Suspended Animation

When Pearse Cullinane left Dublin to work for Fox Animation Studios in Phoenix, he hadn't counted on losing his rights in a right-to-work state. These days the only line he's drawing is in the sand.

With no merchandising tie-ins, aggressive marketing campaign and precious little word of mouth, Titan A.E. leaked out into theaters June 16, came in ninth at the box office in its opening weekend and was shunted into dollar cinemas almost immediately.

Director Don Bluth could not be reached for comment. But in an Animation World Magazine interview conducted after the shutdown, Bluth spoke about the crew he had hand-picked and trained.

"All the people who make a picture work really hard," he said, "and they think, 'We're really going to make something really wonderful.' The people who have control of the distribution -- that's the ruthless part."

From Titan A.E.
From Titan A.E.
Titan A.E. did not get the promotion it needed to succeed, says Cullinane.
Titan A.E. did not get the promotion it needed to succeed, says Cullinane.

When asked if the "folks from the former Fox Studio" were waiting for his next project, Bluth added cryptically, "The 'folks' -- as you put it -- are gone" -- as if they all had abandoned ship.

Truth be told, Fox forced many of its "folks" -- predominantly non-resident aliens from Ireland and the Philippines who were in Phoenix on work visas -- to walk the plank. That's all, folks.

As soon as Fox wiped its hands of these foreign laborers, their visas became invalid -- they could be deported unless they found other employment in the United States. Without contracts, most felt they had no legal recourse but to accept whatever piddling settlements Fox offered.

The six foreign workers who did have contracts were offered 30 percent of the contract value. Pearse Cullinane was one of them.

"After Anastasia, I was given my little crown for top-footage person, for most output on a movie," he recalls.

Fox recognized his prolificacy in July 1999, sent him a congratulatory letter and extended his contract to June 2001.

As the Phoenix studio emptied, Cullinane reminded Fox that his contract still had 14 months left on it. He claims Fox Animation's head of human resources informed him that since "Arizona is a right-to-work state," the contract was not binding. Fox execs also told him that he would not be able to seek employment elsewhere unless he signed the contract waiver.

He chose to fight Fox instead.

On March 8, Cullinane's attorney, E. Bernard Buffenstein, filed a complaint against Fox Animation Studios, charging breach of contract -- a charge Fox lawyers don't even address in their motion for dismissal.

Cullinane's lawsuit also alleges racketeering -- that Fox schemed to hire non-residents to minimize its exposure to lawsuits by employees who could be easily purged once the work ran out.

"They evidently brought a bunch of people over from the Philippines on the same basis," says Buffenstein of the racketeering claim. "I think the [Fox financial plan] was dependent on the success of the work product, but the decisions that were made didn't factor in the obligations to the employees.

". . . they just ignored the obligation because they figured Pearse would be deported and have to go back to Ireland and they'd never hear from him again. Well, he's not in Ireland, he's here. He's got a provisional green card because he married a U.S. resident."

As for breach of contract, Fox did not claim Cullinane was fired for cause, obviously. Fox had just renewed his contract.

"There was also a provision in the contract which compensated for extra footage, and they haven't paid him that, either," Buffenstein adds. "The judge denied Fox's move to dismissal, and that's where we're at in this stage of litigation."

Phone calls to Fox's lawyers and its human resources department were not returned.

If settlement talks do not get resolved, Cullinane's case will probably be tried next spring.

Of the half-dozen or so breach-of-contract complaints filed against the studio, Cullinane's is the only one Fox hasn't settled.

Cullinane says when it became clear he intended to fight for what was owed him, Fox officials immediately told him, "You will not be able to outlast us. We can litigate this thing forever."

That's the luck of the Irish for you.

Unable to find an animation job and with his wife unable to work because of health problems, Cullinane, who is in his mid-30s, can't even collect public assistance because he still hasn't obtained a permanent green card.

"It takes you so freakin' long in Phoenix to get your green card. I have a friend in Philadelphia who got his in two weeks. It's nearly three years for me.

"The people at social welfare told me that if I lose my house, bring statements that say I have zero in my bank accounts and I'm on the streets, they might be able to help me," he says. "So what do I do? Work at Taco Bell or McDonald's until I get my green card? To me the States is the place you make a decent living. That's the whole point of moving here."

Cullinane shakes his head. "I'm not interested in living the American nightmare."

The Dubliner, a lively Irish pub in an otherwise desolate strip mall at 38th Street and Thunderbird, served as a literal home away from home for the 60 Dublin animators who transferred here to work for Fox.

It's also where Cullinane met his wife, Patty, a transplanted New Jerseyite. It's where he made some of his best friends in America. As Cullinane settles to a round of drinks in his former after-work hangout, his conversation is frequently punctuated by the back-slaps of regulars coming in for a few pints.

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