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Company Town

Labor Woes No Laughing Matter for Cartoonists

Entertainment: Animators remain ambivalent about unionization as more and more work is shipped overseas.

June 17, 1998|MARLA MATZER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Though Nickelodeon animators aren't union members, they do get benefits, including health coverage and a pension plan. Hulett said, though, that those benefits aren't portable--and it's almost unheard of for an animator to remain at a studio long enough to enjoy company-sponsored retirement benefits.

A Nickelodeon representative says that the company offers such "soft" employee benefits as free lunches on Fridays, typically pizza, which draws many of the 300 employees to the lobby. The numerous bushy-haired, casually-attired young men give the gathering the look of a frat party, sans the beer.

The few small independent studios that remain are fighting just to survive. Six years ago, Kricfalusi's "Ren and Stimpy" was budgeted at nearly half a million dollars per episode by Nickelodeon. Since being removed from the show, Kricfalusi has been working on Web cartoons, short subjects and commercials while trying to launch another television show.

The problem is that nobody is offering even a proven talent such as Kricfalusi half a million dollars per episode, plus character ownership. The trend is toward long-term deals, such as the one between Saban Entertainment (which produces animated shows such as "X-Men") and News Corp.'s Fox, which provide a steady, cost-effective stream of programming from a single major supplier.

Kricfalusi now occupies a rabbit warren of offices above a chiropractic clinic and a medical business service in Glendale. He moved his company, Spumco, earlier this year, when El Nino rains began to leak through the ceiling of his longtime Hollywood office.

Kricfalusi says that if a new series he is trying to launch gets the go-ahead, he may well have to move the production out of Los Angeles.

"The giant corporations are eating up all the available TV time . . . and all the the talent in L.A.," said Kricfalusi. "We probably wouldn't be able to do [a new series] here successfully; we'd have to go someplace where people want to and are available to work [nonunion]."

Kricfalusi, like many smaller producers, feels he can't afford to pay union rates, which means he can't compete with deep-pocketed studios for union talent.

Cable channels that are looking for new programs often don't offer enough to cover the costs of producing an animated series, say those who have pitched to them.

An animator may get offered only $150,000 per episode and have to piece together more money from the sale of merchandise and foreign and home video rights.

There are no golf courses or free lunches at Spumco. Still, if Kricfalusi gets a new TV show off the ground, there will surely be eager young animators lining up to work with him--"soft" benefits or not.

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