation writers watched the recent battle over the IATSE Basic Agreement, which galvanized the membership and nearly led to an industrywide strike. Many say there is also heightened interest and energy around the Animation Guild talks, which are set to run from Nov. 29 to Dec. 2.
“I think there’s definitely a lot more energy than in previous cycles,” said animation writer Gloria Shen.
In part that’s due to the pandemic, which shut down live action production for several months, while animation work continued.
“We kept studios afloat with our labor,” said writer Madison Bateman. “And to see such a stark disparity between what we’re paid and what the WGA writers are paid — I think people are fired up and they want to see a change.”
Writers are also focused on studios’ tendency to give more and more scripts to freelancers, who make less than staff writers.
The other crafts within the bargaining unit also have their own proposals. Some are focused on ending a special discount for streaming shows. Color designers — who are largely female — are also seeking a pay increase, saying they should make the same rates as other designers.
“What’s going on with that craft is a gender pay inequity,” said Teri Cusumano, who chairs the union’s color designers committee. “So many members in animation have been working under abusive or poor terms and conditions.”