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Cartoon Writers Union Targets Firm in Burbank

October 11, 1988|JAMES BATES | Times Staff Writer

It sounds like someone's idea of a sequel to this year's Hollywood writers strike. Frustrated with what they believe are inadequate payments, lack of benefits at some studios and insufficient rules governing credits, writers of television cartoon shows have formed a new union.

The fledging group, the Animation Writers of America, claims more than 110 members, roughly half the number of active cartoon writers in Hollywood. As its first goal, the 3-month-old union is trying to organize writers at DIC Enterprises in Burbank, a non-union, 6-year-old company that has emerged as the industry's busiest cartoon factory with such shows as "The Real Ghostbusters" and "ALF."

It won't be easy. DIC (rhymes with squeak) has successfully fought two other organizing efforts in the past four years and opposes this drive as well. DIC lawyer Greg Payne argues that its writers, nearly all of whom are free-lancers, are independent contractors who should not bargain collectively.

But the union has given the National Labor Relations Board cards signed by 60 writers requesting an election so writers can vote on whether the group should represent them. NLRB officials are considering the union's request to schedule an election.

Cartoon writers can make anywhere from a few thousand dollars a year to well over $100,000 for an elite few. A script for a half-hour cartoon episode--usually 22 minutes after allowing for 8 minutes of commercials--runs about 40 to 60 pages, for which studios typically pay from $3,000 to $6,000.

By contrast, members of the Writers Guild of America, who write a half-hour network television show get paid a minimum of $12,176, plus residuals when the shows are rebroadcast.

Industry Stepchildren

The cartoon writers' move to form a new union stems from two major frustrations. Unlike live-action television writers, who are guild members, cartoon writers do not enjoy such benefits as tough rules on credits, strict guidelines on payments for writing scripts on speculation and, most of all, residual payments when cartoons are rebroadcast.

"We are the Cinderellas of the industry. We are the stepchildren," said Sheryl M. Scarborough, the union's president who recently worked as a story editor on Marvel's Dino-Riders cartoon show.

The second major frustration they describe is with the venerable Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists Union Local 839 in North Hollywood, which represents a broad group of animation workers at the major union animation houses such as Walt Disney and Hanna-Barbara.

The 1,000-member local has lost more than half of its membership as animation studios cut costs by shifting labor-intensive production work to studios in the Far East.

Cartoon writers argue that the Cartoonists Union Local 839, besides being weak, has primarily represented production workers in the past, paying little attention to writers' needs.

Expects Same Problems

Studio executives and other union officials give the new cartoon union little chance of succeeding if the industry's financial woes continue. Studios face a cartoon glut, competition from cable channels and lower spending by cartoon sponsors such as toy companies.

Harry (Bud) Hester, business agent for the Cartoonists Union Local 839, acknowledges his union is weak, but adds that the cartoon writers would have the same problems he has bargaining with the studios.

"I think they are in a little bit of a dream world because they feel if they can get a contract, they'll get a Writers Guild contract," he said.

But for all the AWA's enthusiasm, union leaders are reluctant to talk about what some members say is the rank and file's ultimate goal, having the Writers Guild represent them. Cartoon writers believe the guild has much more clout and has shown interest in the past in representing cartoon writers.

The AWA selected DIC as its first organizing target because it is the only major animation studio that is non-union, it is highly visible and is the busiest. The studio is led by former Hanna-Barbara writer Andy Heyward, who since late 1986 has been burdened by some $70 million in debt taken on when he led a buyout of the studio with Prudential Insurance and Bear, Stearns & Co.

Local 839 has failed in the past to organize workers at DIC, both in 1984 and last month.

Writers complain that DIC does not offer its free-lance writers such things as health insurance benefits and has historically paid at the low end of what studios pay. And some cartoon writers disparagingly say DIC stands for "Do It Cheap."

Payne, DIC's lawyer, argues that because the company considers writers independent contractors, it doesn't believe that they are entitled to the same benefits that full-time employees receive. And he denied that DIC is stingy in paying writers, contending that it is competitive with what other studios pay.

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