“Where’s Jimmy Hoffa when you need him?”
Hard working artists are all too aware of the miserable state of the visual effects industry. It’s a travesty. For those on the outside, much of what follows may come as news. As for me, I’m thrilled to see Twitter and Facebook profile pictures changing green as artists around the globe band together in solidarity. Over the last few years I’ve strongly considered heading up a visual effects labor union to address the pitiful working conditions and heinous demands being placed on artists, engineers, technical directors, and the countless others who are part of the visual effects pipeline. The main reason for which I have never brought my union ideas to fruition is simple: as a studio owner, I feared that such actions would vex my existing and potential clients – diminishing my already minuscule profit margins. Additionally, I was met with opposition, even from artists, at the mere mention of the word ‘union’. What is a union? Why fear it? Would a union rectify the overwhelming issues facing the visual effects industry? Before I address those questions I would first like to address the general state of the industry by using references from the Oscars, statistical reports, blogs and anecdotal reports. I’m writing this now without my prior fear because I am no longer alone. The industry has spoken. When a small boutique studio like Authority FX is struggling, that’s just business. When major studios are going out of business left right and center, I know it’s not just me.
VFX Slighted at the Oscars
Unbeknownst to the general public, during the 85th Academy Awards there was a visual effects protest taking place outside the theater made up of more than four hundred artists – many of whom contributed to the stunning Life of Pi. Inside, where the same film won numerous Oscars, there was a complete lack of respect shown to visual effects artists and personnel. To sum it up, Samuel L. Jackson seemed to skip over a section of the Best Visual Effects presentation speech. It’s possible this was scripted as a comedic bit; however, even if that were the case, it would still have been insulting and disrespectful. Compare the aforementioned to what I consider to be a model example of how to gracefully and respectfully present and set up a Best Visual Effects Oscar for Terminator 2. To add to the insult, Bill Westenhofer’s acceptance speech for Best Visual Effects was cut short by Jaws music. Conveniently, his mic was silenced at the moment he began to mention the tough financial situation that Rhythm & Hues is currently facing. To top it off, both Ang Lee and Claudio Miranda failed to thank a single member of the visual effects crew behind Life of Pi during their respective acceptance speeches. Rhythm & Hues Studios filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 on February 11, 2013. As a result, approximately 200 artists were laid off.
Fixed-Rate, Rock Bottom VFX Contracts
Lack of respect and lack of appreciation aside, the major issue with the visual effects industry is the dismal labor requirements and working conditions. The root cause from which these issues stem is the fixed-rate, rock-bottom contracts under which visual effects studios are working. Producers and production companies are continually demanding cheaper prices. Studios bid against each other and are often forced to take projects at a loss. Not only is this happening among the biggest studios in the industry, it’s happening to the small shops as well. Authority FX continually battles this conundrum. Every film we have ever worked on has been a fixed-rate deal. When bidding on a film we factor in all available information including the anticipation of a reasonable number of revisions. From there, we lower our bid to something the producer won’t scoff at. Next, we are chipped down bit by bit until we’re left with a minuscule profit margin if any at all. Then comes the actual production – which never goes as planned. Our directions on set are often ignored adding countless hours of needless work. Senseless revisions are often requested. Looming deadlines are moved up to please distributors. We’ve even had clients refuse to pay on-set expenses, nor make payments according to the predetermined payment schedule – forcing us to rely heavily on our line of credit to make payroll. We’ve recently focused on television projects which we find to be marginally better.
Tax Credits Are Actually Harming the VFX Industry
The Visual Effects Society (VES) released an open letter on February 26th, 2013 requesting to immediately expand the California tax incentive program. While the letter had good intentions, it was met with opposition from artists and VES members, most of whom agree that tax incentives are only hurting the industry they were designed to aid. There are many blog posts which outline the effects of these fabled yet detrimental government subsidies. VFX Soldier, a candid and informative blog said this in response:
“I disagree with this idea and I’m very disappointed. Subsidies in the VFX industry have only added fuel to the volatility in the VFX industry. When various companies competitively bid on work, government subsidies use taxpayer money to pay the US studios to do the work in certain locations. For example, in BC, you can get 45-60% of labor costs paid to the studio. This leads to a huge distortion in prices and forces facilities that are based in locations where there are smaller to no subsidies to either move or actually be forced to PAY for the work. This situation was eloquently explained by VES chairman Jeff Okun and former Matte World Digital owner Craig Barron in a recent interview with KCRW which starts around the 10 minute mark. More subsidies don’t lead to more jobs. BC is currently in the middle of a film subsidy war with Quebec and Ontario. BC spent $437 million last year alone and even that wasn’t enough to stop a 13-year film employment low. It’s pretty obvious that US studios are looking to pit governments against each other in the hopes of fueling a subsidy war for their films where only they end up the winner. California Governor Jerry Brown knows this. In a recent interview with NPR he denounced film subsidies(6:00 mark):
‘The other states give lavish subsides to get people to make movies and we do that to a degree but were not going to have a race to the bottom where the state is supposed to pay for every private sector job that we want to attract. That is a losing strategy that I hope other states would get off.’
If you are going to write Jerry Brown, instead of asking him to subsidize film production, tell him to assess a duty on US studios that utilize price distorting subsidies. It’s a cheaper alternative than trying to provide $500 Million subsidy program.
Here in Ontario, we have the Ontario Computer Animation And Special Effects Tax Credit (OCASE). The OCASE credit is a refundable 20% tax credit on eligible Ontario labor expenses. Most productions qualify and the cost for filing is negligible. In essence it’s an excellent subsidy; however, that is where the praise ends. The aforementioned price distortion is caused by producers demanding an upfront discount equal to the estimated value of the would-be tax credit. Unfortunately, a tax credit that was introduced to stimulate Ontario employment by subsidizing wages is being placed directly into the pockets of film producers and production companies around the globe. Many of the top grossing films of all time are visual effects laden. VFX budgets need to increase to allow studios to provide proper wages and benefits to their artists. Take a look at the chart below showing the average box office earnings of Oscar nominees per category.
Long Hours. No Overtime. No Benefits. No Health care.
I’ve had artists tell me horror stories about being required to work upwards of 35 hours straight, or having to work 100 hours per week. Overtime is seldom paid, and weekends are often spent in the studio staring into a monitor. Make no mistake, this is not a choice. The only choice is whether or not to continue in visual effects. The minute you stand up and say you’ve had enough, you’ll be let go and replaced with fresh meat. The sad fact is that many artists are under short term contract and have no access to benefits or health care. Most artists are just another contract employee on the ‘studio tour’. Incidentally, a great artist who I’ve called upon many times in the past emailed me this week to let me now that he is leaving the industry. I told him I can’t blame him and I would like to know the specifics that led him to his decision. Here is his reply:
“I’ve been contemplating leaving the industry for a number of months. I started actively trying to in December, but have found it difficult finding work with such a VFX-saturated resume. The tipping point was Bill [Westenhofer] getting cut off at the Oscars. I’m heading to India for a couple weeks on Monday, so this seems like a good week to just call it the end, and come back home ready for something new.
As for reasons, one big thing personally was the clear indication that to continue, I would have to adopt quite a nomadic lifestyle, which I’m not interested in. I had a taste of it with that brief trip to Toronto, then out to California a couple of times. The effect it had on personal relationships wasn’t something I wanted to have continue. And of course all that is thanks to subsidies. Checking job boards, everything is in Vancouver, London or Southeast Asia. Even big places, they’re never hiring in the US. Then there are the places that refuse to even talk to someone who works remotely.
Even when I would get jobs, I felt like I spent more time chasing paychecks than I did actually doing VFX, and at least once a year, I’d have a job where I was never paid at all (I’m probably owed a good $3,000 in lost payment over the past 5 years). In the end I also had to remind myself that I never really intended to make a career out of VFX, and that I actually want to make my own films. It just seemed at one point that VFX would be a fun way to pay the bills in the meantime, but that changed.
I totally agree that we’re at a tipping point, that a union (a global one if possible) is needed, subsidies need to end, and international trade law needs to be obeyed. It’s amazing to me how things have been accelerating. About the time I started looking for non-VFX work, I assumed the industry would implode within two years. A month later, I started thinking it would happen by the end of this year. When R&H went, I thought “next six months, for sure.” Now I’m sure we’ll see a strike or something sometime in March, even with Scott Ross calling for strategy. I think the momentum is such that a strategy will be formed very quickly. At the rate I’ve been underestimating things, I’m betting the next job interview I have where they ask me why I’m not working in VFX, I’ll have nothing to say but “there is no industry to work in anymore.”
I intend on continuing to do whatever I can to fight for a union, the end of subsidies, and better working conditions around the world. I’m hoping to visit some VFX facilities while I’m in India, and at least talk to some artists to see what their perspective is. If possible, I would love to get their comments on camera. I think not having a horse in the race; not being a working artist within the industry will give me a decent advantage, since I’ll have nothing to lose. I really don’t care who I piss off in the process. But I care a great deal about the industry and intend on someday needing to hire facilities to do work on my film(s). I could not in good conscience do that unless the industry was in a far better situation than it is now.
Oh, and by the way, it was the Authority [Facebook] post of the “I’m mad as hell” clip with the comment that artists should be valued that prompted me to shoot you an email. I read that and thought “you know, Authority is probably the one place I feel valued.” You guys frequently compliment my work and pay me on time. Even with all the pitfalls of the industry as a whole, that’s nice at least. But it’s rather telling that THAT is something I explicitly appreciate.”
It’s Time for a Union
One of the pickets that caught my eye from the visual effects protest at the Oscars said: “Hollywood treats teamsters like gods and animators like dogs”. What’s the difference between teamsters and animators? A union. These days the word “union” is typically met with scorn, carrying with it an overly negative sentiment, especially by employers. Companies will go out of their way to prevent union organization among the rank and file workers, fearful of the collective bargaining power employees will gain. Some larger companies, the big box store kind, have gone so far as to shut down stores in which an organized union has taken hold.
Unions by their nature are a double-edged sword. On one hand they ensure fair wages and working conditions are being met, on the other, they protect senior workers who do not pull their own weight. Employers avoid them at all costs because of the constraints it places on the companies to manage hourly rates, mandatory overtime, benefits, etc. As bad as unions may be perceived to be, they came into existence with a righteous and ambitious goal: to protect the worker.
Now more than ever visual effects artists need protection from Hollywood.
Creating a unionized backbone for visual effects may sound like an extreme step; however, it is not. In fact, building a strong visual effects union would actually put the men and women of visual effects companies on par with a number of other unions already in Hollywood:
Above the Line Unions (represent individuals involved with the creative side of film)
SAG-AFTRA – The Screen Actors Guild represents more than 160,000 actors, announcers, broadcasters journalists, dancers, DJs, news writers, news editors, program hosts, puppeteers, recording artists, singers, stunt performers, voiceover artists and other media professionals.
WGAW – The Writers Guild of America, West is composed of the thousands of writers who write the content for television shows, movies, news programs, documentaries, animation, and Internet and mobile phones (new media) that keep audiences constantly entertained and informed.
DGA – The Directors Guild of America is an entertainment guild that represents the creative and economic rights of directors and members of the directorial team working in film, television, commercials, documentaries, news, sports and new media.
ATA – The Association of Talent Agents is a non-profit trade association representing the finest talent agencies in the industry.
Producers Guild of America – The Producers Guild of America is the non-profit trade group that represents, protects and promotes the interests of all 5,000 members of the producing team in film, television and new media.
AMPTP – The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the entertainment industry’s official collective bargaining representative, negotiates 80 industry-wide collective bargaining agreements on behalf of over 350 motion picture and television producers (member companies include the production entities of the studios, broadcast networks, certain cable networks and independent producers).
ASCAP – The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers is a membership association of more than 435,000 U.S. composers, songwriters, lyricists, and music publishers of every kind of music.
Below the Line Unions (represent individuals involved with the physical production of film)
IATSE – The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States.
International Cinematographers Guild – An IATSE organization, The International Cinematographers Guild represents the most talented camera professionals and publicists in the world.
TEAMSTERS UNION 399 -This Union represents workers in the motion picture industry, including firms that produce feature films, television programs, commercials, and live theatrical productions.
MPEG – The Motion Picture Editors Guild is a national labor organization currently representing over 7,200 freelance and staff post-production professionals.
NIMATION GUILD – The Animation Guild is Local 839 of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE).
MPSE – The Motion Picture Sound Editors is a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide a wealth of knowledge from award winning professionals to a diverse group of individuals, youth and career professionals alike.
There are currently thirteen unions representing nearly every aspect of Hollywood. Not ONE represents visual effects artists specifically!
“The benefits of working union are clear. Compared to non-union positions, a union gig offers better wages, health insurance, overtime structures, turnaround protections, pensions, retiree health care, night premiums, meal penalties – the list goes on and on. Even in those instances where a non-union job offers pay and working conditions similar to those of a union position, only by working union can we earn benefits that are portable from one job to the next. But best of all, the wages, benefits and protections of a union job are secured by a legally enforceable agreement and cannot be taken away on a whim. That’s the stability that is so often lacking in this business of ours. That’s the stability that allows us to build long careers and to take care of ourselves and our families.” MPEG
Helpful information on how to organize a union. VFX artists deserve proper, collective representation. They are the lifeblood of summer blockbuster season. Companies such as Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm (both owned by Disney), and Warner Brothers have made their summer profits on the backs of visual effects companies. Without these visual effects studios, Hollywood would lose millions, possibly billions of dollars on films that without the talent of visual effects artists simply wouldn’t exist. This needs to change. Now!
Wrapping It Up
Please see VFX Soldier for additional information on wages, unions, subsidies, and labor issues and they pertain to visual effects.
Justin Rader and I will be attending a meeting in Toronto, on March 8th to address these issues with our local industry peers. I will report back with any relevant information. There are more talks like this one being planned across the globe. Talk to your friends and colleagues to find out where and when. Right now we all need to have honest and open discussions never losing sight of our common goals. Talk unions and talk now.
For those of you in LA, if you would like union representation, begin by printing and filling out an IATSE representation card and mailing it to the IATSE West Coast Office.
Here are a list of Twitter and Facebook accounts I recommend you follow.
I’m coming across quite a number of ‘open letters’. Some completely miss the mark, and others are outstanding. Here is a shining example of an artist who understand the issues and offers insightful recommendations. The post is entitled ‘Are you brave enough VFX?’, and that’s just the question you need to ask yourself.
“1.) The Visual Effects companies come together and form some sort of guild and have solidarity on the following fronts:
a) No Fixed Bids.
b) No work taken as an intentional loss.
c) Penalties in contracts with Hollywood Studios if work is delayed.
d) Royalties on all projects nominated for an award (Oscar/Bafta)
e) A price sheet on agreed minimum bids.
f) An agreement to stop chasing subsidies by opening new studios.
2.) The workers come together and agree on the following either through a union/guild/ or some other sort of binding contract. In every country and wage minimums should be based on cost of living criteria.
a) No work without overtime.
b) Mandatory portable healthcare and retirement options provided.
c) Sick days after 3 months.
d) Minimum accrued holiday pay.
e) No miscatergorization of workers.
f) Hold fees for all artists, minimum notice for release.
g) Penalities for shortened contracts.
h) Minimums for each position and title.
i) Mandatory raises with the minimum of inflation.
j) increased rate for artists having to move from their ‘home base.’ ” ‘Are you brave enough VFX? by Jenn Epstein
Finally, share this article and GO GREEN in support! VFX Solidarity International now has over 60,000 likes and counting. Like them!
Ryan P. Wilson
Endorsed by Justin Rader