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Walt Disney Animation Studios is the king of the animated film world, and has been for quite a while. From the classic era of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Bambi, to the modern renaissance of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and more recently, Tangled, they have been the leaders in animated entertainment for the better part of the last century. The biggest kid on the block also tends to have the most detractors though, and in the case of Steve Hulett – the business representative of the Local 839 Animation Guild – that detraction is a claim of "morally bankrupt" behavior involving the distribution of monetary bonuses.
The behavior in question, as reported by The Hollywood Reporter, is that of a bonus amounting to ten week's salary given to the entire the animation division this past week. This was unfortunate for those who were laid off from Disney Animation after completing work on the studio's super-hit Frozen, as they were not entitled to the bonus given their lack of employment. On a surface level, it seems like an easy decision: the laid off animators should be paid, as they worked on the movie Disney's been printing money off of since last November. However, the actual nuts and bolts of the situation dictate certain conditions be met before a reward is to be had. Just like any story, this one has two angles to read it from.
One way to look at it is that Disney has a history of giving these bonuses after a huge hit. In an effort to contextualize the current round of bonuses, Hulett filled THR in on some history from the modern era's business practices, stating that:
"...a lot of people were getting [big] bonuses at Disney [following the success of animated films such as Aladdin and The Lion King]. At that time, nobody was getting laid off. But now the production model is they ramp up to get the pictures out."
So Disney's biggest hits result in the animation department being given bonuses. This sets precedent in favor of the animators, as they DID provide Disney with the biggest animated hit ever in Frozen. Furthermore, the article claims that after Tangled was released, a bonus of three weeks' salary was dispensed. Clearly Disney is not hurting for money, and they have a habit of rewarding their people for success. It's a tradition that's stuck around for long enough of a time frame to be considered almost unofficial policy, and it's an unofficial policy that has stayed with the company until today. Looking at the argument from this angle, the animators definitely deserve a bonus as, again, Frozen is the biggest animated hit ever at Disney or anywhere.
On the other hand (and this is the one that more than likely wins out), these bonuses resulting from an unofficial policy are just that... not official policy. When Mr. Hulett contacted the studio for clarification on why these animators were not as equally compensated as those still on the payroll, he says he was told that:
"...studio policy is people working in the division, whether they worked on the picture or not, get bonuses."
While unofficial policy seems to be linked to the performance of a film, the official policy is that everyone who is employed at the time of the bonus (regardless of how long they have been there) is rewarded. If the bonuses are not legally contingent on the performance of a particular film, then the animators do not have a leg to stand on. Furthermore, there might even be verbiage in their contract that says they forfeit any sort of bonuses upon termination. This wouldn't be surprising, as Hulett conveyed earlier that the production model seems to engage in massive hiring to complete a film, which would naturally be followed by lay-offs to cut costs in-between projects.
There are many shades of gray to this story, and the legal ramifications don't always necessarily match the moral ones.It does sound like these animators deserve a bonus that sounds like it is basically a big pat on the back for an Academy Award-winning film that's taken the world box office by storm. Animators and visual effects professionals already have it rough in Hollywood, and this isn't making the studios look any better in the matter. However, it's not about looking good, it's about who is in the right. Legally, Disney looks like they're water tight in their claim that the animators aren't entitled to this latest round of bonuses. No one's thrown around any sort of legal action just yet, but here's hoping the studio and the animators can talk things out before we're talking about yet another lawsuit making life difficult in the movie making industry.