Tom Sito, M.P.S.C. 839 President, Answers The Tough Questions
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HK: Why are studios resistant to becoming Union shops? A lot of them are already paying their artists top dollar, so what's the hang up?

TS: In the desire to keep unions away, studios have boosted salaries and created rinky-tinky health plans to the point where they seem indistinguishable from the union plans. What these studios hate and fear is artists having a real democratic voice in the running of their careers, not just some granted, "Let’s go for a beer with the boss," time. Companies are not democracies, unions are. One thing the IATSE signatories do is conduct audits of their books to make sure the workers aren’t getting cheated. And contrary to the perception most of these studios do have union contracts. The voice actors, musicians, editors, writers are all getting their union benefits. Only the poor dumb animator thinks he’s his own man.

HK: Tom, people say, "It's a weak Union." What do you say to that?

TS: I’ll say this union is only as strong as the effort animation artists will put into it. Do you think we have weekends off because of an act of Congress? No, before we unionized in 1941 every animator worked Saturdays for their weekly paycheck. Our union is the reason our Hollywood animation community has the highest standard of living in the Toon World. But it’s not a free ride. Don’t expect me to get you everything your heart desires while you sleep. Look at the so-called strong unions like the Directors Guild. They have spokesmen like Robert Wise, Martin Scorcese and Barry Levinson. When the NBA Players Association negotiated Michael Jordan, Scotty Pippin and Shaq were there. Charles Barkley said: "Just because I’m rich don’t mean I can’t support my union." If I had the biggest stars of animation beside me at the negotiating table think of all the good we could accomplish for us all.

HK: Our country is based on capitalism and we all support that as a good, workable system but it is difficult to compete sometimes when we know that governments in France, Canada and elsewhere support and draw production with programs, grants, tax breaks, etc. (There is also much more funding for independents elsewhere -- just look at the Oscar nominees.) Here, even our government sends work to the best bidder.

TS: I agree that it is difficult to compete with state subsidized film. This is true not just of foreign countries like Canada but other U.S. states like Texas, Illinois, New Mexico and New York that have film commissions that offer tax incentives. The State of California can pay out millions in subsidies to avocado growers but thinks Hollywood is doing fine with nothing.

I think studios in other countries should be aware that the reason large multinationals are wanting to deal with them is not because they won a Jury Prize at Varna or Annecy but because they want cheap quality. The more we all share information on budgets and salaries the less we can be used against each other. This way the Global Economy won’t become the Global Plantation. Go to the M.P.S.C. link and look up our wage and salary rates. Your boss is getting the big Hollywood bucks so if you are being paid less than that you are being cheated.

HK: Animation is now a global industry with more competitors coming to the market place every year. When television animation went overseas it spawned the entire industry hence more jobs. But then direct to videos went overseas, now more 3D work is going overseas, and, with Fox's recent announcement, the bastion of feature animation is moving overseas too. Do you worry about the entire industry, or significant portions of it previously reserved for the U.S. work pool, moving overseas? Is this a new reality that US animators are going to have to learn to accept?

TS: First, let’s be honest. Television animation going overseas spawned new jobs in Vietnam and China but it ruined the livelihoods of artists here in Los Angeles. We’re not all rich from Disney stock here. Many ink & painters who were single mothers lost their careers. No one does articles about them.

That said, I don’t think the entire industry will ever move overseas because in the end studios are uncomfortable having so little hands-on control of their investment. The stakes are too high and the chances of error too great. That’s why Fox moved Bluth from Dublin and Speilberg brought Amblin back from London. Plus, animators have always lived with the reality of a gypsy life. I have worked in New York, London, Toronto and almost Munich. To be an animator means at one time you will be working someplace other than your native town.

HK: Do you blame the companies? They have to make ends meet too…

TS: No, of course not. The best relationship to have between union and management is a non-confrontational mutually beneficial partnership. No company in L.A. has gone under just because they signed a deal with our union. The big studios have no beef with us and are very cooperative. DreamWorks signed up right away and when Ted Turner set up here he signed with no problem. Our experience is the studios that cry about membership the loudest may have the most to hide.

HK: Anything else you'd like to add?

TS: I was never a big union fanatic. I felt all the doubts and annoyance that many young artists who are reading this right now are feeling. But once in this job I saw the good that could be done when we all just stop our little hustles for a minute and try and speak with one voice. Our members asked for a 401k retirement plan that follows us from studio to studio -- we created it. They asked for same sex partners health benefits -- we got them. The digital animators and TDs hated the 80 hour work weeks -- we got them a 40 hour week.

When I became union president I was touched by the spirit of past union organizers like Chuck Jones, Maurice Noble, Bill Melendez, Bill Scott, Art Babbitt, Bill Hurtz, Sadie Bodin, John Hubley, Bill Littlejohn. They put their careers at risk not for more money or power, but to make a better life for all us artists. And those illustrious names prove that it doesn’t make you less of a creative force to care about the business end of animation.

I know one day I’ll leave this office and when I retire I want just that same sparkle in my eye that I saw in theirs. That twinkle says it was never just about money, it was that I made a difference, that I left Toon Town a better place than when I arrived.

Heather Kenyon is editor in chief of Animation World Magazine.

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