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Monday, August 18, 2014

Visual Effects Company Closure Exit Form

Since this is happening more frequently I thought it best to create a form for visual effects workers and reporters.

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Visual Effects Company Closure Exit Form VFX-SOL

Check all that apply.


It was announced on ____________  that  ______________________________ , a visual effects company, located in _________________________, has closed it's doors due to:

__ Subsidies
__ Bad business practices (note: requires Subsidies to be checked as well)
__ Completion of project

The vfx workers had:
__ Finished the project
__ Done above and beyond their jobs
__ Sacrificed their personal lives
__ Shown loyalty to the company
__ Solved immense technical problems
__ Gotten the company out of a jam
__ Put in unpaid hours
__ Put in unpaid OverTime
__ Put in a lot of OverTime

At the end of the project they had expected:
__ Payment
__ Pat on the back
__ Thank you
__ Wrap Party

Instead they were given:
__ Pink slips

but did not get:
__ Paid

During the project they received:
__ Missed payrolls
__ Broken promises
__ No communication with management

The owners repeatedly said:
__ You will be paid soon
__ There was a glitch in accounting
__ The bank messed up
__ The client will be wiring money soon
__ Once we complete this next sequence
__ Once we complete this next milestone
__ Don't worry, you'll be taken care of

During this time workers did not want to:
__ Do anything
__ Say anything
__ Unite together

because:
__ Fear of blacklisting
__ Didn't want to rock the boat
__ Fear of losing work (even if it wasn't paid work)
__ Prided themselves on being individuals
__ They had faith in the managers/owners
__ They had faith in the company

So when the company closed the workers had not been paid in:
____ Years
____ Months
____ Weeks

because:
__ They loved vfx
__ They had faith in the managers/owners
__ They had faith in the company
__ They had thought their sacrifices would be rewarded
__ Didn't want to rock the boat
__ Feared being blacklisted

In total ____ workers are owed over _____________ and some as much as ____________

In addition the company owed them:
__ Vacation
__ Health Care
__ Pension
__ Retirement plan
__ Expenses

They expect to see ___ % of their actual money owed in:
__ Weeks
__ Months
__ Years
__ (Default) When hell freezes over

To do so they expect to:
__ Complain to each other
__ Put up a Facebook Page
__ Write a bad review
__ Contact legal help
__ Complain publicly

They do not expect to:
__ Complain publicly
__ Put up a Facebook Page
__ Write a bad review, even anonymously
__ Contact legal help

because:
__ Fear of blacklisting
__ Don't want to rock the boat
__ Love of vfx

In the future the workers will:
__ Do the same thing

because:
__ This was a unique event.
__ Things will improve without any effort on their part.

The workers learned:
__ This is just the way it is
__ They should change careers

Things they still won't do:
__ Sign a union rep card anonymously
__ Support Adapt
__ Do something

because:
__ Fear of blacklisting
__ Don't want to rock the boat
__ Love of vfx

Meanwhile others think:
__ Everything is fine
__ That will never happen to them
__ Subsidies aren't so bad
__ Moving frequently isn't so bad. Their spouse and children love it.
__ If they ignore the issues, the issues will go away.
__ If they're very quiet they won't lose their job or have to move
__ They'll wait for someone else to implement a perfect global solution
__ More overtime for no pay. Where do I sign up?
__ They'd rather be on a sinking ship that to help try to fix it
__ Silence is golden.
__ Watch out, you could be blacklisted
__ Watch out, don't rock the boat
__ It's fun to live in fear of the company you work for.
__ They love VFX. They might as well because it's becoming less of a profession all the time.



Tuesday, August 12, 2014

It's NOT just business

It's NOT just business

At last year's VES Production Summit I was approached by the owner of a small vfx shop asking why I didn't cover some of the good or successful stories. He mentioned his company and another company (both in California). I said "Good idea, I'll want to talk to you and the other company to get more specifics". To which he replied he didn't want their company named in the post.

While newspapers and magazine write more and more fact-less articles, I certainly don't want to. Writing about a vague, unspecific company that is doing ok in this industry is of little value unless we can learn some specifics that can be applied elsewhere and hopefully raise the bar for all.

I also talked to this person about several issues, including underbidding. To which he replied, "Well, isn't that just business?"  (shoulder shrug)

NO. NO is the answer, it's not 'just business'.

I talk to others and sometimes the response is "Well, isn't that just globalization?".

NO. NO is the answer, it's not 'just globalization'.

"Well", some have said, "You had to move before so it's no different now"

NO. NO is the answer. It is different than moving to one location at the start of a career.

And I talk to some in this industry and they fear being blacklisted for saying anything about any problems. They fear even doing so anonymously.  (see http://thevfxwatchers.com or http://www.glassdoor.com/  for the lack of vfx company reviews). They fear signing a secret union card or donating anonymously to ADAPT, who is trying to neutralize the politics controlling our industry. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.

You could just as easily shrug your shoulders at a senseless, horrific death and simply say "Well, every dies." That excuse works very well and enables people to not attempt to do anything. Not my problem - until it is.


Business
Is it really just business to underbid? To bid lower than it actually cost the company? To lose money on every project, year after year? No, no company can run forever losing money. And yet some vfx 'businesses' have tried to do this and are learning the hard way that isn't a good tactic. And in the end it's the employees that end up taking the fall.

Amazon continues to lose money every year with the notion that they're in it for the long haul, yet they've been losing money every year. They're doing so because investors have been optimistic, just as they were before the dot com crash. But now investors are starting to have second thoughts. Amazon's main focus has been to underbid as many companies as they can and to try to crush others, including authors in some cases.

And many businesses these days make it the point they should squeeze out every single dollar because of the shareholders, regardless of moral issues or people issues. They must purely focus on profits regardless of anything else. Even if it's illegal in some cases.

Walmart deals with large volumes so demands the biggest discount from every supplier. And at the same time they try to pay the workers as little as they possibly can (minimum wage for most and then only if it applies).  The US taxpayers spend billions every year paying for Walmarts 'success' by subsidizing Walmart workers so they don't starve. Same with McDonalds and other businesses. This is money that should have gone to education, health or road maintenance. You as a taxpayer are making up the difference because the corporations are not paying fair wages in many case and they're ducking out out of paying corporate tax rates. Walgreens had planned to do a corporate inversion where a company essentially changes their mailing address to another country to avoid paying any US taxes. (Guess who has to make up the difference when that happens?)

There was a US corporation that bribed countries to continue using leaded gas, even though it was proven to deadly to citizens, including children, along with a long list of problems. And yet they did it for profits. After all, it was in another country so no problem for those executives making the decisions and approving the bribes. Of course it's a thin line between bribing and lobbying, something that happens all the time in US.

General Motors knew about a problem that caused a number of crashes and deaths and yet the corporate executives did nothing for years. After all, they have to make a profit.

These types of stories come out almost on a weekly basis and the notion is that everything must be sacrificed for profits. Think of the poor shareholders. Don't bother thinking of peoples lives or the workers.

Even in LA the media companies continue to think short term and will continue to decimate the future for the chance to squeeze a few more pennies out now.  They don't even realize they're hollowing out part of their core business.

You send out enough work overseas and soon you won't have anybody left to do the work locally. This has applied to a number of industries and the US can no longer do much manufacturing of any type simply because the lure of profits was too great. And those experiences and skilled workers left or moved on to other areas to survive.

This has already happened in visual effects. Pacific Title in Burbank (part of Los Angeles) was having a hard time even finding compositors for a project. Few vfx compositors are left in LA to answer the job ads.

Don't be surprised if skilled film crews start becoming much more difficult to find in Los Angeles for those pickup shots or simple inserts. One of the industries that Los Angeles is known for is film making and television. Yes the tourists coming for that are typically seeing something as relevant as a dinosaur in a history museum.

And it's not because filmmaking is going away nor is it because it's cheaper elsewhere- it's been outsourced because other states and countries have paid for it to be outsourced to them (at the encouragement of the media companies).

Because it all comes down to making the world right for the shareholder (and the CEO making 300x the salary of his workers), regardless of anything else. This also provides the CEO and executives the excuse that all their decisions they make are for the good of the shareholders and that they take no responsibility for the ultimate price paid by others.

Does it have to be like this? Are shareholders the only reason for companies? Sixty years ago it wasn't.
An except from an excellent article by Robert reich

“The job of management,” proclaimed Frank Abrams, chairman of Standard Oil of New Jersey, in 1951, “is to maintain an equitable and working balance among the claims of the various directly interested groups … stockholders, employees, customers, and the public at large.”

Johnson & Johnson publicly stated that its “first responsibility” was to patients, doctors, and nurses, and not to investors.

What changed? In the 1980s, corporate raiders began mounting unfriendly takeovers of companies that could deliver higher returns to their shareholders – if they abandoned their other stakeholders.

The raiders figured profits would be higher if the companies fought unions, cut workers’ pay or fired them, automated as many jobs as possible or moved jobs abroad, shuttered factories, abandoned their communities, and squeezed their customers.  


Visual Effects
Frequently there is news of a new visual effects company starting up. They start up because there are unemployed visual effects artists who are optimists. They figure the start up costs are not that high any more and they have a new twist on the business model (typically another broken model). And you hear about the closing of big visual effects companies but there are many more closings of small/midsize companies that you may not hear about and that aren't covered in the news. In many cases those new companies close silently within year or  two. Other times it's a company that's been functioning for years but the cost and impact of foreign subsidies have taken their toll.

Custom Film Effects is one such company and here is the letter they sent out a few weeks ago:
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Dear Clients, Friends and Associates,

Please excuse the mass mailing.

As of August first Custom Film Effects will suspend operations and join the ranks of VFX companies that have gone out of business. Like the others before us we are not closing because we produced substandard work, or because we treated our clients poorly. We are closing because we are unable to compete in a business environment so affected by tax credits in other countries and states as to make the VFX business here in California impossible. We all work in this town, we all know the environment we are working in. I could give you the stats on how our business has declined over the past 3 years. I could share all the attempts at finding a viable model for continuing operations in our present state. But, this would not change the outcome. Since January this year the fall off in our business is unprecedented and we can no longer sustain. 

I am grateful for the fifteen years of trust and support that our clients have afforded us. I look back at the shows, the relationships formed, the talent that has passed through the studio and I feel so fortunate. CFE had a great fifteen year run.

We will be placing our machinery in a small editorial facility in Culver City. These bays will be offered for rent to freelance VFX artists on a per project basis. We have some great talent showing interest in this business model. This is all very formative at the moment, more info to follow.

Thank you all for a great run……..m.d


Mark Dornfeld | Custom Film Effects | 

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As a follow up note Mark expressed his thoughts (slightly edited by me):


This is such a mess. Our last show through the studio was another rescue job from a house in Canada. The work was so bad and so late that we wound up redoing everything but 8 shots. We delivered 92 shots on an impossible time line and when I was delivering the last of the show at 3am on a Saturday morning, it really occurred to me that I didn’t want to do this anymore. We were able to zero out our debt, pay our employees and move on. I am so sad, I had a core group of artists in this studio that had been with the company for 15 years and one employee that came with me when I left Disney. At one time we had 30 people working here and were able to provide medical and dental insurance we also had several IA union employees. 

Obviously I am closing CFE so I do not see any future in VFX production in LA. Just no reason for it to return.

Just for the record I am not in favor of tax payer dollars filtering into multi national corps on any level. Bad use of tax dollars when you need schools and roads and stuff like that. This is all badly broken. The film industry grossed over 11 billion dollars last year. Why are tax payer dollars  needed and who really reaps the benefits. Our legislators claim to support local economies yet the steel fabrication for the new Oakland Bay Bridge was done in China. Bridge sections were brought over on barges. I can't decide what pisses me off more. Sending tax dollars directly to China or subsidizing multi national corps. We are not the only industry affected by poor legislation and legalized corruption, it’s all over the place.

This is all just so sad. So many people, so many families have had the rug yanked from under them. I feel so powerless. 

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So no, it's not just business.

The reality is the political and business problems of the visual effects industry affect all vfx workers (and their families), regardless of where they are located. Some in the UK are finding their jobs are shifting to Montreal. No place is immune or unaffected by these problems.

I'll cover the other issues noted above in future posts.

I also received correspondence from some individuals (working globally) and plan to fold those notes into a future post.

For those attending SIGGRAPH this year be sure to check out ADAPT talk being held there and check the ADAPT website.

ADAPT at SIGGRAPH talk
WEDNESDAY, 13 AUGUST 3:30 PM – 5:30 PM
Vancouver Convention Centre
East Building, Room 2

There's also vfxunion reps at an IATSE Union Booth at SIGGRAPH #USA829.


Other  references:
Andy Grove, former chairman of Intel, discusses outsourcing issues.
http://www.technologyreview.com/qa/425125/andy-grove/
http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/10_28/b4186048358596.htm


China bridge building:
http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/06/10/1305808/-California-discovers-hidden-price-tag-of-outsourcing-Bay-Bridge-to-China#
http://americanmanufacturing.org/blog/made-china-bay-bridge-continues-cost-california
http://www.sacbee.com/static/sinclair/sinclair.jquery/baybridge/

This echoes issues that Boeing had outsourcing as well:
http://seattletimes.com/html/businesstechnology/2020275838_boeingoutsourcingxml.html
http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2013/01/21/what-went-wrong-at-boeing/