The Vancouver production company behind the animated box-office hit Sausage Party is facing allegations of not paying overtime and pressing employees to work for free in making the irreverent film about supermarket food that tries to avoid being eaten.
As the new R-rated movie topped the box office last weekend, The Hollywood Reporter disclosed that a newly released letter signed by 30 animators raised questions about how they were treated.
The letter, says the Reporter, alleges "unfair pressure tactics" were used to intimidate staff into working past official studio hours, and that staff were told other departments were "voluntarily" working overtime.
According to one animator interviewed by the Reporter, "There were countless hours of free time. … So it was a consensus. We don't need to put up with this."
Production company Nitrogen Studios Canada Inc. rejected the claims.
"These are all unfounded allegations and the claims are completely without merit. Our production adhered to all overtime laws and regulations as well as our contractual obligations with our artists," Nitrogen representative Nicole Stinn said in a statement.
Vancouver-born actor Seth Rogen, who has made the films 50/50 and The Interview in the Vancouver region, worked on the story and screenplay for the film, and was a co-producer. Mr. Rogen also did voice work on the film along with an all-star cast that includes Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Paul Rudd, Edward Norton and Salma Hayek.
The film, which was released by Sony Pictures, grossed $33.6-million in North America on its opening weekend. Sausage Party was produced for $19-million, a price the Reporter noted is less than most CGI-animated films.
On Wednesday, Sony Pictures Entertainment said through a spokesperson that it had no comment, noting it was not directly involved in making the film.
In an interview with the Cartoon Brew website, Sausage Party's co-director Greg Tiernan, who is also Nitrogen's chief creative officer, declined to confirm the specific budget. But he said he had seen "so much money just needlessly thrown down the toilet" working in the L.A. industry.
"It doesn't have to cost that much money when you're well-organized and you have your mind set on the goal of what you want to do, and you get the job done with a small, determined crew."
The interview elicited postings raising concerns about overtime and work conditions on the project.
According to Nitrogen's website, the operation was launched in 2003 and has a full feature-film and TV-series production pipeline. Its current project is TrollHunters for Dreamworks/Netflix. Completed productions are Sausage Party, as well as Thomas & Friends. Kodee's Canoe is listed as an original Nitrogen property.
Nitrogen, according to the site, averages at least 100 artists on any given production.
The company operates from a facility with a "spacious staff lounge" that includes a TV, gaming systems, performance stage, pool table, foosball and darts, as well as an on-site gym, shower facilities, bike room and roof deck.
Jennifer Morneau, vice-president of Unifor Local 2000, which has represented media workers, said she had not seen the letter. However, she said she wasn't surprised by such concerns being raised about the province's digital sector, part of the booming production industry in B.C.
Ms. Morneau said her union is seeking to represent digital workers so she has been speaking to employees in the sector since the spring.
Ms. Morneau claimed unpaid overtime complaints are common. "There's always this feeling of being in a perpetual probation period," she said.
She noted that other professions within the production sector, including actors, directors, set crews and writers, have union protection while animation and visual-effects staff are without such protection.
DigiBC, which represents BC's creative digital industries, declined comment on labour issues in the sector. "We are aware of the issue and are monitoring it," said spokesperson Patrick Sauriol in an e-mail.