Do it. Prove me wrong. If you can.
Here’s the thing though. This isn’t a mathematical proof. You can’t prove me wrong with arguments made of words, math, logic and history. You can only prove me wrong with empirical evidence. You actually have to do what I’m saying cannot or will not be done. Then, you’ll have proved me wrong. But you won’t.
Yes, I am trolling you. Because apparently, that’s the only thing that motivates people anymore. I don’t want you to click on an ad or read an article. I want you to get off your butts and save the darn industry for yourselves. No one else is going to do it for you.
And if you hate me for that: Whatever. Hate me.
The Visual Effects Society (VES) is an Opiate
The VES (of which I am a member) has quelled the average VFX worker into believing that someone else more qualified, more senior and more able is working on the problem. Have they stated as much? No. Is it their direct intention to quell workers? No. But it is the direct result of their existence. And it is worsened when they tepidly try to help. Any time they appear to act, they lull the very people that should not be lulled.
The VES is an honorary society. They are not a union, trade organization or lobbying group. They have “no teeth,” as Scott Ross puts it. They cannot actually do anything of import in these matters.
Their one malleable tool is their “education” mandate. But they are also internally conflicted. Therefore their voice and message are moderated. This is counterproductive. It does not stoke action. It does the opposite.
The average VFX worker doesn’t focus-on or specialize-in labor-law, politics, economics, business, etc. They simply go by their broad feeling and understanding. Like most voters do. Their feeling and assumption, is that the VES is a big powerful group that’s doing something positive. Progress has been made. And since there is no actual concise call to a specific action up front, no action is taken.
If the VES could do one thing to help it would be to clearly and repeatedly remind VFX workers that it cannot effectively deal with these problems at all. The VES needs to do what politicians and their minions do. They need to hit the talking point again and again. Something like:
The VES exists to promote and honor the vocation, industry and achievements of Visual Effects in the Motion Picture industry. The VES can not take a position on the contentious issues that exist within and around the Visual Effects industry today. As always, we will continue in our role as the honorary society for the Visual Effects industry, whatever direction it takes.
Such a talking point is clear. The VES can’t help. You have to do it yourselves. They have been unable to find a clear and concise message that stokes action. But they need to be clear about their inability to act, to keep from becoming part of the problem. That is the best service they could do at this point.
As announced on their website and via press-release, to much fanfare, the VES commissioned and published a white-paper. It got coverage in the industry mags. If you read it, it’ll present all kinds of interesting concepts and problems. I’d argue that it’s a little watered down. But that’s irrelevant. Because no-one reads white-papers.
Rather, the average VFX worker sees that such a thing has been written and released, and assumes people in positions of power have written and/or read the white-paper, and are going to use it to fix the industry. Is that a correct assumption? No. Does it nonetheless quell the average VFX worker into inaction simply by existing? Yes.
The white-paper can’t be undone. But it should not be put forward as some kind of framework or solution anymore. VFX workers should not be told to read it and find solutions. VFX workers should be made aware, that it has no actual solutions and to look elsewhere for actions to take.
An effort was lead by Scott Ross to form a Trade Association of VFX Companies. It failed.
Why did it fail? Because VFX Companies feel they are okay. They didn’t particularly like having to spend the money to open up shops in Vancouver or whichever city is giving the studios their kickback money this year. But they do like fighting to the death with one another. To them, other VFX Companies going under is what they want. It reaffirms to those that are still standing, that they’re doing a good job. They’re probably right.
VFX workers are just collateral damage or expendable resources to them. VFX Companies don’t actually prioritize their workers. That’s not their purpose. Maybe, just maybe, some privately owned facilities do truly value their workers above all other priorities. But ultimately, a company that has complex ownership and officers (essentially, one that is corporate), is a soulless thing beholden to money and the gratification of those that run it. Lets face it. Any facility that isn’t currently building some kind of capacity in India, China or some other extremely low-cost labor market, isn’t doing a good job. As the saying goes: It’s show-business, not show-friends.
VFX Companies will only form a trade association if they are forced to. The studios won’t force them. But if workers formed an international VFX guild, that would force an international trade association to form, simply to negotiate with said guild.
Perhaps the most important issue here, is that it has not been trumpeted loudly enough that the trade association failed. Further, it hasn’t been trumpeted that: The only way to make it happen in the future, is to gain leverage via organized labor, and force the companies into a trade organization.
Much earlier on, the VES made a call to increase California’s tax incentives. This was a contentious action. It was discordant with a large constituency of Los Angeles VFX workers who see tax incentives as a big part of the problem.
In turn, that anti-tax-incentive constituency is discordant with an international VFX constituency, primarily centered in Vancouver, London and New Zealand, who see them as protectionist, slovenly, arrogant and entitled Americans, who lost their jobs to more talented people around the world.
In turn, a Los Angeles constituency sees the international VFX constituency as undeserving thieves, who took American jobs by illegal-economic-force.
And then there are those on either side, swayed by either side’s counter arguments. There may be reasonable people to be accounted for. But they’re not talking. It’s the polarized ones doing the yelling.
All of these groups (and more) are members of the VES and the larger VFX community. Therefore, we are paralyzed. No one can compromise. No one can seem to keep critical and complex thoughts in their head on the matter and come to proper, balanced conclusions that don’t incriminate and recriminate ad-nauseam.
Some realistic thoughts follow. You can tell they’re realistic, because everyone has something to hate in them somewhere.
- There are cost-of-living disparities between different areas\regions\countries that probably do justify some application of tax-incentives to remedy, should that politic feel they want to spend tax dollars to compete in the international VFX market.
- Those cost-of-living discrepancies, as expressed by consumer price indexes, or housing costs, or whatever economic indicators; do not equal the 60% tax-credit given to a production company for doing work in Vancouver, for example. Monies exchanged in excess of a reasonable cost-of-doing-business adjustment are really just bribes paid by taxpayers to the studios.
- A proper countervailing duty (CVD) is just an inverse tax-incentive, that can be used to bring the potential revenue of the VFX industry up, in areas that have the talent to compete internationally. If two major film markets have properly implemented dueling CVDs, they effectively raise the floor to the highest of the two floors. They do not lower the ceiling for everyone the way tax-credits do. Further, feature film VFX talent is premium talent. Feature films are the apex predator of the entertainment market. The floor should be raised in that market. Just like it is for Screen Actors Guild actors and Directors Guild directors, via their guild’s contracts.
- Hollywood’s yearly production budget is a limited resource and there are only so many VFX jobs in any year as a result. “Harry Potter” wasn’t made in addition to the normal yearly production budget. It was a big chunk of it for many years. Other movies didn’t get made, because “Potter” did get made. At the time, a number of Los Angeles based VFX artists didn’t work, because JK Rowling’s contracts required that the lions-share of the production budget be spent in the UK. London’s VFX facilities would not have won most of their contracts or gotten the funding to expand, were it not for JK Rowling’s contract demands, that guaranteed them the work. You can argue the morality of such a contract demand all you like (That “Harry Potter” is a national treasure, is a compelling counter-point). But that it had such an industry effect, is not disputable.
- Now that London’s VFX facilities are world class and huge, they will continue to be a large part of the market going forward, as long as the playing field is level. LA needs to accept that. But London must understand, that they were built based on a one-sided deal, and they could just as quickly lose to such a one-sided deal if they don’t focus on making a level playing field for everyone.
- While it is true that the VFX market has grown, it is also clearly true that various international constituencies have quite literally taken the VFX jobs away from Los Angeles, en mass. That both the periods of growth and of ill-gotten-gains are partially overlaid, doesn’t mean that only one of those things actually happened. There is no justifiable reason for LA’s VFX market to have shrunk while the overall market grew, outside of nefarious reasons, that is. But also, all that growth was not destined entirely for LA. A growth of the market outside LA was likely to happen naturally as well.
- There have been, and always will be exceptional VFX facilities in all corners of the globe that deserve to win contracts, and should win contracts. LA isn’t always going to win. Many contracts have been won on their merits. But if things are truly fixed, we can be assured that most, if not all contracts, will be won on their merits. Which is what everyone wants to be the case.
That all being said, no compromise on tax incentives will be reached via discussion or consensus, because the average VFX worker is too entrenched in knee-jerk inspired positions of self-interest. And they’re not going to simultaneously learn enough about world economics and develop enough clear headed empathy, to somehow unblock the matter. Politics has never been able to accomplish this. Why will we? And lastly, even if consensus is reached, that does not provide a path of action. The MPAA would lobby against any political action. So it’s a moot point. We can’t out-lobby the MPAA.
Countervailing Duty (CVD)
The only positive thing I’ve seen of late that has a chance of success is VFX Soldier’s CVD effort. Why? Because it’s easily sold. For example, the following pitch:
At the end of the day, my dear colleague, we’ve been screwed over. And we don’t have to convince the whole planet that we’re right. We have the power to fix it ourselves. So if for no other reason than self interest, just help Soldier’s CVD effort. Let the rest of the world complain all they want. We have a right to protect ourselves too. Let them pass their own CVD if they want to. I’d rather have dueling CVDs than dueling tax-credits.
See? It’s an easy argument. And if you really truly feel that a CVD would be abusive, then do more than that. Make sure it’s done in such a way that creates parity so that it evens the playing field. It should let areas that need to offset cost-of-living disparity do so fairly but accurately. Make sure the UK and other major film markets ALSO enact CVD styled solutions such that everyone is backed up by everyone else’s CVD. The floor will be raised all over the world as high as it needs to be, to create parity and keep feature film VFX being the premium product that it has been and should be.
Senior Leadership is Conflicted
The VES leadership and VFX facility leadership fundamentally has a conflict-of-interests when it comes to saving VFX for VFX workers. There are very few individual exceptions to this. Their conflict is that they want to curry favor with the studios. And they know to do that, they must help the studios satiate their investors ravenous needs. A simple perusal of the VES “partners” page shows funding coming from Disney. Most if not all board members and elected officials are supervisors, producers, facility owners, partners, officers, etc. They are all dependent on the studios for their patronage. Or, they hope to be.
They can not for example, fervently push for VFX workers to form a guild, which would anger studio investors. They can not fervently push for action against tax incentives, which would anger studio investors.
I am not suggesting that they in-fact are directly in contact with the studios, who are telling them to keep quiet. That is not the nature of a conflict-of-interests. Rather, I am saying they each feel implicit pressure to moderate, to back off, to create moral equivalency where maybe there is none, etc.
Heck, publishing this article pretty much guarantees me an unofficial black-ball from any studio that googles me. Luckily, I decided a while ago that I don’t want to play that game. But anyone who’s still in the game naturally must tread lightly. I would. Wouldn’t you?
But back to senior leadership. Again, like the VES itself, I feel the best they could do as a group, is trumpet a simple message over and over:
We cannot help. You have to do it for yourselves.
Instead, we get platitudes about shepherding the industry into the new global economy. Or we get stoking talks about finding the new solutions to the exciting problems of our new reality. Guess what? They are going to shepherd VFX supervisors, VFX producers, facility owners and select senior staff into that bright tomorrow. The new and exciting solutions don’t involve Hollywood VFX workers. That’s what’s between the lines. And they can’t really tell it to you straight.
The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) has made an effort to unionize VFX. It has been of limited success.
But IATSE is the wrong union for VFX in my opinion. IATSE will not stand up to the studios when it comes to tax incentives. And generally, they’re not aggressive enough. IATSE can only organize us into a loosely connected set of local unions, which will simply fall into the same kind of infighting we already are prone to. IATSE represents a huge amount of the below-the-line talent in Los Angels. Go ask your average IATSE member if the IA has been able to remedy the problem of runaway production. They have not. And they will not solve our problems fully either.
And yet, I am dumbfounded that no one is signing cards. Really? We can’t even get our act together well enough to get represented by the IA at the minimum?
Vancouver is so angry with LA that they can’t do it for themselves either? My fellow hockey lovers, shouldn’t you be fearful of India and China taking your legs out from under you? Or politicians messing with your tax-credits and suddenly leaving you a man down? Defend the blue-line! How are we ever going to graduate to what we really need and deserve if we can’t at minimum sign rep cards?
We need an actual Visual Effects Guild (VEG). A world-class guild, just like the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the Director’s Guild of America (DGA), the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and others.
Organizing such a thing in this day and age is unprecedented. But SAG, the DGA and WGA do exist. And they do show us what we need.
Personally, if I had it my way, we’d organize with the Teamsters. All those teenagers running the rides at Disneyland are Teamsters (A fact I learned from a friend and colleague who used to work there). That means the moment a VFX shop unionizes with the Teamsters, they have direct leverage against one of the six major studios. And theme-park revenue is higher than feature film revenue for Disney. That’s a good bargaining position to be in. The Teamsters to me, represent the kind of aggressive stance we’d need.
For the Teamsters, it’s an opportunity move into an area of industry that they don’t currently have much of a foothold in. An opportunity for labor to expand into a new industry is rare these days. We represent somewhere between 1/6th and 1/3rd of Hollywood’s yearly production budget most likely. That’s a win-win situation. They should be hungry for it. And we should be hungry for what we’re due.
But honestly, if such a VEG could be formed from the IA rather than the Teamsters, I’d be fine with that too.
What’s missing is the goal. Local unions should be the stepping stone, not the goal and certainly not the stumbling block. Where are the passionate cries for the guild? The minimums? The overtime? The regulation of hours? The guaranteed line credits? The respect? Are we really so fractured and arrogant that we don’t think we need a guild? We’re the only part of the industry that can get by without one somehow? Really?
Lastly, from me to you:
Look, to the extent that I am in feature VFX/Film these days, I’m a consultant. I decided not to pursue a career as a VFX Supervisor when I finished up work on “The Tree of Life.” Even when I was co-presenting that film to the Academy at the VFX Bake-off, I knew I was not going to go that route. I’m not in the game anymore.
But as a consultant, I take a lot of pride in telling it like it is. A good consultant doesn’t tell you what you want to hear. He/She tells you what is actually going on and tells you what He/She thinks about that.
So consider this a freebie consult.
You see, VFX companies or productions that hire me will get a slightly different report if they ask about these things. The facts will be the same. The analysis will be the same. But the recommendations will be different. Mostly because you, my dear VFX workers, have not been able to act.
Therefore, you’ve lost. Therefore, nothing is going to change. And therefore, the existing market forces will continue pushing to the new state of equilibrium. LA’s VFX market will become a market for elite money people (VFX Producers) and elite art-directors (VFX Supervisors). Vancouver, London and New Zealand will little by little, cede their work to India and China until they cease to be. Commercial software will replace proprietary pipeline. Raw manpower will replace elegant solutions.
That is, unless you act. Make my analysis wrong. Show me that you are a market force. Show me that I’m wrong for assuming your failure. Prove me wrong! PLEASE!
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