The Price of Working Non-Union – Health Insurance

October 31, 2012



If you worked on Hotel Transylvania or are working on Cloudy 2 at Sony Pictures Animation, you are receiving excellent health and pension coverage. If you’re a show hire working at Imageworks on the same films, and working in the same building, you’re receiving no benefits beyond a basic HMO that costs you $250+ a month. Imageworks is a unique case in the movement to extend benefits to all people working in vfx. We’re the only fx house owned by a studio (Edit: Disney owns ILM now). With the success of Cloudy and Hotel T, we are a full-fledged animation studio as well. We are in the same category as  Dreamworks, Disney, and Pixar. Almost all of our work is coming from Columbia or internally generated from SPA. Hotel T has crossed the $125 million mark domestically, making it only second to Smurfs as the most successful project we have ever made. It’s got a fighting chance at eclipsing Smurfs as well, and overseas revenue is not even in yet.

Above are some charts we put together graphing out the costs of the Sony health insurance plans, vs. the Motion Picture Industry plans that SPA works under. The price we pay is startling in comparison; even more so when compared to COBRA costs that SPA employees can avoid thanks to the extended coverage after leaving a studio that comes with MPI’s Health Plan.

The current system of poor benefits for show hires is quite simply, bullshit. There can be equal benefits, and it isn’t difficult to achieve. Working 10 feet down the hall of the North building doesn’t have to be the dividing line for decent health insurance.  Long-term Imageworks employees, project hires, and SPA employees all contributed to the success of Hotel Transylvania.  We’ll all be contributing to the success of Cloudy 2, Smurfs 2, Smurfs 3, Popeye, etc. But we earn three different tiers of benefits.

The perpetual extension/perma-lancing system that intentionally screws employees out of retirement benefits needs to come to an end. The company is hiring people for just shy of 6 months, and then “extending” them beyond  the 6 month threshold for benefits.  They do this over and over for each show the artist is picked up on.  There are artists that have been working here for years, and have been given no options for retirement benefits whatsoever. In addition they are subject to the Delta DMO, quite possibly the worst dental plan any of us have ever encountered. This is in addition to earning no vacation or sick days.

The “I’ve got mine, screw the other guy” attitude is killing this industry. Imageworks, We are the feature animation studio in Los Angeles that earns the worst benefits of all of our competitors, and has made the most successful animated film this summer. Does that make sense? Sign a Representation Card and let’s start all being treated equally.

Edit: October 31, 2012 – Re-generated charts with higher 2013 health insurance rates


Sony Pictures Animation , 10th Anniversary

July 24, 2012

10 years. Did anyone know at the time just how important Sony Pictures Animation was going to be for the future of the company? That Imageworks was going to become an animation studio with a shrinking presence in traditional vfx? With Amazing Spiderman and MIB3, there is still some business coming from the Lot. But in the future, Imageworks is the business.

Look at our success so far with SPA’s ideas (worldwide grosses):

Open Season September 29, 2006 $197,309,027
Surf’s Up June 8, 2007 $149,044,513
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs September 18, 2009 $243,006,126
The Smurfs July 29, 2011 $563,749,323
Arthur Christmas November 23, 2011 $147,419,472
The Pirates! Band of Misfits April 27, 2012 $114,462,477

We all got an email from Michael and Amy a few months ago that had this note about Sony Pictures Entertainment:

“Our division closed the year with record revenues and our seventeenth consecutive year of contributing positively to Sony’s operating income.”

How much more of an endorsement do you need as to your value to the company?

Did everyone see the Comic-Con press announcements of the things SPA is developing? It looked to us like Imageworks is an animation studio.

Look at this list on wikipedia of everything we are working on:

Hotel Transylvania September 28, 2012
The Smurfs 2 July 31, 2013
Cloudy 2: Revenge of the Leftovers February 7, 2014
The Familiars
The Smurfs 3 July 24, 2015
RollerCoaster Tycoon
Make My Own Monster
Muncle Trogg
How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack
Instant Karma
Harold and the Purple Crayon
How to Live Forever
Secret Histories
Untitled David Sussman Project
Pooch Café
Untitled Tonka Trucks movie
Kazorn & The Unicorn

Even if you cross off the obvious “not going to happen” ones, that’s still a ton of product.

But no one who will actually make those movies will get any residuals or share in their success, except for one important exception. 5% of the revenue from DVD ,Blu-Ray, and other sales go into the Motion Picture and Television Fund. Those are the residuals you aren’t getting put into your retirement account or paying for health insurance. Those residuals go to the voice actors, producers, writers, and the 38 artists that work for Sony Pictures Animation.

During Hotel T , Imageworks artists are working on the other side of a cubicle from SPA artists, while earning inferior benefits. We’ve already written about how nearly every other crew member on Sony productions gets better benefits than Imageworks employees do.

We aren’t alone, PDI and Nick CG you are getting the same raw deal. Part of your company earns benefits from the work you’ve done, and it isn’t your part.

How many more films will you work on before the axe falls one day and you can’t get health insurance?

How many more days will you come in sick because you can’t afford to not get payed for a day?

How much longer will you be working with no pension benefits?

How much longer will you stay late and work hard for the benefits of other divisions that you will not share in?

Rep cards are still valid after leaving the company.

This process doesn’t happen overnight.

(Are we going to have this conversation again when Cloudy 3 and Popeye 2 go into production)?

An Open Letter to Genndy Tartakovsky

June 25, 2012

Dear Genndy,

We had fun at the Hawaiian Luau the other night, thank you for taking the time to sign our posters.

You’ve had a long and successful career working in animation.  For a good chunk of those years you’ve worked under a union contract. By now you are hopefully getting close to crossing the 15 year vesting period, and you will be enjoying health benefits for the rest of your life after age 65. If you hang in there for 20 years, you can retire at 62. Although we hope you’ll keep making films instead of just retiring someday.
We would like to talk about some very serious issues in the animation industry today. Perhaps you are unaware of the working situations for artists at Sony Pictures Digital Productions.

There is a 3-tiered benefit system that your crew works under:

Sony Pictures Animation – union under TAG 839: portable health and pension benefits, sick days, vacation days. Benefit portability between studios.

Sony Pictures Imageworks  – 6+ months employment: 401k, sick days, PPO insurance, vacation time. No benefit portability.

Sony Pictures Imageworks – less than 6 month deals (based on offer length, not actual time worked on the show, or time at the facility): HMO, no benefits otherwise. No benefit portability

Now that some of your departments are winding down, many people are finding themselves in a precarious situation regarding their health insurance for themselves and their families. The “Fabulous Fridays” are anything but . People are forced to look for work, while saddled with outrageously high cobra costs, or forced to drop health insurance altogether. The ebb and flow of crewing is not the issue, the portability of benefits is.

We work to make your ideas come to life. When audiences buy blu rays and dvds of Hotel Transylvania next year, 5% of that money will go into the Motion Picture Television Fund to provide for pension and health benefits for retirees. 38 people in SPA will receive health and pension benefits courtesy of the work of 250+ other crew members.

We all work towards a common goal, but most will receive an unfair portion of the reward.

We try to educate , but our voice is limited. Your voice has far more reach in the animation community. As a former animator , will you stand with us to improve the working conditions of your crew?

Do you support all your crew members receiving the same benefits that SPA and yourself have enjoyed?

Thank You,
The Artists of SpiUnion

Checking Out of Hotel Transylvania

June 6, 2012

So if you’re working on Hotel Transylvania, you will be losing your job soon. We’ve heard about all the big things being bid on, none of that is going to materialize in the next 6 weeks. You need to prepare for the familiar dance vfx workers do at the end of shows:

File for unemployment

Make a mad rush to see doctors and dentists before your healthcare expires on your last day (Keep in mind we are lucky compared to many others in vfx, we actually get the option of healthcare)

Since most people can’t actually afford COBRA, cross your fingers and hope you or your loved ones don’t get sick.

Don’t bother trying to get health insurance if you have a pre-existing condition. (pregnancy counts as a pre-existing condition)

If/When you do get a job somewhere else, you’ll get to change doctors again and start all over explaining any long term health problems to a new doctor who accepts whatever insurance plan you’ll be on.

We encourage you to call the SPE Benefits Connection Service Center at 1 (866) 941-4SPE and ask them for your exact COBRA costs. These are the numbers we got from calling:

Sony Kaiser HMO – $725 + $45 Dental + $9 VSP per month

no children/single:

Sony Aetna or Anthem PPO – about $1100 per month

no children/married:

Sony Aetna or Anthem PPO – about $1300 per month

1+ child/married:

Sony Aetna or Anthem PPO – about $1600 per month

Looking forward to going through this again for Cloudy 2?

If Imageworks were union like Sony Pictures Animation, you would have 6 months of health coverage when you got layed off, plus you could draw from your bank of hours to extend that coverage for up to another year at no cost to you.

How many of us get perpetually hired for short gigs here and never cross the magic threshold of 6 months for a retirement account? Under a union you would also have had contributions made to your pension for retirement, instead of the $0 you got in the 401k you can’t participate in.

But wait, you’re staff, you don’t have to worry about layoffs right? You really think you’ll be working here forever? Really?

These are the benefits SPA already gets, funded from the residuals of the movies you made for them.


Update 6/18/2012:

Family Time?

May 16, 2012

I read a piece on Michelle Raimo Kouyate, President of Production for Sony Pictures Animation on She speaks of her passion for work and the benefit of a work/life balance in making her even better at her job. This post is not meant to criticize Michelle. In fact I applaud her for maintaining a work/life balance. The point is that we who work on films at Sony Pictures Imageworks for SPA or otherwise should strive for and deserve no less.

How often do you cancel on cherished moments with your children or significant other for another impossible deadline set by people most of us will never meet? Many who have seen the changes in the last 15+ years in our industry can attest to ever lengthening crunch time on projects. Some argue that we should move on to other careers if we don’t want to work endlessly to the detriment of our health and family. I fully believe that executives at Sony should enjoy life outside work, with their families. I think it is important for all of us to enrich our lives outside of work. Often we don’t get that opportunity as VFX artists.

Every twice unfinaled shot, every understaffed, underbid, over delayed project keeps us from watching our children grow and keeps us from precious moments with our loved ones. Does it really need to be that way? If the President of Production can have such a balance, can we not, as compassionate human beings who love the work we do, and love our families, come to a more equitable solution, where projects can be planned at least well enough to keep from going into crunch for a year at a time? I don’t know about you, but when my job forces me to miss out on a year of my daughter’s life or more, I think it’s plain wrong. How can I make a film for children and not spend any time with my own?

Besides this, how do I care for my family without health insurance, sick days or vacation days while working mandatory twelve hour days, six days a week for months on end? Is the value of my children or even myself less than others? I pose these questions, hoping to encourage discussion from people in all positions to think of the entire team involved in making these wonderful films and how it is vital for us to seek balance in work and life in order to continue doing the best work possible. For this to happen, we need the help of our production teams, executives, clients and our fellow workers.

I think we can work towards all of these goals, by organizing. It takes all of our efforts to make this happen. The leverage of collective bargaining can be used to work towards more reasonable safe guards against some of the most commonly recurring problems of poor planning that cause us to work endless hours. This is not a guarantee. It depends on the participation of SPI employees, who send in filled out rep cards and let the Union know what is important to them right away. You can keep waiting another decade to see if anyone will come and magically save the industry, or take a few minutes to fill out a rep card and start a dialogue where you can have a voice in making a difference.

What do you want?

May 10, 2012

Union representation isn’t about letting some third party come in and define your future as vfx companies already do. It is a process for vfx artists to come together and express grievances and work towards achieving goals that improve the quality of our lives while producing the best vfx possible for the benefit of studios.

The Union needs:

1. Filled out and submitted Rep cards. As noted before, the card is not a vote for the Union, just a request for them to negotiate a contract with the studio which we will vote in or out. If most employees simply fill out the cards, it puts us in a position of power to work out a contract in our favor.

2. Talk to Union representatives and let them know your concerns. What would you like to see changed to improve work conditions within vfx? You want a contract that represents you? Speak up.

3. Spread the word. Get the facts and let other people know. With enough rep cards in place, the union can negotiate a contract based off the needs of workers and studios. How much leverage it has depends on how many rep cards are signed and submitted.

It’s up to you. Let’s start in the comments here and learn some of the things that you as a vfx artist want to see happen in our industry. Perhaps we can get some conversations going and as a first step, start to figure out what could even be done.

What would make your experience at studios better?

Better pay? Sick days? Limits on crunch time? Vacation guarantees? Dispute assistance? Healthcare? Savings plans? Training? Credits? Respect for our contribution to films?

With a discussion we can begin to connect, even anonymously if you prefer. This will show us what some of our common wants are and we can begin discussing feasbility. Please, sign a rep card and send it in. Without it, we have no bargaining power. The more you participate, the more you can have a hand in defining your Union. United, we can make a difference.

Endless Crunch

May 8, 2012
One of the areas many of us in the VFX industry have a hard time with is endless crunch. Bad production decisions tend to affect our lives the most. Thanks to California labor laws, at least here in California we are paid overtime at Sony, but once we are on a project, there’s nothing we can do to reduce hours when our employers demand that we work 6 or even 7 days a week, doing 12+ hr days with no end in sight.

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