Rick DeMott looks into the reasons why the Screen Cartoonists Union of Los Angeles decided to picket in front of PBS affiliate, KCET.
The skies were blue. The temperature was warm, but not too hot. A perfect day for a protest. Nearly 250 members of the Screen Cartoonists' Union Local M.P.S.C. 893 showed up in front of PBS for a picket. One may say, what do Los Angeles artists have to complain about when Hollywood boasts seven animated features and ten primetime series slated to go in front of audiences in 2000? Well, the union says in the last 18 months the employment rate of its employees has dropped nearly 40 percent. But why picket in front of Sesame Streets home? In January, PBS announced that they were sending their entire Saturday animation schedule to Toronto-based Nelvana Limited for a reported deal worth US$40 million. Considering PBS is publicly funded by tax dollars and contributions, the 3,000 member union felt it was time to take a stand -- right in front of the PBS affiliate KCET.
The turn-out was terrific. It's better than we ever imagined. It shows the depth of emotion in Hollywood toward this issue," enthuses Tom Sito, president of the Screen Cartoonists' Union Local 893. With bright, cartoon-faced signs in hand, the crowd received many honks of support from passing cars. The issue of production companies sending work to Canada is a touchy subject in L.A. The Cartoonists received attendees from the Screen Actors Guild, Directors Guild of America, the American Federation of TV and Radio Artists and the Film and TV Action Committee. One person calling himself "Shawn" explains he had been out of work for a year and that, "[Local 893] is in support of [the other unions], so its nice to see them out here in support of us." The people with picket signs were working and non-working artists and even some non-union animators showed up to support the cause. Work leaving the U.S. was a hot topic on the sidewalks in front of the KCET building. Rudy Cataldi, a director on The Smurfs, says, "Ive been in the business for 57-years. Ive seen it go up and down, but it looks like its pretty rough now. A lot of people are losing their homes." With the current employment numbers of the union members now at 1,700, the Local 839 is experiencing an unemployment rate of nearly 57 percent.
So Blame Canada!
However, some may wonder if this is another case of Hollywood blaming Canada for its problems. Lately, America seems to be using their neighbors to the north as a convenient whipping post. Heck, the Academy Awards most elaborate number for best song was "Blame Canada" from South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.
One may think by the sound of it that just across the U.S. border is a magical toonland like in Roger Rabbit. However, the Canadian market is also experiencing its own cutbacks. Disney, who moved most of its direct-to-video production to Canada, has moved out of its studios in Vancouver and Toronto. DreamWorks sent its work on the direct-to-video, Joseph, to Bardel Animation, however the Vancouver-based animation house has downsized since finishing up on the project.One of the biggest animation companies in the world, Nelvana Limited, is sending some of their work to China and the Pacific Rim.
Is this just another case of American ethnocentrism? One could say animation jobs are leaving Canada too. American artists get paid more, so what are they crying about?
So Whats It All About?
When asked about Disney leaving Vancouver, Sito says, "Its very sad. Its sad for the folks there that its creating unemployment." [Editors Note: However, we have heard that the market in Vancouver is still strong despite of Disneys retreat.] The union chief went on to say, "Its not a nativist issue. Some of the rhetoric you hear is American jobs for American people. Its not really that."
So what really is the issue? Many of the studios that are sending work outside of Hollywood are based in Southern California. The wages for artists in Los Angeles are the highest in the world. Talents from all over the globe migrate to the area to work in the highest concentration of film companies on the planet. Sito explains that on the projects he has been working on, most recently Osmosis Jones for Warner Bros., there are many international artists bringing their talent to the production. In fact, several of the animators come from Canada. The issue comes down to keeping jobs in Hollywood for the people whom live and have families here. From the worlds best to the fresh out of school, artists come to Los Angeles to find work in the industry. Whether they come from Paris, France or Emmaus, Pennsylvania, they are all competing for jobs in California, where the major production companies are located. "As much as it is an issue of work going to Canada, its an issue of work going to Texas or Ohio or New York.
Sito even admits that the multinational businesses ever growing standard of sending work outside the U.S. is just a sign of the times. However sad, he says it is inevitable. In the glory of being the highest paid workers in the world, Hollywood animators cannot compete with the low wage rates of overseas competitors. Nonetheless, Sito states that all Local 893 wants is "to compete on a fair basis."
According to union representatives, several of the Los Angeles-based animation houses were not even asked or allowed to place bids on the work that PBS sent to Canada. How can a distributor know what the best deal will be if they dont even include U.S. studios in the early stages of project bidding? American businesses sending work overseas is an issue that makes people upset, but when a U.S. publicly funded broadcasting station sends tax money to Canada that makes people angry. PBS has been quoted in the news as saying that no tax dollars are going to Canada. But where is the money coming from? Subscriber donations? Therefore, the money is still coming from people living in the United States. Moreover, many of the people participating in the demonstration are donators to PBS. When their money is being used to send jobs away from Hollywood, they feel betrayed. This situation is what led to the picket in front of Los Angeles PBS affiliate KCET. At the time of this article, PBS was not available for comment on the subject.
The issue isnt about whining artists taking their problems out on Canada. The topic lies in the simple fact that the Cartoonists Union Local 893 wants to keep jobs in their community. Just like autoworkers in Michigan and steelworkers in Pennsylvania, animators wanted to keep cartoons in Hollywood.
A scrapbook from the picket.
Rick DeMott is the Associate Editor of Animation World Magazine. Previously, he served as Media Coordinator for Hollywood-based Acme Filmworks. He holds a BA in Film/Video from Penn State University with a Minor in Comparative Literature.