Friday, September 28, 2007

"I Got Tired of Making Not Much Money"

A few days back, I met a digital animator who had moved down from the Bay area some months ago. He had an interesting story to tell:

"I worked up north for over six years. At the studio where I worked, you have to have a champion who touts you for the next picture or you get laid off.

"I was lucky, I had people who helped me get picked up. But if you're down in the middle ranks like I was, never getting cut loose but never getting up to the top rungs, you don't make a lot of money. Of course they frown on you sharing wage information with other people you work with.

"And management comes to you when you get restless and says: 'Hey, if you factor in the bonuses and the stock options, you're doing pretty well.' But a lot of the people in my department, they had to sell their stock options to make ends meet. One day at a meeting a manager asked a group of us if we had still had options left. Only about thirty percent of the employees raised their hands.

"And I thought to myself: 'Okay, that's enough for me. I'm moving to L.A.' Three weeks later I did."

This is a tale I've heard (with variations) for the whole time I've been doing this job: Artist works at a place for years, can never get more than a $25 raise. Finally the artist quits in frustration and goes to a new studio and increases his salary by 50%.

I still have memories of my father relating how an acquaintance from Europe asked how Dad could work at Walt Disney Productions for such paltry money: "You let this man Disney take advantage of you! I don't know why all the artists stay there year after year..."

Father never tired of the thin Disney money. He had other gigs going.


Jeff Massie said...

My Dad had been married for six years when he designed a movie that was nominated for an Oscar. It was the last movie he ever worked on.

He got laid off right after that, and he realized he was in his mid-forties and he couldn't afford to buy a house or have children. Even though he only worked union gigs, in those days there was no industry-wide pension or health insurance.

So he quit animation, and to make a long story short, within five years he was working full time as an art director at a great salary, owned a house in Connecticut, and had his first and only child.

And for the rest of his life he regretted that he'd stopped working in animation. But he never regretted not having to work for animation studios.

Anonymous said...

Good that you are commenting on this Steve. It seems like a dirty little secret that people don't talk about - the lower pay at some of those northern houses.

Those northern houses also aren't in a union (no pension, etc.). We've heard that medical benefits leave something to be desired up there too. They do offer some benefits though. Stock options for one, which depending on when you get 'em (and what they're worth when you want to sell 'em) can make you rich or do nothing for your bank account. Stock options are meant to be "gravy" and "reward" for taking risk with a start-up company. Sort of like a bonus that is completely tied to company performance.

So why would you work at a place where the salary is sub-par and you are having trouble making ends meet or at least, affording a place that's not the hood? might get to be part of the magic. you might get to work under inspiring managers (almost unheard of in la-la land) who support your creativity and ideas. That's the dream and the golden handcuff. It's what keeps people on the job at some places even when they're having trouble making the bills.

It's hard to think about coming back to an LA studio with all of the attendent non-artistic "creative execs" when you can keep working in a place that is supportive of a true creative spirit. (of course even at places that are famous for supporting the artistic spirit, there are times when your artistic spirit might not match your manager's).

So where to go: the perfectly artistic studio where you might be poor in name, but not in spirit? Or some other possibly creatively comprimised place where you might be poor in spirit but not in name?

But if you ARE having trouble making your bills, won't the stress of that eventually suck your spirit dry, no matter how amazing your workplace is?

That's the dilemma many people face.

There's no perfect answer. Some people are very happy working for less, knowing that they are part of a magical creative experience. Others hope that they can find creative satisfaction but with enough money to feed a kid or two.

At the end of the day, if you're in LA and in a union shop, at least you have good medical, 401K and pension. The older you get, the more you appreciate these benefits. And depending on where you work, you can hope for a real creative shot, a place where you can be creative with good non-artistic managers (it DOES happen in LA once in a while).

It would just be nice if it happened more often...

Anonymous said...

For those that don't understand the mysterious world of stock options

....the value of stock options is dependent on several factors. How much was the option worth when it was given to you? And how much is the stock selling for now? If you were issued "Magic Company" stock options for $25.00 apiece and then the price of the stock dropped to $24.00, your stock options would be worth -1.00 apiece. Yep. You'd be what's called "under water" - but no worries, there's no obligation to cash in the option, so you don't owe money on the options as long as you don't cash them.

On the other hand, say you were given a "Pixie Dust" company option at $30.00 and then the "pixie dust" stock went up to $35.00 per share. Now each option you owned would be worth $5.00, as soon as you cashed it in. And if you had 1000 options, that would be $5000. Sweet!

Generally speaking, stock options are what start-up companies offer to employees because the companies can't afford to pay the employees more. Sometimes the payoff is huge: just people who joined Pixar early. Usually (but not always) people who come later to a company are granted less options at less desirable prices and end up making less money on the options.

How do you know if a stock is going to go up or down? You don't, unless you are genius stock picker, and even genius stock pickers admit to being lucky. You can do your part and even make a hit movie or two and your beloved company's stock might still go on, for other reasons. Stock options are a gamble. Lucky money, if they work out. But not something to base your financial future on.

Anonymous said...

I have a feeling we are talking about Pixar here. I've also heard that stock options were cut down over the past few years. So the newer guys get even fewer potential non-salary money.

Judging by the numbers I've seen, Pixar is starting to pay people a little more than previously. But, those are generally for experienced people coming from other studios that need to be lured. $85k to $110k for animators per year. Depending on your vantage point, that isn't too bad.

The new guys that come in fresh out of school aren't doing so well. $45k to $55k are numbers I've heard.

And to follow up on what others have said. Moving up at Pixar is difficult. Like any studio, there is a pecking order and you are probably not very high unless you are a super star. Too many people want those prime jobs.

Like Steve said, sometimes the only way to move up on the ladder or in pay scale is to leave and go somewhere else. Unfortunately for those in the Bay area, your options are a little more limited.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Pixar, why do they still remain non-signatory if Burbank is a union shop? Doesn't this situation place unnecessary tension between animators up north and their corporate cousins down south?

The old Lucasfilm model of "less pay but more play" no longer cuts it in the ultra high cost-of-living Bay Area environment. Stock options have been a joke for most companies since the dot-gone era, while pay stagnates and health insurance premiums/ deductibles continue to skyrocket.

If I didn't know any better, I'd suspect that Iger's ultimate goal for DAS is to adopt the Pixar non-union status model and eventually make Burbank pay and benefits commensurate with E-Ville.

Anonymous said...

$45k to $55k for a guy fresh out of school with no production experience? Seems like pretty decent coin to me for someone who's an unproven entity, just starting out.

But what do I know? I live in NorCal, where apparently I'm being taken advantage of...

Anonymous said...

yes..yes you are being taken advantage of. But, hey, if you work for Pixar - maybe you should pay them?

Christian Roman said...

Maybe someone can enlighten me, but I've heard that Unions operate out of regions, not necessarily by company. I've heard than the entire silicon valley in the Bay area was founded on the principle of NON-union work, and the philosophy carried over to many of the animation companies in the Bay Area. Would TAG have to create a SF chapter to get Bay Area companies places to unionize?

Anonymous said...

45 to 55K? How do pay off school loans on that? How do you afford food and rent? This is not great money people!

Steve Hulett said...

Speaking of Pixar, why do they still remain non-signatory if Burbank is a union shop? Doesn't this situation place unnecessary tension between animators up north and their corporate cousins down south?

Pixar's a separate sub-set of the Disney Co. As such, it's unionized when a majority of its employees sign rep cards and vote for it to be repped by a labor union.

Does the split create tension? Probably. And the company has an incentive is hold down wages at the higher paid shop so that over time salaries balance out.

It's always about money, then about art.

Steve Hulett said...

Would TAG have to create a SF chapter to get Bay Area companies places to unionize?

Under the IATSE, Chrisian, it isn't necessary. The IA is a national union that negotiates a lot of contract on its own and then has a union (or unions) under its umbrella rep the individuals working under that particular contract.

TAG reps artists and technicians under IA contracts, as does the Editors Guild, Cinematographers Guild, etc.

Every contract and circumstance is different.

Anonymous said...

"45 to 55K? How do pay off school loans on that? How do you afford food and rent? This is not great money people!"

In other states, in other areas, it's pretty decent money for a single person. In the SF bay area-a place with a very expensive rental/real estate crunch, high prices overall, and overcrowding, it's not all that much after taxes and expenses and student loans. But the idea is that one by hook or crook tries to move up and make a mark fast, I suppose, to get a higher income.

Anonymous said...

Last I checked, no one was being dragged in off the street and being forced to work anywhere for any amount of money. If you choose to accept a studio's offer and they pay lower than elsewhere, then that's on you, not them.

And if you can't get by on $55k as a single person, even in the Bay Area, you're doing something wrong. I'd suggest taking a look at cutting back your comic book and action figure budget...

Anonymous said...

And if you can't get by on $55k as a single person, even in the Bay Area, you're doing something wrong.

Really? Let's review:

Take away 25% from 55,000 for taxes, and you're left with $41,000 (and that's probably optimistic). Rent in the bay area? Good luck finding anything less than $1,800/month for a 1-bedroom, so over a year, that's about $22,000.

So now you're left with a remaining $18,000 to last for the entire year for everything else--food, car upkeep, insurance, gas, energy bills, and god forbid some emergency comes up. And ALL of these things cost twice as much in the Bay Area as they do in most areas of the country.

Not saying it can't be done. One obvious strategy would be to find a roommate and share living costs. But the idea that it's a lot of money, once you factor in all these things, is ludicrous. You'd think Pixar could do a little better, especially given that a union rate for the same position would be quite a bit higher.

Anonymous said...

"Last I checked, no one was being dragged in off the street and being forced to work anywhere for any amount of money."

Now, now, hold on there, pard', calm down.

All I did was point out that the Bay Area is one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. That's a fact. Second only to Manhattan(where it is truly insane and impossible-even if your salary is in the low 6 figures).
I didn't suggest anywhere nor did anyone else that there are entitlement issues afoot, just talking plain COL realities. Your comment about action figures and comic books is unecessarily snide. As a matter of fact, none of my Calarts classmates "collected" anything but bills when they left school for their first jobs, me included. My first job in the late 80s paid me 750 a week. In less than two years I was making 1000/week. 52k a year. This was when a typical 2-3 bedroom house in Glendale or Burbank cost about 200k.
Even back then the SF area was way more expensive.

No, no one is forced to work anywhere, but it's interesting(and sensible!) that when companies know they hold a big cachet for new employees they use that advantage. It's a business, that also happens to be a "vocation" for most of the people in it. That's something to be mindful of, that's all.

Anonymous said...

"Rent in the bay area? Good luck finding anything less than $1,800/month for a 1-bedroom"

I love it when people from SoCal try to tell me what rents are where I live.

I live in Menlo Park. You probably don't know where that is, so let me explain. I'm sandwiched in-between Atherton and Palo Alto, two of the most expensive towns in the Bay Area. I live on a quiet, tree-lined residential street in a 3-bedroom 2-bath house with a yard and a 2-car garage. I'm one block from Atherton, where the houses I go past when I walk in the evening sell for over 1.5 million dollars. My next-door neighbor's house is currently on the market for 1.3 mil.

My rent?

$1,800 a month.

Let's recap: upscale neighborhood, three bedroom, two bath house, garage, yard: $1,800 a month. And my rent is not atypical for this area.

I don't know where you think these $1,800 1-bedroom apartments are, but they ain't in the bay area. It sounds like maybe your knowledge of the Bay Area rental market is a few years old, like from before the dot-com bust. But don't let that stop you from talkin...

Anonymous said...

If you're grossing fifty grand a year, then $1800 monthly rent would leave you with what?

$1800-$2200 per month to live on? (Gas, food, car payments, entertainment?)

Kinda tight. Especially after factoring in taxes.

Anonymous said...

If you really want to know what prices are like in the Bay area, just go to Craigs List. A search in Menlo Park turns up lots of 1 br places, not very many are below $1800 a month. If you live in a 3bdrm 2bath house for $1800 a month. It must be a dump.

Do a search for under $2000 and 2bdrm and see what you can get. lol

Anonymous said...

Mr. Menlo Park, how long have you lived there?

And do you believe that 1,800/mo for that house(with a place next door selling for "1.3" mil"!)is common or typical? Come on.
That doesn't really make sense, does it? Three bedrooms for that? Are your renting from your in-laws?

Glad you're so smug, happy for your frugality and luck, but I HAVE lived up there, and know many people who still do. The ones who make good money(in other words, more than 100k a year)are damn grateful and relieved for it. For good reason.
But maybe, since you've apparently got the true scoop on how overrated the SF area real estate market is, you should alert the media immediately.

Anonymous said...

That's funny; when I go to Craigslist and look, there are lots of 1BR going for $1,000 to $1,300 a month. Which means anywhere from $500 to $800 less in rent a month - which means between $6000 and $7600 more a year for other expenses. I realize that screws with your math, but if you're going to make crap up about the rental market in an area you're unfamiliar with, maybe you shouldn't make it so easy to check up on.

And those $1,800 1 brs you found? If you knew the area, you'd know that they're in places like Emerald Hills and Woodside; very upscale neighborhoods that price appropriate to the kinds of tenants they want to attract. If I spent any time looking, I'm sure I could find high-priced rentals in Bel Air, Beverly Hills, etc, but that wouldn't be indicative of the area as a whole. But since you've already come to a conclusion, I don't expect little things like facts to come into play.

Sure, L.A. boy - My $1 million house is a dump, surrounded by other $1+ million dumps. If it makes it easier to sleep at night for you to think that, be my guest.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Menlo Park,

You are arguing with two separate anonymous people. Maybe the other guy lives in LA, but I live not far from you. I happen to own a home that I live in and own another that I rent. So, I am very familiar with what going rates are in your area.

The rental appraises for approximately $780,000. The monthly rental rate is far above $1800 a month. Anyone renting a 1 million dollar house for $1800 month is losing a ton of money. Therefore, that is NOT normal.

If that is indeed what you are paying, and indeed what the house is worth, then you are getting a bargain and should be happy. But in no way shape or form should claim that that is the norm.

sure, you can find $1800 1br apartments. Duh. You claimed that 3bdrm houses are renting for $1800 a month. You my friend, are insane.

Check craigslist and link me to some $1800 3bdrm houses.

Anyone reading this thread of insanity. Don't take either of our words for it. Do some simple math and see what you can and cannot afford. Craigslist will give you a good indication of what is possible.

Anonymous said...

There are houses less than $1800 per month in the bay area. But, you get what you pay for. That's fine for some. Especially if you have a gun and not afraid to use it.

Anonymous said...

Man, so much anger radiating up from the southlands...

Let me make sure I understand - because I point out that ASSUMPTIONS about rents in this area are just that, that makes me smug? Fine, have it your way.

I don't owe you any explanation, but because I love watching you all stew in your envy, here we go...

I've lived in the area my whole life, with the exception of 2+ years in Florida working for Disney, and in my current house for three years. No, not renting from any relatives. And yes, my rent is on par with what other renters in the area are paying. I know; I've met my neighbors and I know what the renters on the street are paying.

By the way, I never claimed it was cheap to live here - only that a single person making $55k a year can live on that. It's not great, but it's not horrible, and definitely a living wage. Of course, studios could raise starting salaries and just hire less people, but I suspect you'd all bitch about that too.

I'll be visiting SoCal for a few days at the end of the month, and I look forward to coming back up here and giving you all my newly expert opinion on what life is like down there. After all, if checking prices on Craigslist qualifies one to give an opinion on what things are like here, then a few days in Smogville should make me a bloody expert on the SoCal lifestyle...

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Near-me,

I never claimed 3br houses are going for $1800 a month - I said that's what I was paying. But if it comforts you to call me insane, so be it.

You've also assumed that the house I'm in was purchased recently, based presumably on me mentioning it's appraised value. I guess it never occurred to you that the owners may have had this property for a while and therefore have a much lower cost basis. It seems as though you've assumed that everyone has purchased in the overheated market as you have. As you so eloquently put it - Duh...

I'm done arguing with any of you knuckleheads. What do I know; I only live here...

Justin said...

Looking at I see a 2bd in Palo Alto for $1550, a 1bd for $1550 in Menlo Park, and a 2bd in Menlo Park (all apartments) for $1915. I don't think it is unreasonable to find a 3 bd. house for $1800 if you get lucky.

I have lived in LA for 3.5 years but I grew up in the Bay Area. I have found prices in LA and the Bay Area to be fairly comparable. My current apartment in LA is a 750 square foot 2bd 1 bath apartment for $1400.

If you are single and fresh out of college you can find a roommate and get by with just $50K a year. My first job out of college paid $45K a year and I was able to pay the bills.

I think the key point is that staying at the same company will not get you any raises. You have to switch companies in order to get the pay you deserve.

Anonymous said...

glad to see some of you are so happy with your 50k salary.


Your boss

Anonymous said...

Be proud! You are making 56% of the median household income for your area!

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