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Animators' Days of Drawing Big Salaries Are Ending

June 24, 1999|CLAUDIA ELLER and JAMES BATES | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Disney employs about 2,000 animators worldwide and has a lucrative venture with high-tech animator Pixar Inc., which has yielded such films as "Toy Story" and "A Bug's Life." By comparison, DreamWorks' animation division numbers more than 300. Fox has less than 300 animation artists, not all on staff.

But competitors soon found out they couldn't all be Disney. And Disney itself couldn't match the success of its own "The Lion King," which made about $1 billion in profit. Although still profitable, Disney films such as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Hercules" failed to come close.

"One of the things the animation renaissance proved is high-quality, high-production animation done domestically can turn over billions in profits," said Tom Sito, a Warner Bros. animation executive who heads the screen cartoonists union in Hollywood. "But it's also very volatile, and the disappointments can run very deep. It's a high-stakes game."

Warner Bros. began scaling back last year following the expensive flop "Quest for Camelot," which lost about $40 million. Today it is developing lower-budget animated films such as the $50-million "Iron Giant," a far less ambitious production about a boy in the 1950s who befriends a robot from space.

"We decided we were not going to compete with Disney," Warner Bros. co-Chairman Robert Daly said. "We decided to stick with edgy comedies and more adventure-type movies as opposed to breaking-out-in-song musicals."

Fox, which made the modestly profitable animated musical "Anastasia" at a lower-cost operation in Phoenix, also is rethinking its approach. Mechanic said the studio's next animated film, the outer space adventure "Titan A.E.," will cost more than the $60-million "Anastasia," but he's aiming to get budgets "back down under $60 million by being more efficient and trimming labor costs."

"We don't ever want to spend $100 million--we don't think the returns are there," said Mechanic, admitting that "Anastasia" wasn't nearly as profitable "as we wanted."

Daly said that while "Space Jam," a live-action, animated comedy marrying basketball star Michael Jordan with Warner's classic Looney Tunes characters, turned out to be "hugely profitable for us. . . . The downside was we ended up with huge overhead."

He said Warner made the mistake of carrying a staff of about 400 animators while waiting to figure out its next project. Daly readily admits that the decision to go forward with "Quest for Camelot" when "the producer was wrong and the script wasn't ready" was made in haste.

Warner has now scrapped its original plans for a full-fledged animation studio and instead is hiring animators on a project basis.

Nickelodeon has had success by deliberately charting a non-Disney course. Last year's "The Rugrats Movie"--made by the film division of cable channel Nickelodeon and released by its sister company, Paramount Pictures--is generating big profits. Based on the hit Nickelodeon show, the film cost only $25 million--in part because animation work was done in South Korea--and reaped more than $100 million domestically.

Albie Hecht, president of film and TV entertainment for Nickelodeon, said the company will stress modern stories--"instead of classic tales, historical dramas or fairy tales"--with soundtracks featuring rock, pop or hip-hop music.

Paramount also successfully released a "Beavis and Butthead" movie and has an upcoming R-rated "South Park" animated film based on the raunchy Comedy Central show.

Television animation remains relatively strong, although it is usually done more cheaply and often in foreign countries where costs are lower.

Animators May Lose Security of Contracts

Warner's retrenchment was a major step toward putting the leverage to negotiate lower salaries and alter compensation squarely back in the hands of the Hollywood studios. Animators who once were assured of working for years at a studio under a secure contract now might drift from project to project in much the same way crews on live-action films work.

"The place we're going to bring down wages is at the entry level," said Disney's Moore. "And that will also put pressure on the less-than-A-level animators to cut their fees or risk getting laid off."

The shakeout is being felt even at the student level.

"Everyone wanted to be an animator when the studios were ramping up," said Steven Lavine, president of CalArts in Valencia, where many top animators were trained. "Junior colleges got into it trying to train people in one to two years. People coming out of those programs are having a hard time now."

Bob Bryan, a veteran animator who was hired five months ago to work on DreamWorks' "El Dorado" and began his career at Disney 10 years ago with "The Little Mermaid," took a pay cut to come to DreamWorks after being laid off at Disney in January.

"I was at Disney for 10 years, and when a couple of the movies weren't grossing the big bucks, they were looking to trim their budget . . . so in my case and in the case of a lot of people whose contracts were due, we got caught in the layoffs at the first of the year and they didn't renew us."

Dan Boulos, an animator at DreamWorks who over the last decade has also worked at Disney and Warner Bros., said that while he hasn't had to take a pay cut "as of yet," he wouldn't be surprised to see the average animator's salary of $75,000 to $80,000 a year "drop down closer to union scale of about $60,000 to $70,000."

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