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Union Roundup – Digits, Digits Everywhere

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So if it’s a new year, it must be award season, and with it, the various rituals and pleasantries that accompany such a melding of the artistic and, of course, the commercial. So it was that I found myself – along with a bunch of other press folk (and a couple more plucky BTL writers) at an evening event for the DVD release The Social Network.

These are meet-and-greets, where cast members (usually) and directors (sometimes) press the flesh and work the room, as opposed to doing any kind of formal “presentation.” Either such events are becoming more routine, or I just rarely got invited to them before.

But it was a fine night, with even the weather cooperating, and in the case of The Social Network’s social networking, there were as many below-the-liners there as above, and so it was that we were able to talk to co-editor Angus Wall, co-composer Atticus Ross, and DP Jeff Cronenweth, who BTL readers may recall, I profiled in our current “contenders” series.

Most of the main “thesps” were there, too, including Armie Hammer, who played both Winklevoss twins (along with Josh Spence, who served as a kind of body double in a lot of the scenes), mostly thanks to some face replacement VFX done by Edson Williams of Lola Visual Effects, in Santa Monica.

All of which speaks to the pervasiveness of digital FX, even in a movie which your correspondent said, in several conversations that night, reminded him of a 1970’s film, in being so heavily character and dialogue-driven.

All of which brings us to the recent imbroglio in Federal court, as the US government sued both Lucasfilm and Pixar – two bastions of the industry – for certain monopolistic, or price-fixy, practices in hiring, inlcuding not cold-calling each other’s employees, and not offering higher salaries than the other was willing to give.

The buzz for this case was amped up when Lee Stranahan reported on the court’s doings in his periodical column at Huffington Post.  There, he opened the column by referring to his earlier “open letter to James Cameron,” which talked of the sweatshop-like conditions that mostly non-unionized FX people often work in.

Indeed, UR knows of well-regarded VFX supes with “take it or leave it,” benefit-whacking offers often being the only work available – or officially tendered – in the present environment.

So while Stranahan’s earlier piece was salutary, he’s also not shy about saying it caused “a stir in the visual effects industry and led to events like the VFX Town Hall, meeting that brought together perspectives from the studios, facilities and VFX workers. Some of the major unions like IATSE also noticed…”

But then again, such conversations, whether reported on or not, were happening already, including lots of, shall we say colorful behind-the-scenes meetings with potential IA reps.

And of course, the FX biz remains un-unionized, in spite – or precisely because – of how pervasive they are in movie-making these days.

The comments for Stranahan’s column are also illuminating, talking of the “gentlemen’s agreements” that are also pervasive in entertainment, especially, as one poster, “JohnnyLA” notes, in the videogame biz, where long hours are the norm, and unionization a laughable conceit (though in fariness, one colleague recently switched from the film to game bizzes was enamored of how swiftly her benefits kicked in, once she joined the staff).

Reasons that digital wranglers may never get collective repping, though, are also found in the comments, such as the one from “VHarlow,” who cautions “artists must beware unions don’t price them out of a growing internatio­nal marketplac­e. Surely, decent hours are desirable, but growing competitio­n from countries that give huge tax breaks for the work have to be considered­. No matter how good a deal a union can get for artists, here, there’s nothing keeping the studios captive within our country.”  Saying, it would seem, that everyone better just suck it up, cause “globalization” is here to stay.

The other reason such organizing will always be a challenge comes in this post from “abelenkpe,” who says, “ unsurprise­d by this news. Still love my job though. :)”

It’s the old “someone’s always getting off the bus” saw that’s kept Hollywood going for decades – someone is always willing to do the work for less. Often thousands of nautical miles away from Hollywood.

Stranahan termed the case a potential “Christmas present” for putative organizers, as such practices would presumably be brought to light in an unfolding federal case, but puzzlingly, the column with those sentiments was posted on Dec. 27.

If one searches out news for such unfoldings and updates, one finds a Wall Street Journal report from Dec. 21, headling that “Justice Department Reaches Settlement With Lucasfilm In Hiring Probe.,” with the article saying the company came to an agreement with the Feds over “civil charges that it and Pixar Animation agreed to limit competition for each other’s digital-animation workers.”

Pixar, the same article notes, “was not named in Tuesday’s legal complaint because it was one of six companies that settled similar charges in September, the (Justice) department said.” The article also notes that the Justice Dept. said “Pixar complain(ed) twice in 2007 about Lucasfilm’s recruiting efforts.” Whether Pixar eventually felt compelled to match such practices remains unsaid.

As for those digital workers? Well, some of them are still working, and even getting their mortgages and rents paid. None of them have a union, though.

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