The "Bojack Horseman" crew wearing Animation Guild t-shirts outside Shadowmachine. The "Bojack Horseman" crew wearing Animation Guild t-shirts outside Shadowmachine.

Netflix’s acclaimed animated series Bojack Horseman is currently in production on its sixth season, but despite the widespread success of the show, the show’s production crew has struggled to receive the same wages and benefits that most Los Angeles artists are granted through union-covered productions.

Sources with knowledge of the situation, including a Bojack crewmember involved in organizing, provided Cartoon Brew a detailed rundown of the actions undertaken by the Bojack crew at Shadowmachine, the Los Angeles-studio behind the adult-oriented program, in order to persuade their employer to negotiate. (Shadowmachine produces the show through an LLC subsidiary, Animal Head Animation.)

Artists working on Bojack have wanted to unionize since the show’s first season was in production, but back then their intentions were discouraged by their employers. At the same time, Michael Eisner’s The Tornante Company, which owns the show, employed writers and voice-over talent who have been unionized from the beginning through WGA and SAG-AFTRA, the respective unions covering those crafts. This has caused friction for the Bojack crew, which believes that there is a tier system of unionization that values some of the talent more than others.

It should be noted here, too, that the lack of unionization on Bojack is an anomaly for the show’s main distributor, Netflix. Upwards of 50 animated series on the streaming service, including most of its in-house animation productions in L.A., are covered by the Animation Guild Local 839 IATSE, the union that represents animation artists. Bojack (along with Tuca & Bertie, also produced by Shadowmachine and non-union) are a different situation since Netflix licenses the show from Tornante Company.

Shadowmachine itself is farthest down the food chain and serves as the work-for-hire production company for Tornante. It finds itself in a difficult position, as it must negotiate not only with the union-hungry Bojack crew, but also with The Tornante Company, who pays it to produce the show. A Shadowmachine spokesperson told Cartoon Brew that the company is always in favor of providing the highest possible wages and benefits allowed by a show’s budget and that it produces other shows under Animation Guild agreements.

In fact, Shadowmachine’s desire to offer union benefits whenever possible may have further inflamed tensions at the company. A major catalyst for the Bojack crew to push for unionization on the show’s sixth season is Shadowmachine’s simultaneous production of the TBS series Final Space, for which they are currently finishing the second season. Final Space started out as a union show from its inception, which meant that those Shadowmachine employees were receiving union wages and benefits for doing the same creative tasks as the Bojack crew.

Artists on the Bojack crew, Cartoon Brew has been told, are demoralized sitting across from co-workers who have jumped from Bojack over to Final Space, and whose salaries increased $400-500 per week for the same work, simply because one show was unionized and the other wasn’t.

The push for change at Shadowmachine started back in October 2018, when the Bojack crew felt that they had enough power in numbers to ask the employer to unionize the show. The Bojack crew currently attempting to unionize includes close to 50 people comprised of storyboard artists, directors, background artists, supervisors for all the different departments, character designers, prop designers, and compositors.

By March 2019, about 75% of the crew were in favor and had signed representation cards to become an Animation Guild signator facility. That’s when the Animation Guild informed the show’s producers that they had sufficient numbers to unionize.

Shadowmachine’s response was that they wouldn’t acknowledge the crew’s numbers. The studio’s response frustrated the artists, so they decided to stage an extremely brief walkout. On Friday, March 29, most people on the Bojack crew got up from their seats and walked out of the studio for 10 minutes. By the time they came back, one of the studio owners and some of the management were standing out front. The Bojack crew felt that their walkout shocked their employers.

The following Monday, April 1, the studio called a meeting, in which one of the studio owners stated to the staff that Shadowmachine would acknowledge that the crew had accumulated enough rep cards to unionize, and that they would begin negotiations with the crew.

Following the walkout, there was a slow down in communication from the studio. About a week later, the union provided the artists with Animation Guild t-shirts, which they distributed among the Bojack crew. They took a photo in front of the studio with crewmembers wearing the shirts, which they used for a social media blast posted on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The "Bojack Horseman" crew wearing Animation Guild t-shirts outside Shadowmachine.
The “Bojack Horseman” crew wearing Animation Guild t-shirts outside Shadowmachine.

Once the information of their fight reached social media, they received support from two of Bojack’s voice actors: Patton Oswalt and Paul F. Tompkins, as well as some of the writers. SAG-AFTRA also expressed their support.

However, Bojack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, production designer Lisa Hanawalt (also the creator of Tuca & Bertie), producer and voice actor Aaron Paul, and lead voice actor Will Arnett, have not publicly stated that they are in favor of the crew unionizing. A crewmember told Cartoon Brew that they believed more support from these figureheads would be meaningful to their cause.

The Bojack crew and their employers negotiated for several hours on April 19 with the support of two Animation Guild union reps and a union attorney. The result was a proposal from Shadowmachine that didn’t include the union benefits that the artists were seeking, thus they chose to reject the studio’s offer. The union has now sent a new proposal, and both parties are scheduled to restart negotiations next Wednesday, May 8.

In this particular case, aside from providing legal services, the role of the Animation Guild has been to let the Bojack crew know that they aren’t asking for anything unreasonable, and that other shows in a similar vein, such as Rick & Morty, have also recently unionized. Bojack’s artists, in fact, are not demanding anything more than what other Animation Guild-repped shows already receive, including wage minimums, healthcare benefits, and pensions plans.

In a statement to Cartoon Brew, Jason MacLeod, business representative of The Animation Guild, expressed the union’s stance on the issue:

As a labor union, we believe all workers should have a voice in the animation industry. We believe everyone should have access to quality employer-paid healthcare, fair wages and be able to retire with dignity.

The Bojack Horseman writing staff and voice actors are represented by their respective unions — the WGA and SAG-AFTRA — so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the animation talent working on the show decided they wanted to be afforded the same benefits. The crew organized and sought representation from The Animation Guild.

The Animation Guild supports the talented animation crew in their efforts to organize.

When the Bojack crew sit down again with their employers next Wednesday, they hope that the studio will negotiate in good faith and that they can reach an equitable deal. However, the crew recognizes that they may not get the results they want, and remains prepared to use every tool at its disposal. All options currently remain on the table, including more walkouts and possibly even striking.

The Shadowmachine subsidiary that produces the show hopes to avoid all of that. In a statement to Cartoon Brew, the producers said, “Animal Head Animation is pleased to be in talks with Local 839 and we look forward to reaching an agreement.”

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