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Those were the Days - Weren't they?

Was the industry really that much better in the 70's and 80's - We explore the Then and Now.

Those WERE the good old days… Or were they?

I was having lunch recently with some old friends and the conversation turned, as it often does, to a gripe session about the state of the industry.  Nothing seemed to any good any more and as I worked on my # 6-combination plate I listened with a full mouth but an open ear as one after another of my companions lamented the present day industry landscape.  To listen to these guys we were all but done, our chances were about as good as Joan Rivers swearing off plastic surgery.

Now I must stop here and admit that there was no one under forty-five at the table and the one guy under fifty had always been a pain in the ass and a natural born pessimist.  But age and temperament notwithstanding, here were a number of people that all had accomplished a great deal and had achieved real success both creatively as well as financially.  These were smart guys that had run companies, made a lot of good films and were all well respected.  So maybe they were right but if not, why had they all turned into such gloom and doomsteers?

So as I sat there and debated if I would have room to order some flan for dessert, I began to wonder (When it comes to food I can do two things at once!) if people in other industries also grew negative as they aged.  I mean, do car salesmen yearn for the old days when the Big Three were kings and the Japanese only made motorcycles?  What about barbers?  The lady that cuts my hair recently lamented the ruination of her business to me as she clipped away.  She told me companies like Supercuts had all but destroyed the salon/beauty parlor business for hair stylists.  According to her, in a salon she used to get forty or fifty bucks for a hair cut but along came the franchised clip joints that like Walmart cut prices and went for volume.  Do carpenters feel the same?  You know, do they grumble about back in the day when a 2x4 was actually 2 inches by 4 inches…?

With all these questions buzzing around in my head I nearly lost my appetite.  Was my beloved industry circling the bowl as I just sat around and nibbled at the chips and salsa?  I decided then and there to take an analytical approach and see what truths might emerge.

My intention was to first take a good look back at the Good Old Days, as they seemed to be the foundation of the discontent voiced by most complainers (Me included) to show that the present sucked.  We all seem to recal the old days as  simpler and better times.   So what did we all think was so good about the 70’s through the 80’s? 

To start I made a rough list.  This is by no means comprehensive, but here are some of the good and bad things that come up in conversation:

  • There were only 3 networks and they were in the broadcast biz – not the own everything biz.  Vertical Integration was not yet a part of our language.
  • You knew when you were going to get hired and when you would be laid off. The work was seasonal but you could rely upon a job year after year.  And due to the Networks late pickups there was a good deal of overtime.
  • If you were a Producer (read H&B, Filmation or DePatie Freeling) you were in clover.  You were paid a license fee by the network which allowed you to produce the series/special on their dime and if you were smart you could make $ from that fee.  You also retained ownership of YOUR property that you could then license (distribute) internationally and later could sell or license domestically for syndication.  You also retained all licensing for products and music and everything else.  You could build a huge LIBRARY of shows that you controlled.  This was Heaven, clear and simple.
  • You could as an artist, have access to the people that ran the studios and made the decisions.  You could go see Bill Hanna, Joe Barbera, Lou Scheimer, David DePatie or Joe Ruby and at least show them something you had created.  They probably wouldn’t take it to the networks but you didn’t have to go through twelve people to get a yes or no.   
  • There was a thriving commercial business that was vibrant and always busy and needing help.  Animators, layout artists, inkers and painters could always find some part time work if need be – small studios dotted Los Angeles, Hollywood and the Valley. 
  • Almost all the studios were union and you could pick up union hours working freelance.
  • The people that owned and ran the major studios as well as the commercial houses were all artists or in the case of Ruby-Spears, writers.  They understood the business side but they loved making films and working with other people that felt the same. 
  • The business and the people in it were all like one family, even when they competed with one another for work.  It was indeed a great time to be in animation.

All right, I could go on but you get the picture.  Now let me try the counterpoint:

There were only 3 studios for television and Disney to look to for regular employment.  Although there were a number of commercial houses, they maintained very small year round staffs and brought people on for short-term work-for hire projects.

  • Work was clearly seasonal unless you were part of the small year round staff.  It wasn’t unusually to be laid off 4 to 5 months depending on the Network which normally held their options open in placing their new season order open to the last possible second.
  • The union part was nice but many people did not get enough hours due to long lay-offs to get their medical insurance.  Also, the union was anemic due to the lack of support from IATSE, which treated the animation local like a poor stepchild.  There was also a deep rift between the artists and the support side (Ink and Paint, Xerox, et al.) that seemed to always tie the unions hands in any voting measures.
  • Work had started being sent offshore as early as the mid-seventies.  Series animators and supporting staff started to lose industry jobs.
  • After Disney there was no other feature film producer or studio that was in that business.  There was no DVD market to speak of.    Now we have at least a dozen companies with CGI studios and more animation films in production then ever before in history of the industry.  We have companies like Matel producing a number of their own direct to market DVDs and maintaining in-house staff.
  • There was no game industry that now may equal or surpass the employment requirements of the film and television arms of the industry.
  • There were no Visual Effects animation studios.  That work was done by optical effects houses and not by animators.
  • Most of the old commercial houses have closed or converted to CGI but this arguably provides more jobs now, as there are more venues for CGI to be used.
  • We now have more television shows being made than ever before, thanks (or not) to the advent and proliferation of cable networks. 
  • THE INTERNET!  Where was this wonderful thing back in 1990 when I needed it?  Today anyone with a slight drizzle of talent and a computer can make their own film and get it into a place where people other than their family can see it and if they like it, can tell other people to watch it, and on and on.
  • So maybe your can’t take you great concept for a new TV series directly to Sumner Redstone.  But even if you could get a network to produce it you’d need to give most of it away.  But what makes you think it was so different in 1980?  In the good old days the networks would really only buy from one of the 3 major studios and if they loved something and you controlled the rights they would send you to one of those studios to produce it…. And in order for that to happen you would have to give them distribution and as we all know, distribution rules!  At the end of the day your chance of developing and keeping control your own property with a network was no better then, than it is now (unless you were one of a very small group of studio heads and I’m guessing you’re not).
  • Today artists do not run most studios, but you can’t win them all.
  • Fun.  Well we did have a lot of fun but there’s no reason to think that we don’t still have fun today.  Maybe the three-martini lunch is a thing of the past but I’m starting to enjoy ice teas, really I am.  

So looking at my two lists I’ve come to think that the more things change the more they stay the same, in a different way of course.  We get used to things and then they change and we are displeased.  I’ve done it and probably even you’ve done it, complained because they no longer check your tires when you buy gas or that the guy in the hardware store doesn’t know his elbow from his pipe wrench.  True maybe but we’re looking at the wrong side of the coin.  We all need to focus on the opportunities ahead of us and enjoy the Good Old Times for what they were – Old times.  There is more work now then ever before and there are more opportunities now for artists and developers and writers and producers than ever before.  If we’re feeling left out it’s because were not willing to rethink what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.  It’s time to stop looking back and look ahead, there are a lot of good things happening and you wouldn’t want to miss them because you were too busy complaining…