wagefixingcartel-b wagefixingcartel-b
Artist RightsDisneyPixar

Disney, DreamWorks, Pixar, Lucasfilm, Sony Are Sued in Wage Theft Scandal


For the past few years, the Silicon Valley wage-theft scandal has focused mostly on tech companies like Apple, Google, Intel and Adobe, but as the story has played out, it’s been revealed through deposition testimony that competing feature animation studios worked together to collectively suppress their employees’ earnings potential and that Pixar’s co-founder Ed Catmull played a major role in orchestrating an industry-wide conspiracy against animation employees.

This evidence has led to a new class action lawsuit filed yesterday in San Jose that alleges “visual effects and animation companies have conspired to systematically suppress the wages and salaries of those who they claim to prize as their greatest assets—their own workers.” The defendants named are DreamWorks Animation, the Walt Disney Company, Pixar, Lucasfilm, Digital Domain 3.0, Sony Pictures Animation, Sony Pictures Imageworks and ImageMovers. According to the suit, these companies made secret agreements to deprive thousands of their workers of better wages and opportunities to advance their careers at other companies.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of former DreamWorks Animation character effects artist Robert Nitsch by Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, a firm that specializes in class action lawsuits for victims of corporate abuses. Many studios and individuals are implicated in crafting the illicit non-soliciation agreements, but Catmull remains a central figure:

Catmull and other leaders of the conspiracy policed any violation of the conspiracy, even when it did not directly involve efforts to recruit their own employees. 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 for the anti-competitive benefit of all conspirators. For example, when ImageMovers began recruiting workers for its digital wing, ImageMovers Digital, in 2007, Catmull intervened to stop them from targeting other conspirators, even though he knew they would not target his company Pixar. His express purpose in doing so was to keep solicitation efforts from “mess[ing] up the pay structure.” At Catmull’s request, a Disney senior executive advised ImageMovers to comply with the broad conspiracy.

The intent of the conspiracy was to suppress wages throughout the industry. As Catmull later explained under oath, his concern about “mess[ing] up the pay structure” was that it would make it “very high.” Lucasfilm’s then-President Jim Morris explained the goal even more succinctly in a June 2004 email to Catmull: “I know you are adamant about keeping a lid on rising labor costs.” In Catmull’s view, the agreements “worked quite well”—to the benefit of Defendants’ bottom lines, but at the expense of workers throughout the visual effects and animation industry.

There are plenty of damning details in the class action complaint. In one part, it says that Lori McAdams, Pixar’s current v-p of human resources, sent an email in 2006 to human resources personnel at DreamWorks, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Lucasfilm, Walt Disney Animation Studios and others studios asking:

Quick question from me, for those of you who can share the info.

What is your salary increase budget for FY ’07? Ours is [REDACTED] but we may manage it to closer to [REDACTED] on average. Are you doing anything close, more, or less?”

An explanation follows for why such an email is so shockingly inappropriate between competitors:

In other words, Pixar’s top human resources executive emailed six direct competitors with the future amount that Pixar would be raising salaries and then requested the same information from the other studios…No studio acting in its independent self-interest in the absence of a conspiracy to suppress wages would share this information, let alone with such a large group of competitors. Absent an agreement not to compete on wages and salaries, any studio sharing such information would be handing its competitors specific information about how much they needed to raise their offers to outbid it. Such behavior only makes sense in the context of a conspiracy to suppress wages and salaries. The only possible benefit to Pixar from such an action was the facilitation of industrywide suppression of wages and salaries.

The entire 27-page lawsuit can be read below:

Disney is the only studio that has responded to the class action. “We believe this complaint is utterly without merit and intend to defend against it vigorously,” the company told the LA Times.

Mark Ames, who has been covering this story for Pando Daily, wrote yesterday about the importance of the Silicon Valley (and now animation-industry) wage-fixing scandal:

What makes this story so important is that this is the first time we know of when antitrust laws have been successfully used against an illegal wage-theft conspiracy. New ground is being broken in the suit — and workers are learning that the consequences of inequality and incestuous board room relationships effects everyone on the outside, from well-paid tech workers, to barely-secure VFX artists, down to the minimum wage workers who service the Valley and Hollywood studios.

Much more to come…

Don’t miss any updates from Cartoon Brew. Join Cartoon Brew on Facebook!

We welcome thoughtful comments on articles, but please read our community guidelines before participating. All comments are moderated and will not immediately appear on the site; your patience is appreciated.

  • Alyosha

    Interesting to see how Dreamworks is making such strong efforts to produce and create so much more animation in China while this is all going down. I have no idea what wage laws are like in China, but I have a feeling that Katzenberg is looking to save quite a few “Dreambucks” with his plans.

    • wgan

      let’s be fair, its not that hard to see he is targeting China as a bigger market for bigger bucks instead of just saving “Dreambucks” in China (China is still not a expensive country to do business in though) .

      • Bridge for Sale

        Oh Wgan…. So innocent. So Naive.
        If you think Katzenburg’s Adventure to China is solely to make movies for teh Chinese market……I’ve got a Bridge you might be interested in buying.

      • Droobiedoo

        Although it IS a totalitarian communist state who often “disappear” people to death who express political dissent.

    • Bridge for Sale

      LoL. “Wage laws in China”. You’re funny. :)

  • Pedro Nakama

    Now what needs to be done is to suppress the amount of the golden parachutes to all of these execs as they’re being thrown out.

  • Ant G

    “Disney is the only studio that has responded to the class action. “We
    believe this complaint is utterly without merit and intend to defend
    against it vigorously,”

    I will have whatever they’re smoking. I would love to live in a completely delusional world too.

    • Mike

      Pixie dust. It’s got to be the pixie dust.

      • PUN are FUN

        Pixar dust?

    • Jon Werewoof Korte

      They’re also the guys that just rebuked Deadmau5′ claims of them using his song illegally. I really hate Disney at this point. They just don’t have magic anymore.

      • when you wish upon a star, Disney’s lawyers can’t be far!

      • Scrap Doodle

        What about Gravity Falls or Wander Over Yonder? C:

        • Droobiedoo

          Nope. No pixie dust there.

        • nona

          Ever wonder where “Wander” is actually animated and produced. . it certainly isn’t at Disney HQ.

          • Scrap Doodle

            It’s produced at Disney TVA, but is animated by Mercury Filmworks in Canada.

    • Porst

      “Defend against it vigorously” is Disney-speak for “throw lawyers at it until the plaintiffs can’t spend any more money so we win by default.”

    • “Defend against it vigorously,” meaning THROW MONEY AT THIS UNTIL IT GOES AWAY.. OR not throw money at this because I have so much money there’s nothing you can do to me anyway.

  • Mesterius


  • Steele Carter

    I don’t know why, but I have a feeling that there are many more hidden sins that are yet to be revealed with all of these companies. It may just take a number of years before those sins come into the light. Like my mom used to say, what’s done in the dark, will come out in the light.

  • Confused

    Wait, I must be losing track of all of this drama. Wasn’t it mentioned earlier that Sony said ‘no’ to the agreement? If so, why are they being sued? Can someone clarify this? Just genuinely curious.

    • AmidAmidi

      According to an internal Pixar email, John Lasseter felt that Pixar and Sony had reached a “gentleman’s agreement” based on Catmull’s Godfather-esque visit to Sony Animation’s presidents. Whether Sony followed that agreement is up for debate, but as late as 2006, Pixar’s HR v-p Lori McAdams was communicating with senior Sony HR execs on the amount of raises that were being offered to employees. The extent of Sony’s involvement, or lack thereof, in the wage-fixing scheme will be revealed when the case goes to trial.

      • Confused

        Thanks. This really puts it in perspective.

  • Luxo Sr.

    I want to visit Ed Catmull in jail. Maybe he will write another bullshit book.

    • grainy

      I see The Brave Little Briefcase escaping with the help of Luxo John Jr and Katzen the Talking Telephone.

  • AllenIII

    This looks like just another symptom of the deeper crisis of accountability within American society as a whole. From bankers responsible for the financial crisis – to unaccountable cops in Ferguson – to wealthy american teens running over people without any serious consequences – to unconstitutional NSA surveillance programs; there is a deeply flawed morality at work within our justice system.

    This is a signal to anyone in a position of power or leadership that they can act with impunity. It’s pretty clear at this point that we live in a time of profound historical tyranny despite the technological advances that have made life generally much easier than in the past.

    No individual or institution seems to be exempt from this systemic corruption which is creeping us towards a catastrophic societal collapse. Almost everybody knows it deep down, but we live in times of grandiose and delusional denial. How else can a guy suppress everyones pay, put the difference in his pocket, and then tell everyone that he saved their jobs? Grandiose delusional denial.

    The concept of the “Greater Good” is hopelessly lost on most of the current generation of leaders in America. It’s as if we are on a sinking ship and it’s a total free for all, but right now it’s only the wealthy and powerful fully engaged in the lawlessness. How long before it spreads everywhere? I suppose that’s why law enforcement needs all those battle ready humvees.

  • William Bradford

    Because unlike LA, San Fran is a nice place to live. Same as here in Vancouver. Really though, if you work in animation, you’re not someone who needs anything bigger then an apartment. Lets face it, it’s a profession that, in certain ways, is barely important enough to earn a decent wage on, but not enough to own anything as frivolous as a whole house. I’d prefer to live in a nice city with character and have a tiny apartment then a depressingly pointless sprawling suburban hell like Van Nuys. ONE financial trade off of San Fran is that you can avoid the expense of a car because the transit is useable

    • WJD

      “…but not enough to own anything as frivolous as a whole house.”

      Yes, owning something that gains equity is “frivolous”.

      • bbnyc

        My sense was that Mr. Bradford had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he wrote this.

        • William Bradford

          Partly yes (I really gotta stop using my real name on these things). Though it does seem a shame that apartment dwellings (and public transit) are marked as sign a of underachievement: that was one thing I noticed about LA compared to San Fran. Really most of that didn’t have much to do with the Cartell scandal, nor the studios motivations for moving there, in retrospect…

          • DangerMaus

            Hey, if it works for you then more power to you. I couldn’t imagine paying 1000+/month in rent for a dumpster sized apartment just to live in a dump like Vancouver.

            At least in the BC dump where I’m at I can afford to live in a house. Unfortunately, there is no animation industry where I reside, because everybody decided that BC ended at the Vancouver city limits. Although, it sounds like it is not the industry to be in if a person wants to do more than subsist.

    • bob

      You have an incredibly narrow view on this. First of all, your opinon on what people need is subjective… entirely subjective. Different people have different life paths and many don’t want to raise kids in the same type of apartment that they lived in while at college. You also seem lucky in that nothing too financially taxing has come up in your life yet. In terms of importance, from a social/scientific/political perspective I understand what you are trying to say, but culture in an artless society is much different than what you are used to and has it’s own deep seeded negative consequences. From a capitalist perspective, you are exactly what the machine was hoping to turn out (with respect)- someone who is ok with not seeing the bigger picture and will humbly go about turning his cog. From a financial point of view, it is totally unimportant to consider the social validity of animation. People are making billions of dollars by taking advantage of the hard work the individuals in their companies produce, yet the bulk of those people do not get a proportionate share of the income. It has become acceptable, in part, because of people with your view.

    • Christy

      Lets not over over generalize here, animators and artists have families to feed too. Not everyone can make do with a tiny SF apartment where more than half your income goes into rent. Its frustrating for us in the industry b/c we are so limited in where we can live and work.
      I would be all for some of these companies moving into cheaper parts of the country.

      • William Bradford

        I suppose I am generalizing too much, I do apologize. I’ve never lived in San Fran so I can only speculate how expensive it is. THOUGH Vancouver gets ranked as one of the most expensive places to live in North America; but animators here get by making less then what the lowest feature standard is. And most companies do seem to, wisely to be sure, move to cheaper parts of the country. I just don’t see why owning a small apartment in a convenient location is so terrible: me and my wife are close to all the amenities: has a great view of the water and the city, and a park. half the people in my apartment seem to have children, and I wish people didn’t look down on others because they think they’re not denying there kids a good life because they have a smaller living space. It’s true that half (or maybe more like a third) of my income would certainly go to rent if it was just me paying it: but on the other hand I think half my rent would be split between my mortgage, car and utilities if I lived in a cheaper area with a full house. I’m just saying you might pay a larger chunk upfront in a city, but there might be more indirect costs you are spared.

    • guest person

      And for those of us crazy enough to want a family? A partner and kids in a studio apartment doesnt sound like “living the dream” to me. Studios like Pixar tout themselves to be “family friendly” to their employees, but dont pay them enough to have families despite their talent, dedication, education, and countless hours they put in. Animators ARE highly skilled workers and DESERVE to be paid as such. Animated movies/vfx heavy films make insane profits in theaters, usually topping the box office. There is enough money to pay the artists!

      You dont speak for most animation professionals.

      • William Bradford

        I suppose “deserve” wasn’t the right choice of words: animation is definitely important in it’s own right and we work very hard at what we do. But sadly there’s lots of important profession, one’s that it’s reasonable to say are more important to everyone else then animation, that don’t pay much more. I have a feeling the unreasonable large amount of profit skimping the top brass in animation are doing is a rather ubiquitous problem in most professions: it’s bad and we should try to stop it from happening if we can to be sure, but when films are costing 150 to 200 million as is, not including marketing costs and the fact that studios only get about half of the films earnings; it’s kind of a symptom of much bigger problems

      • Ross

        No employer is meant to subsidize YOUR life choices! If you want a family, then it’s wise to pick a partner who has a decent paying job as well to subsidize THIS life choice! It’s not a biological imperative to reproduce, it’s a CHOICE! Plan for it accordingly! >:I

    • reality

      You can be the joker who pays $2500 a month for a sardine tin while your bosses can afford not only a 4000 sq ft. apartment/flat/loft in the city but also some big coastal estate in Mendocino county or any other vacation home spot. And as for the argument that the profession is “barely important enough to earn a decent wage” you’re just trolling. And you’re part of the problem enabling these dingleberries to get away with abusing their talent. The talent that helps them make a shit-ton of money every year. Most people are gonna own property by the time they retire and you’re still gonna be renting just to live in some city. Inflation will get worse and your stifled animation wage won’t mean anything, that is if you’re lucky enough to get steady work into your 50’s or 60’s. Enjoy your foolsih “young man” mentality, but the rest of us actually want to do something bigger with our lives than waste time dropping $30 for lunch at some bullshit inner city gentrified over-hyped foodie haven.

    • Jaosn

      Clearly all animators should live like hermits for ‘the love of the craft’.

      Let’s ignore how much said craft makes.

    • Hyena

      One could make the same argument about football players, yet look at the wads of cash that get invested into them U:

    • big bad balloon

      “Because unlike LA, San Fran is a nice place to live. Same as here in Vancouver.” But…you’ve never lived in San Fran so how would you know? I’m guessing you maybe haven’t lived in Van Nuys either. Of course you don’t have to live somewhere to understand it’s essence but it might help when you’re spouting out derogatory nonsense. I have friends who prefer San Fran, some who prefer LA and some who prefer the Midwest. Personal preference. I prefer the sunshine, conventions, lifestyles and diversity of LA. I suck.

      • William Bradford

        Never lived in San Fran no, that’s true. I did stay in Van Nuy for 3 months though. The sunshine was nice, don’t be me wrong. I guess in retrospect what I Should’ve wrote was that LA’s or Van Nuys are lousy places to live if you don’t want to get a car. THAT was my biggest turn off. Not very commuter friendly. What REALLY bugged me was that taking transit there was a sign of underachieving. San Fran, everyone takes it without be looked down on. NOW that might’ve changed in Van Nuy in recent years, to be sure.

    • Td

      Guess what…taking that approach gives the whole industry a bad wrap where artists can be taken advantage of…..nothing like eating kraft dinner when your 40,and have nothing saved for retirement. I know I don’t want a huge place but i sure as hell don’t want to live like a student and I lived in several cities including vancouver! Its easy to say”change professions” but why should I, I have 5 years of school under my belt and years of experience to show for it

  • Satoshi Nakamoto

    Rhythm and hues never reduced staff or wages while they were struggling and we all know how that ended…at the end of the day that crooked model supports thoudands of families, and if Pixar and ILM have gone bankrupt everyone will be very upset.

    • Jason

      Yes clearly it was because R/H paid their workers a fair salary is the real reason why they closed down.

      • Satoshi Nakamoto

        Those are the thoughts of John Hughes himself ( the founder of Rythm and Hues)

        • Jason

          That’s cute since that’s the same attitude as Ed Catmull and Co by wage fixing.

          The real reason R/H blew up was because of the nature of VFX as it is today. 0 owership and do whatever the client wants without increasing the price of said changes. Everyone should get paid minimum wage or else the entire industry will burn down!

          • Satoshi Nakamoto

            I knew some interns that got paid 60$/h at R&H, I think that’s well beyond minimum wage…

        • bob

          don’t be naive. Of course they’ll say that. Everyone new in the industry or those who are wanting to get in need to understand this is a business and people will take advantage of you if they can. Start trying to read between the lines.

    • bob

      This view is silly to me. If the top people in the studio were willing to make a few million less everything would be fine, even in the roughest times.

  • Well, my dreams are crushed.

    • Strong Enough


  • Chicken McPhee


    • Axolotl

      I am very offended by that. And anyway, it’s the Masons who should be blamed for all this.

  • Googamp32

    Well, even if Disney IS part of all this conspiracy nonsense, which I doubt, we can’t do much about it. All we can do is wait for the Disney lawyer gods to debunk this, watch Sony and Dreamworks to be destroyed in court, and save our anger for when Disney makes another CGI movie instead of using traditional animation.

    • Jason

      Thinks an evidence backed lawsuit is ‘conspiracy nonsense’.
      Thinks Disney is blameless despite no evidence backing that claim.
      Thinks that 2d vs 3d is better to argue than the livelihood of animation.

      Posts as Guest.

    • bob

      Oh jesus… you need to actually read the information out there before commenting further.

    • guest

      [Comment removed by editors. Per our commenting guidelines, “It is OK to post with a nickname or alias, but your email address (which we will NEVER share publicly), must be a real, permanent email address. Comments with fake or non-permanent emails will be deleted.”]

  • foodstampartist

    Not to mention all the artists that would rather not be named due to fear of being blacklisted from the studios…

    • Scrap Doodle

      Must be scary for the artists there. :C

  • AmidAmidi

    This is not about a “selfish employee.” It is about the president of Disney Animation allegedly orchestrating an industry-wide cartel to deprive thousands of workers, including those who made your beloved “Frozen,” of wages and career opportunities.

    • Googamp32

      Actually, I didn’t like Frozen.

  • Mike

    These are the legions of artists, not the higher-ups. We’re talking maybe high 5-figure salaries here. Maybe. I’m sure it’s a decent salary at the big studios, but they’re not exactly raking it in. And they deserve to be compensated for their skill, and earn more money for their tenure.

    Beyond that, what happens if this practice trickles down to the little studios? The ones where the artists are barely making a living wage?

  • Jason

    Yes lets drag everyone down to the lowest income level to help make you feel better about yourself.

  • Karl Hungus

    Consider all the family’s who struggled to (or could not) afford college for their kids while these villains were fixing salaries across the entire industry.

    No penalty is too stiff. What happened here is beyond criminal, its Un-American. These executives would lose their citizenship if I had my way.

  • Van

    I want to hear more from the artists that are currently working in these studios. Post anonymously but don’t be afraid of this type of tyranny. Let us know your frustrations and how you truly view your overlords. Silence helps perpetuate this egregious crime in the animation/vfx industry. Outsiders may ramble all they want but unless the people affected start to do something besides the Justice Department, things will never change.

  • Metlow Rovenstein

    Yay! Hopefully, the artists will win and the executives involved in this conspiracy get punished.

  • Guest

    oh yeah, sure? Punish the livelihood of the artists. Wonderful idea!

  • Strong Enough

    it seems like everyone who isn’t a suit is getting jerked around. WGA is having it’s problems as well.

  • AnimationCartel

    Is this sort of thing illegal in the UK? We all know MPC, D-Neg, Cinesite and Framestore are in cahoots.

  • Gunge

    Jeez. I just started reading Catmull’s book, ‘Creativity Inc.’ and was beginning to really admire the guy. Now I feel like I’m reading Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’.
    If true, what an SOB.

    • RCooke

      Why? The book is typical out-datedl HR mumbo jumbo, filled with self aggrandizing platitudes and loads of blatant B.S. If that wasn’t enough, any goodwill towards the book had the rug pulled out from under it by the author himself not only for the wage fixing conspiracy, but the insider trading scandal that rocked Pixar a few years ago.

      • Gunge

        I dunno. Still very early in the book, but I guess I still admire the pioneers of computer graphics who could glimpse the future when the field was still in its infancy. Just like I can admire the vision and ambition of guys like Walt Disney and Attila the Hun while still abhorring their ethics and human decency.

  • William Bradford

    Ah, that makes a lot more sense: I new of the Vancouver subsidies, I figured something similar was going on with the SF studios. Either way though, I’m guessing the cost of living to income gap in both cities pertain to lots of industries

  • Greg Boone

    Dang! If the complaint has merit, shit just got real.

  • Bongo

    This makes no sense. These studios still employ most of the top-level artists in the industry. Boycotting the films will just kill an industry, while the top dogs will just move on to some other money-making ploy. It’s the artists who would pay the price.

    • James Wade

      What money making ploy

  • James Madison

    I guess this no longer applies.

  • So happy that I’m gonna be dipping my toe in this acid bath in a matter of months. Who needs money, son, you’ve got “prestige”. The prestige of people being like “wait you make what?” when you tell them the amazing studio you work for.

  • melp

    I have a close relative that works under Disney as a Senior FX artist. It seems that he makes quite a pretty penny despite complaining about his wages being lower than average for his position. But that’s all I got, sorry.

  • JestersTear

    Not gonna happen. I’ve watched things happen that would have had the streets filled with angry protesters back in the 60s or 70s.

    Now, though, they push the envelope bit by bit and watch our reactions to see if they can get away with more.

    Sadly, we’re so numbed into stupidity by our flashy toys, we don’t care any more.

    You know what the biggest danger is? The internet. People like to praise the internet as a way of sharing information, but now people have grown so stupid that they think they’ve “done their part” just by posting a complaint on Facebook or Twitter.

  • Ross

    There are NO victims in this! Every artist is FREE to go and/or start their OWN business!

  • Ross

    @William Bradford: GOOD FOR YOU! :D Stick to your convictions! LOVE YOU FOR IT! Much respect! :D

  • Internetimagery

    So… who gets the money if they are sued? What do the hard workers, hard done by, get out of this? What is the likely outcome of a successful (for us) trial?

  • Jiff

    And now they’ll spend buckets of money fighting this off. Money that they could have maybe paid people with. There’s always money flying around, just not in all the right directions.

  • James Wade

    this is the type of mentality thats killing animation

  • I agree ;)

  • Foreign Devil

    If the corporations “unionize” with each other or form a common front to keep wages low. . then by all means the workers should form their own union. The workers union will be much bigger and at least equally as powerful. That is the only way to fight back.