Unionization and the creation of a trade association topped the priorities at a visual effects biz town hall meeting Thursday in Los Angeles where hundreds of VFX professionals gathered to discuss the state of their troubled industry. Despite calls for solidarity within the global community and a general sense of accord, a tense volley of boos erupted halfway through the panel when Visual Effects Society rep Mike Chambers took the mic and mentioned the organization’s call for larger California subsidies made in an open letter last month. In the letter the VES had announced plans to hold a VFX Congress, which has yet to materialize. “What are you going to do?” shouted one audience member to Chambers, who had no answer for his group.
The exchange highlighted the most crippling challenge currently facing VFX workers: With no organized body other than the strictly honorary VES, artists have no leverage as the current system continues to squeeze their employers for slim profit margins. Among the industry wide issues identified by keynote speaker Scott Squires: A flawed studio-VFX house business model, too much competition, and job-migrating subsidies. Panelists and audience members also decried the strains on health and home life endured by individual VFX artists at the bottom of the VFX food chain. Unpaid overtime, long work weeks and a lack of healthcare benefits are common for visual artists, who comprise one of the last remaining sectors in Hollywood that is not yet unionized.
Riding the momentum created Oscar Sunday when 400 people protested during the Academy Awards, the town hall meeting was organized in less than a week by a loose collection of VFX pros, including panelist and protest co-organizer Dave Rand and anonymous industry blogger VFX Soldier. (Buttons handed out to attendees bore the Spartacus-like declaration “I Am VFX Soldier”; afterward, slices of greenscreen-hued key lime pie were passed around with the promise that there was enough for everyone.) An estimated 300 pros packed the standing room only panel held at Gnomon VFX Academy in Hollywood and dozens of attendees in Austin, San Rafael, Vancouver, and Wellington, New Zealand joined in live via Google+ as a panel of VFX leaders broke down the trade crisis that has snowballed in recent months with the bankruptcies of Digital Domain and Life Of Pi VFX house Rhythm & Hues.
Former ILM and Digital Domain head Scott Ross lit a fire in the assembled crowd as he referred to the rapidly emerging VFX grassroots movement as “The Digital Spring”. Ross, who made an unsuccessful attempt at establishing a trade association two decades ago, is trying to create one again among VFX shops and told Deadline he’s gotten facility heads to entertain the idea, although none has fully committed to participating. Still, “it’s the first time they’ve been willing to discuss a trade association”, he said, although he noted that the studios are staying mum as the VFX movement brews.
It was Ross who lent the most firepower to the evening. The VFX veteran who sold his shares in Digital Domain before its eventual collapse earned a standing ovation by speaking in terms of “revolution” and quoting Network‘s famous “I’m mad as hell” line. His five-point agenda called for a new studio business model that allows VFX facilities to profit; the creation of new bidding templates across the competitive VFX market; standardized contracts and cancellation policies that would prevent VFX houses from taking the hit on stalled production schedules; industry education outreach including a VFX lobby in Washington to fight subsidy legislation; and a public relations push to teach the public about the industry. That last point was reiterated by an audience member to the panel during the Q&A session: “What will you do to make people know who we are as individuals — and that it’s not Ang Lee who made [Life Of Pi]”?
With reps from SAG-AFTRA in attendance, panelists Steve Kaplan, organizer for the local animation guild/IATSE 839, and Dusty Kelly, a rep for Vancouver’s IATSE 891 branch, pushed the merits of unionization. Union cards were made available on site, although Kaplan warned that between 60% and 70% commitment from VFX professionals would be required to unionize. Tougher still is the global nature of VFX. With union shops in place here, studios will still be able to tap overseas VFX competitors. Some, like Ross, prioritize establishing a trade association before or instead of creating a union, but leverage and timing were the keywords of the night.