EXCLUSIVE: Steve Hulett is saying goodbye to Hollywood. The longest-serving union leader in the film and TV industry, he’s retiring today after 27 years as the business rep of the Animation Guild, IATSE Local 839. “I plan to travel and do a lot of recreational sleeping,” he laughed in an exit interview with Deadline.
Hulett leaves his post with the state of the local animation business strong, he said, especially on the TV side. But it could be stronger still if animated films and TV shows were eligible for California tax incentives. Fully animated projects are not eligible under the California tax credit program, but animated elements, as part of visual effects, are considered qualified expenditures.
“Atlanta has subsidies for animation, and so does Canada, England and Australia, but not here in California,” Hulett said. “I am going to recommend to my successor to try and get subsidies for animation. I think subsidies would expand the number of jobs here.”
Like all the other industry’s labor leaders, Hulett fought hard for passage of the state’s incentives program, but unlike all the other unions, the Animation Guild has received no benefits from it. “I campaigned for the bill, but they’d already drafted it,” he said. “I was up in Sacramento lobbying for the bill quite a bit.”
California — the home of Disney, DreamWorks Animation and Pixar — has long been a major force in animation, and the reason animation was excluded from the incentives, he said, is that legislators “didn’t want to subsidize what’s already here.”
It’s a strategy that’s cost a lot of jobs in the state. Sony Pictures Imageworks moved its headquarters to Vancouver last year and shot The Angry Birds Movie there. Sony’s Sausage Party filmed there, too.
“The stuff that’s done here is writing, storyboarding, designing and art direction, and animation direction,” Hulett said, “and then they ship it to studios far away where they either pick up free money in Canada, Britain and Australia, or cheap wages in the Philippines. They’re all doing it. It’s no secret. They go where the subsidies are. Warner Bros does some feature work at Animal Logic studios in Sydney. They did Happy Feet and Happy Feet 2 in Australia, and I believe they got subsidies.”
Georgia’s subsidies are also drawing animation work. The Cartoon Network has a studio there, and so does Bento Box.
The jobs pictures is something of a “mixed bag,” Hulett said. “We’re at an all-time high in membership, and TV is very robust. But there’s a retrenchment in feature film animation. Our friends at DreamWorks are laying off — sizeable layoffs — and Disney has had some layoffs. They don’t have a picture in the works, but feature film work is always a mixed bag. Chinese companies are coming in to do preproduction work — some covered (by the guild’s contract) and some not. We have a contract with Original Force, a big company in China with a satellite studio in Culver City. They’re developing features for the American and Chinese market.”
“But animation in L.A. is holding its own,” he said. “It says two things about the strength of animation here: we have a deep talent pool and a lot of overseas studios want to access that, and there’s a lot of successful work in town and studios generally don’t want to mess with things that are working well. So that works in our favor. Overall, we’re doing very well, which is particularly satisfying because we don’t get subsidies like live action does.”
Hulett also is reflecting on everything the guild has given him. Besides 27 years of steady employment — he was elected and re-elected nine times — he also owes his family to the guild. He met his wife Janette on the picket line in 1982 during a 10-week strike against Disney. “We were both on Alameda with our picket signs,” he laughs.
The son of a longtime Disney animator who crossed the picket line during the bitter strike of 1941, Hulett got his start in the business in the late 1970s as a trainee in the studio’s story department. Working his way up to journey story man, he was a script and sequence writer on such Disney films as The Black Caldron, The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company.
But unlike his father 41 years earlier, when the guild struck the studio in 1982, he decided to “hit the bricks” and join the strike. And that’s where he met his future wife, the daughter of Charlie Downs, a founding member of the guild and a past president. “She was working in the ink and paint department,” he recalls. “I’d never laid eyes on her because she was in another building. But she looked good to me and I started chatting her up. We started dating and we’ve been married 33 years.”
The strike didn’t succeed — it was called off after 10 weeks — but the marriage did.
They have two sons: Greg, a manager at Southwest Airlines, and Alex, a student at Cal State Northridge.
After the strike, Hulett became active in the guild and joined the union’s board of directors the next year. On November 13, 1989, was elected to its top post, a job he’s held continuously until today.
“It’s been an enjoyable, interesting, challenging, and at times, aggravating 27 years and three weeks,” he said. “You have to be able to deal with the studios, deal with angry members who think you’re not doing the job for them, and you have to deal with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Mike Miller, who currently runs the IATSE’s West Coast office, has been absolutely great, but there have been some International presidents who did not like me a whole lot. At one time or another, I’ve been yelled at by every International president I’ve served under.” Always the diplomat, he declined to say which one three yelled the loudest.
Of his successor MacLeod, Hulett said, “I’ve been working with Jason in the transition, and he’s going to be a really solid and terrific business representative.”