Writers take a stand over 'Sit Down'
Dispute highlights ongoing tension between unionsThree months after the end of the writers strike, the issue of the WGA's jurisdiction over animation is back in the spotlight.
On Thursday, the writers for Sony Pictures TV's upcoming animated Fox series "Sit Down, Shut Up" walked off the show in pursuit of WGA representation.
The writers, who are members of the WGA, claimed that they were misled by Sony TV that they would be covered by the Writers Guild, while the studio had made arrangements with another union, IATSE.
The labor dispute highlights the ongoing tension between the two unions over jurisdiction in primetime animated series. The writers on all other animated Fox series, produced by 20th Century Fox TV, are represented by the WGA. (20th TV also co-produces "Sit Down," but Sony TV, which developed the comedy with studio-based writer Mitchell Hurwitz, is the lead production entity.)
Sony TV produces "Sit Down" through its animation division, Adelaide Prods.
"The producer, Adelaide Prods., has been a signatory to the IATSE bargaining agreement for at least 10 years, and has been producing animated programming under that agreement," Sony said in a statement. "All of the deals made with the writers were specifically negotiated with their agents specifying that this program would be covered by the IATSE bargaining agreement."
Still, Adelaide's focus so far has been on children's series, including "Batman Beyond," "Men in Black: The Series" and "Jackie Chan Adventures," with "Sit Down" being its first primetime animated series.
On the writing side, primetime is dominated by the WGA, with IATSE, which mainly represents technicians, artisans and craftspeople, virtually nonexistent.
Under IATSE, writers not only won't get new-media revenues and other terms the WGA negotiated with the studios during the strike, they also won't get paid residuals, a crucial safety net for scribes between jobs.
"The writers of 'Sit Down, Shut Up' are Writers Guild members, and they want the show to be covered by a WGA contract," the WGA said in a statement. "We have been in conversations with Sony and hope this will be settled soon."
People familiar with the situation say that there is little the writers, who have received breach of contract letters from Sony, and the WGA can do legally since Sony has a deal in place with IATSE.
"I understand (the WGA's) position, but the problem is there's a contract in place and you can't change California law or federal law because you don't like the contract," said Steven Hulett, the business rep for the local IATSE Animation Guild, which covers the writers and animators.
Observers draw parallels to the events 10 years ago when the writers on "The Simpsons" demanded WGA representation, which led to a deal between the writers union and 20th TV that covers the studio's animated series.
However, the writers on 20th TV's animated shows had no union representation, which made their unionization relatively uncomplicated, while Sony's deal with IATSE makes a possible switch very difficult.
"It's not where the project is distributed or broadcast, it's who produces it," said entertainment labor attorney Ivy Kagan Bierman of Los Angeles' Loeb & Loeb. "It's an existing collective bargaining agreement."
Kagan Bierman said IATSE began representing animation writers after the WGA initially rejected organizing more than a decade ago.
"I went to the WGA on behalf of one of the most prominent animation writers ... and he wanted to be a WGA writer and he wanted his show covered," she said. "('The Simpsons') was not a big hit at that point, and (the WGA) stuck their noses in the air. They had no interest in animation. That was how the IA was able to come in and get jurisdiction over animation."
During the recent writers strike, the WGA dropped its attempt to win first-time jurisdiction guarantees over animation and reality TV.
"Giving up animation and reality was a heartbreaking issue for me personally," said WGAW president Patric Verrone, himself an animation writer, at the guild's end-of-strike press conference.
The walkout threatens to push back the production start for "Sit Down," which was announced as a midseason addition to Fox's Sunday lineup.
"This is all about the battle between IATSE and WGA," one studio topper said. "It's all bad, and the net result is the losers are the network and the viewers."
Sony has been in this position before with the short-lived animated series "Dilbert," Hulett said. In that case, the studio formed a separate company and bargained with the WGA to cover the writers. But given the studio's comment regarding the "Sit Down" situation, Hulett said that's unlikely.
"When a WGA writer writes a novel, they're a novelist. When they write under an 839 IATSE contract, they're an 839 writer," he said. "They're not wholly owned subsidiaries of the WGA. They're simply dues-paying members."
Leslie Simmons contributed to this report.