Sony and Blue Sky|Settle With Animators

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     SAN JOSE (CN) – A federal judge Thursday appeared inclined to approve class settlements between Sony Pictures and another studio and their animation and visual effects workers.
     Sony Pictures and Blue Sky Studios agreed to settle with the employees who claimed that seven major studios conspired to suppress their wages.
     Sony and Blue Sky have agreed to settle the cases for $13 million and $5.9 million respectively.
     Other studios, including Pixar, Dreamworks, Lucasfilm, Disney and ImageMovers Digital, continue to fight the case.
     Lead plaintiffs Robert Nitsch, Georgia Cano and David Wentworth stand to receive $10,000 as a part of the settlement with Blue Sky; their entitlement relative to Sony was not stipulated.
     Of the approximately 10,000 class members in line for a payday, 2,038 have worked at Sony and 578 have worked at Blue Sky, according to their attorney Brent Johnson.
     The recovery for each of the class members averages $1,026.
     U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh had a few technicalities she wanted corrected, including putting the burden on the plaintiffs’ attorneys to inform their clients of the process and any major changes to the settlement schedule.
     The settlement as constructed urges people with questions to visit the court clerk’s office.
     Koh didn’t see the point.
     “What can they expect to get when they come to the court?” Koh asked. “I don’t see how the intake folks working in the clerk’s office are going to be able to assist class members.”
     The plaintiffs agreed to strike that language and provide their phone number in its stead. Aside from a few other details it appeared everything was in order for Koh to issue the approval in coming weeks.
     Nitsch’s September 2014 lawsuit claims major animation studios colluded to fix wages and restrict career opportunities for artists.
     Nitsch, who was a senior character effects artist for DreamWorks and a clothes and hair technical director at Sony Pictures Imageworks, says animation and special effects studios – including Walt Disney and its subsidiaries Pixar and Lucasfilm, Sony Pictures, Digital Domain 3.0 and ImageMovers – conspired to stifle wages and restrict career opportunities for animators, digital artists, software engineers and other technical workers.
     The lawsuit mirrors a class action filed against Apple, Google and others in 2010, which claimed their CEOs made “gentleman’s agreements” to restrict competition, and companion wage-setting mechanisms, by not poaching each other’s employees.
     Pixar and Lucasfilm settled for $9 million collectively last year, but Koh has rejected a $325 million agreement proposed by Apple, Google, Intel and Adobe in that case.
     Nitsch claims the animation studios acted in much the same way as the tech companies, conspiring to deprive artists of “millions of dollars which defendants instead put to their bottom lines.”
     His lawsuit continues: “It did so at the same time the films produced by these workers achieved world renown and generated billions in the United States and abroad.”
     Nitsch says the scheme dates back to when Apple founder Steve Jobs bought Lucasfilm’s computer graphics division from George Lucas in 1986 and created Pixar.
     Nitsch says Jobs, Lucas and Pixar president Ed Catmull agreed not to cold-call each other’s employees.
     Neither Lucas, Catmull nor Apple are defendants in Nitsch’s complaint.
     He claims Pixar and Lucasfilm agreed to notify each other when making an offer to an employee, and agreed not to offer higher pay if the employer made a counteroffer. He says Jobs and Catmull spread this kind of anti-competitive agreement throughout the animation industry.
     “Whenever a studio threatened to disturb the conspiracy’s goals of suppressing wages and salaries by recruiting employees and offering better compensation, the leaders of the conspiracy took steps to stop them,” the complaint states.
     The artists say the studios’ cooperation was so thorough they emailed each other salary and budget information.
     Nitsch quotes Lucas as saying that “the rule we always had [was] we cannot get into a bidding war with other companies because we don’t have the margins for that sort of thing.”
     The other studios used similar practices and pay structures, Nitsch says.
     Blue Sky is a computer animation film studio based in Connecticut. It is famous for making the films “Ice Age,” “Rio” and “The Peanuts Movie.”
     Sony Pictures Animation has a few high-profile films under its belt, including “Open Season,” “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” “The Smurfs” and “Hotel Transylvania.”