Netflix's 'BoJack Horseman' Animators Push for Union Wages

BoJack Horseman S04 Still - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Netflix

An organizing drive by the show’s crew arrives as The Animation Guild gains ground beyond cable and broadcast.

Netflix is releasing more animated shows, and an estimated 50 series in production or on the platform are now unionized with The Animation Guild (TAG), also known as IATSE Local 839. But on at least one high-profile show, there’s a fight brewing over representation. That would be BoJack Horseman, which is going into its sixth season and features the voice talents of Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris and Alison Brie.

Animation house ShadowMachine, which produced the series for Michael Eisner’s Tornante Co., is said to be resisting a push for union wages and benefits. It’s a charge that a management-side source denies outright, saying that the company is offering to adopt TAG’s own collective bargaining agreement.

The dispute comes against the backdrop that the writers and actors are unionized with their respective above-the-line guilds. "The choice to pick on the weakest group is not appropriate," TAG business representative Jason MacLeod told The Hollywood Reporter. "There’s no reason to not be paying guild minimums" for the show.

The fact that BoJack doesn’t already adhere to these minimums makes it an outlier on Netflix. But while that platform is awash with TAG shows, as are broadcast, cable and theatrical, the union has made fewer inroads on Amazon (about a half-dozen shows) and Apple (only a couple).

And outside of conventional animation, kindred workers such as visual effects artists (on productions like the upcoming CGI Lion King remake), stop-motion animators and video game animators are less likely to be unionized. In the BoJack crew’s corner is SAG-AFTRA, which supports "coverage for all workers" amid the unionization effort. (The WGA had no comment.) 

The situation is complicated by the fact that some BoJack artists also work on another ShadowMachine show, Netflix’s upcoming Tuca & Bertie, which also is currently nonunion, while still others are employed on a ShadowMachine production for TBS, Final Space, that is signed to TAG. The two sides were exchanging proposals after the crew staged a ten-minute mini-walkout March 29 and talks on April 19 were inconclusive.

Union officials met with the crew on Monday and MacLeod said they were “energized and ready to work towards getting a fair resolution.” Although a strike "is a possibility," according to a BoJack crewmember involved in organizing, that doesn’t seem to be the likely destination, and MacLeod said he planned to reach out to the employer to schedule another bargaining session.

Behind the scenes, the power of the purse ultimately resides with Netflix, which is presumably paying a fee to a Tornante subsidiary premised on non-union labor costs, with Tornante’s subsidiary in turn paying a fee to a ShadowMachine subsidiary on the same assumption. That all means that the union’s demand may send the producers scrambling upstream for higher fees. But that’s not TAG’s responsibility, said MacLeod, adding, "We have a good relationship with Netflix."

Tornante and Netflix had no comment, but on the front lines, a ShadowMachine spokesperson said, "We look forward to reaching an agreement."

A version of this story first appeared in the April 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

For more on this subject, visit THR‘s labor page.