Saturday, July 20, 2024
Subscribe Now

Voice Of The Crew - Since 2002

Los Angeles, California

HomeIndustry SectorCommercialsUnion Roundup: Open Letters, Open Futures

Union Roundup: Open Letters, Open Futures


Eric Roth, executive director of the Visual Effects Society.

Whether it will have the eventual impact of a Paul Revere “The British Are Coming!” shout, with the simultaneous ability to alter historical outcomes and be misunderstood by “serious” politicians centuries later, remains to be seen. But Visual Effects Society exec director Eric Roth’s recent clarion call about the state of visual effects workers, couched in his “Open Letter to the VFX Artists and the Industry at Large” has been causing various metaphorical lanterns to pop on and off, and start madly signalling each other, all over town.

The letter – a copy of which ran on Below the Line – states that “VES may not have the power of collective bargaining, but we do have the power of a voice that’s 2,400 artists strong in 23 countries – and the VES Board of Directors has decided that now is the time to use it. We are the only viable organization that can speak to the needs and concerns of everyone involved in VFX to meet the challenges of a changing global industry and our place within it.”

What does that mean? Is the VES looking to become a union of some sort? An instrument of collective bargaining? And in an era when even the few remaining workers who can afford to strike (absent an all-inclusive, game-changing General Strike) – namely, high-priced professional athletes – are reluctant to do so, what sort of suasion can or will VES have? What does the open letter really mean?

When Below the Line caught up with Roth a few days after the letter’s release, he said the response had been tremendous, including the breaking out of “Mideast peace!” and a solution to climate change. Well, okay, he laughed, perhaps the paradigm hadn’t shifted quite that much, but there had been “hundreds of emails” coming into VES, offering support for the new stance.

But what does the new stance mean? Roth made it clear that VES is “not now a union or a trade organization,” with no thoughts to become those things. What they do have is an ability to “speak for everyone” in the business – those with no benefits, working excessive hours as freelancers, often for reduced wages and usually on reduced production timelines – resulting in a series of ongoing, behind-the-scenes discussions, all looking for “ways to change the equation.”

Roth was necessarily general about strategy specifics, though he did note that “VES is global, with members in 24 countries” and was necessarily approaching things “from a global standpoint.”

Jeff Okun
As for what the approach might be, VES chairman Jeff Okun – recently described by Animation World Network’s Dan Sarto as walking “a fine line between agitator and voice of reason,” elaborated further, acknowledging that, post-letter, there were at least “two things we’re going to take heat on,” that VES was “moving too slow,” and that in the eyes of some “all you’re doing is talking.”

But the strategy behind the talks is a compelling one. While still publicly under wraps, it involves a more think tank-like approach in terms of building opinion where it could actually matter in Hollywood – some of the town’s most influential opinion makers.

Roth lays out that strategy further, though still without all the specifics: “VES will shine a spotlight on the issues facing the artists, facilities and studios by way of editorial pieces in the trades and VFX blogs, virtual Town Hall meetings, a VFX Artists’ Bill of Rights and a VFX CEO’s Forum (for the companies that actually provide the jobs that everyone is working so hard to safeguard).”

According to Okun, it’s all to help underscore the fact that more and more, it’s really visual effects that open tentpole films, more than a particular actor.

And while he also says that even though “99% of the feedback is offering total support” he also hears the occasional why-do-this? gripe that runs “if the worst paid guy (in visual effects) is making more than the guy at Taco Bell, why are you complaining?”

It would take a whole series of columns to examine the internalized self-loathing among workers who so rigorously police their own wages, not daring to ask “too much” from an economy’s actual owners. No wonder strikes – in nearly any business – are “off the table.”

The main reality, Okun observes, is that the “industry is broken from the freelancers point of view.” And of course, in a era where so many are freelancers, that’s quite a lot of breakage. He also goes on to note, in another statistical observation that “90% of the issues would disappear” if all those freelancers were offered health care.

That would take either political leadership for whom the word “change” isn’t just a handy electioneering slogan, or perhaps a shift from freelance to staff positions, like for instance at postproduction houses. He notes that “facilities are being screwed right, left and center,” along with freelancers, and runs down a list of many that have been driven out of business already (Cafe FX, The Orphanage, et al).

Jenny Fulle
Someone who coordinates with a lot of those surviving facilities all over the world is Jenny Fulle, who runs the Creative Cartel, where she produces visual effects and oversees postproduction.

“I agree that much of the lower level VFX work has become so easy to execute that it has become a commodity within the global market, particularly in those areas with lower wage structures,” she says of the open letter, but then adds that she doesn’t “believe that by ‘organizing’ we can expect this trend to reverse itself. We must adapt and move on. While the idea of having benefits and some sort of oversight for our workers within our community is a good one, no union or society is going to be able to force studios or filmmakers to keep their work here when the same quality can be found elsewhere for a lower price.”

Are film workers stuck in a world then, where their wages are successfully depressed to third-world levels – Taco Bell’s pay structure notwithstanding – along with everyone else’s?

“Maybe it’s not adversarial at all,” Okun says of the symbiotic relationship for studios’ need for digitally-laden films and everyone’s need for extant facilities in which to do them. “We’re for everyone, and not against anyone,” he adds.

Whether a high-road approach to dealing with the studios can work remains to be seen. But Fulle thinks some other market factors might be at work: “The supply of visual effects artists around the world has increased exponentially faster than the demand for visual effects work itself.

“While I believe that many of the most talented visual effects artists are found here in California, the industry is sending us a clear message that we are too expensive. Adding costs on top of our perceived overpricing will do nothing but drive more work away and enable yet additional markets to establish themselves as real players. We need to look at our own expectations regarding compensation and other entitlements and do some self-help first.”

Self-help, however, would seem to be what VES’ letter – and their current-behind-the-scenes moves – are all about.

Fulle notes that in “this evolving world, only those who adapt will move forward and flourish.”

Roth notes that “we’re all evolving or adapting.”

Perhaps then, if the disagreements are so close, getting along – or at least forming a united front – might be possible after all.

Much more in the weeks ahead, as this unfolds. Meanwhile, write: [email protected]

- Advertisment -


Beastie Boys

EMMY WATCH 2020: The Sound for the Beastie Boys Story Doc

The original experimental punk, hip hop, rap rock, alternative band of best friends Adam “MCA” Yauch, Michael “Mike D” Diamond, and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, better...