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Eyeing a little more green

In a land of such story-driven blockbusters as `Shrek' and `Nemo,' animation writers are on a quest to capture the same benefits bestowed upon their live-action peers.

August 20, 2006|Jay A. Fernandez | Special to The Times

CHEW on one of Hollywood's great open secrets as you try to solve this little word problem: Two screenwriters get jobs on different Mike Myers movies.

Writer One provides him with lines such as: "When you're an overweight child in a society that demands perfection, your sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair, will always be tragically skewed."

Writer Two pens such lines as: "Donkey, you have the right to remain silent. What you lack is the capacity."

In the first instance, Myers speaks his dialogue in the guise of an obese, cannibalistic Scottish henchman named Fat Bastard, and the movie, "Austin Powers in Goldmember," grosses $213 million theatrically, with a healthy life on video.

In the second, the comic actor wisecracks as an obese, cantankerous Scottish ogre named Shrek in "Shrek 2," which takes in $436 million, more than twice as much as "Goldmember," becoming the third-highest-grossing movie of all time. It goes on to sell more than 20 million DVDs in North America alone.

So who earned more money, Writer One or Writer Two?

And ... time. Put down your pen. Or mouse, as the case may be.

The answer: Writer One, who supplied Fat Bastard's telling observation.

Why? Because Fat Bastard, though certainly cartoonish, is not an animated character. Both of the writers were likely on equal footing when it came to salaries and bonuses based on box office grosses. But then the films entered a lucrative afterlife on TV, video and DVD -- and the "Goldmember" writer cleaned up.

Writers of live-action features get royalties when their work is repackaged and sold. But writers of animation don't. Their "ancillary profit participation," as it's known, is paid in multiples of zero.

It's an industry standard evolved over a decades-long debate between the writers and their employers, and in a practical sense, it means that the writers of "Goldmember" get paid a small percentage of every sale of a video or DVD, which can add up to tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, while the writers of "Shrek 2" receive nothing.

This disparity has its roots in the early days of animation, when storyboard artists and animators were the primary creative forces behind projects and screenwriters, if they were used at all, came in to add polish at the end.

Even though the rise of Pixar and DreamWorks Animation moved writers to the front of the process, as they are in live-action films, the financial divide remains. And it endures in a time when studios increasingly propel profits with billion-dollar, script-driven franchises such as "Toy Story," "Shrek" and "Finding Nemo."

Three of the top seven highest-grossing films this year are animated: "Cars" ($238 million), "Ice Age: The Meltdown" ($195 million) and "Over the Hedge" ($153 million) -- and they're all destined to take up residence in millions, if not tens of millions, of home collections. And underperforming releases such as "Monster House," "The Ant Bully" and "Barnyard" may generate more revenue on DVD sales than in theaters.

Not surprisingly, studio rosters are flush with animated projects. The fall promises "Open Season" (Sony), "Flushed Away" (DreamWorks) and "Happy Feet" (Warner Bros.), and next year's crop includes the likely blockbusters "Shrek the Third" (DreamWorks), "Surf's Up" (Sony), "Ratatouille" (Pixar) and "The Simpsons Movie" (Fox).

But even as the world of animation has made startling advances in technology and narrative and created astronomically successful multiplatform brands consumed by the whole family well beyond theatrical release, some of the best animation writers have abandoned the field, and other writers avoid taking animation assignments at all.

"We can't afford it anymore, as well as we get paid," says David N. Weiss, who with his writing partner, J. David Stem, helped pen scripts for "Shrek 2," "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius" and the two "Rugrats" features. "Our kids are going to go to college, we hope. It just makes more sense [to write live action]. It's hard enough to get the project made. If you're going to get it made you might as well collect all the benefits."

Weiss estimates that each of the four credited writers on "Shrek 2" would have collected royalties of around $125,000 in just the first week of the DVD's release in November 2004, when 11 million were sold. And once reruns of the movie started showing up on HBO and network television, and buyers snapped up an additional 10 million or so DVDs, he began to see a bigger picture of how much he was losing by not receiving residuals for subsequent airings of his work.

"I would bet that [it would have been] somewhere in the neighborhood of a couple million dollars apiece for the four writers over the life of that project," says Weiss, who is also vice president of the Writers Guild of America, West. "That's some nice money."

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