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Animation in Red Ink : Cartoon factory Filmation is under orders to cut costs, and a plan to shift some of its production overseas has alienated workers.

August 25, 1987|JAMES BATES | Times Staff Writer

The cartoons Lou Scheimer makes for kids follow a predictable pattern. When the half hour is up, good triumphs and everyone is happy.

Unfortunately for Scheimer, in real life, endings aren't as quite as easy to write as in his cartoon scripts.

Twenty-five years ago next month, Scheimer started Filmation with a $5,000 loan from his mother-in-law, a one-room office and two employees. With such hits as "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids," "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" and "Shazam," Scheimer built one of the nation's top cartoon factories.

He also made himself rich. He sold Filmation in 1969 for stock to cable operator Teleprompter. In 1981, Westinghouse, an electronics and broadcasting giant with sales last year of $10.7 billion, bought Teleprompter. At the time, Scheimer's Teleprompter stock reportedly was worth more than $5 million. He stayed on as Filmation's president.

But Scheimer, 58, is hardly enjoying Filmation's silver anniversary. Westinghouse has told him to cut costs. So Scheimer has given his workers and their union six months' notice that he must move some of the studio's production work from its Woodland Hills headquarters to the Far East, thus alienating a veteran work force.

"This has been a very stressful few months," he said.

With nearly 600 employees, Filmation is the largest cartoon factory in the United States, based on number of workers, and it is the last to do all of its television cartoon work domestically. The others, including Disney, have shipped much of their coloring and drawing work for television overseas, leaving only creative functions such as script writing and story development in the United States.

About 125 Filmation workers will lose their jobs once the work is shipped overseas, Scheimer said. Leaders of the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists Union, who are fighting the plan and insist their contract with Filmation prohibits the company from moving the work, contend 200 workers may lose their jobs.

Both sides agree that the workers are unlikely to find new jobs in animation because so little work is done here.

But Scheimer argues that he has no choice. Filmation, he said, will suffer only its second loss in 25 years this year, but he will not disclose details. Filmation is believed to have revenue of more than $20 million annually, and one executive said it expects to lose millions of dollars this year.

"There's no reason for Westinghouse to want to lose money on this thing," Scheimer said.

Westinghouse spokesman Charles Furlong said competition forced Westinghouse to move work overseas. "We think we have fought longer than anyone to preserve the domestic production of animation," he said.

Part of the problem is a glut of cartoons that has fragmented the children's audience. Thirty-second television ads for syndicated cartoon shows sell for less than $7,000 today, Scheimer said, compared to about $15,000 four years ago. The added competition puts a premium on cutting costs. In Japan, Korea or Taiwan, Scheimer said, a $350,000 half-hour cartoon segment can be produced for 40% less than in the United States. Some animators overseas earn less than $1 an hour, he said.

Adding to the dispute is Scheimer's years-long campaign against shipping animation work overseas, in which he argued that it placed control of the product and costs in foreign hands.

"He believes in trying to support the U.S. animation industry," said Andy Heyward, president of cartoon rival DIC Enterprises in Encino. "He's held out longer than anybody, but in doing so, he's found it very difficult to compete."

Scheimer is reluctant to discuss the pressure he is under from Westinghouse to cut costs, noting only that "you always know they are there."

Friends, however, say the pressure is intense. "I know Lou is agonizing over it, but I know he's in a bind. If it weren't for the fact he has a parent company, I think Lou would resist it. But Westinghouse is in business to make money," said Allen Ducovny, one of Scheimer's friends and a vice president for Filmation in New York.

But some Filmation workers accuse him of betraying his principles.

"Lou Scheimer is a company man now," said Manon Washburn, a 13-year Filmation employee who colors cartoons.

Most of the Filmation workers likely to lose their jobs will be those in the "ink and paint" department, who hand-color the cartoons and earn about $900 a week, and those who transfer drawings to clear acetate strips.

These jobs would be lost eventually anyway, Scheimer said. Moving production work overseas is just an interim step. Next year, he hopes to install a $7-million complex of minicomputers at Filmation in time to work on shows for the fall 1989 TV season. Then cartoons would be colored by computer.

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