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Ettamogah: not drawing cheques

A New Zealand animation company completed work on Australian production company Ettamogah’s Wakkaville several months ago. The company now says that it is still waiting for more than $30,000 in overdue payments.

Ettamogah constructed a purpose built animation studio in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton, which staff regarded as effective and comfortable. Ettamogah Entertainment secured a presale to deliver Wakkaville, a 2D animated children’s series for the Nine Network

The series was delivered to Nine on schedule, although it has yet to air.

Ettamogah then embarked on a more ambitious 3D animation series for Network Ten, Li’l Larrikins.

According to a well placed source, Ettamogah financed Wakkaville (26 x 30 minutes) from the the domestic pre-sale (to Nine) at a price understood to be less than AU$95,000 per episode. $95,000 is the minimum presale amount allowed under Screen Australia’s terms of trade.

The Australian Children’s TV Foundation was formerly the sales agent, but is no longer. Ettamogah offered both Wakkaville and Li’l Larrikins at MIPCOM last month but it’s unclear whether any sales resulted.

The NZ animation company is not alone. Former Ettamogah staff have called in the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance to assist them in re-couping wages and superannuation that they claim is owing.

The New Zealand company worked on 3 episodes of the series and delivered the final work in April. That was when the staged payments ceased.

The company is also put-out because it claims that the contract was not a lucrative one to start with. It decided to offset the limited commercial value of the project by using it as an opportunity to upskill some staff. Having borne the costs of purchasing and training on the Toon Boom animation software, Wakkaville became an at-cost delivery.

According to the NZ company, four weeks ago Ettamogah offered a regular payment arrangement to clear the outstanding amount. The offer was accepted, but no payments have been forthcoming and Ettamogah have stopped taking calls from the Kiwis.

Last Thursday, a group of animators from Ettamogah held a meeting with Eleisha Mullane, the lead organiser for the Victorian branch of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), the Australian union which covers the sector, enabling MEAA to deal with the company on behalf of its new members.

At its peak, Ettamogah employed between 100 and 120 people, but according to Mullane, on or about the 21st of October, between forty and fifty were stood down, and – as she paraphrased – “told that we may not be able to put you back on for between two and eight weeks.”

A number of staff members also discovered that their superannuation (9% on top of wages or salary) had not been paid for several months, Mullane said.

The animators told her that as of last Thursday, only a group of lead animators had been asked to stay on, to maintain the project. A company representative allegedly told several people that the project had “gone into hibernation.”

These people too were not sure when they would be paid – again the company suggested that it would take between two and eight weeks, Mullane said.

The MEAA wrote to Ettamogah on Thursday, asking it “to prove they are a going concern, and they are financially viable. And they haven’t been able to provide us with any evidence at this stage.” Further conversations occurred on the phone on Friday 6th, which did not advance the situation, according to Mullane.

The industry has known that Ettamogah’s production path was disrupted since the last week in October, when animators began emailing contacts asking for work urgently. No staff or freelancers felt able to speak on the record. As one told us, “I still think there might be some chance of getting my money. This may be lame or idle hopelessness, but who knows.”

Leigh O’Brien, the owner of the company, said, “I don’t give interviews.”

MEAA is also representing the voice over artists, and has said that it is happy to talk to writers who have not been paid, on an informal basis – with official representation remaining with the Australian Writers’ Guild. At least four writers have claimed that they are owed money..

Cherrie Bottger, Head of Children’s Television at Network Ten, and Board Member of Screen Australia, said yesterday (Tuesday) that Ettamogah had adhered to its expected deadlines for the scripts, and that nothing untoward was apparent to her. She expected Li’l Larrikins to be delivered in 2010, for broadcast in the second half of the year.

It is difficult to estimate the total amount of the debts being claimed against Ettamogah at present.