One of the issues facing VFX companies and artists is the issue of globalization. Given the tax incentives and cost of living variance around the world most film studios are looking beyond the borders to find a better price for doing film work, including visual effects.
This blog is read around the world. This article will have a California slant but I’m trying to as always document the current state of affairs in visual effects.
In the golden age of movie making most Hollywood films were shot in Los Angeles with some being done in New York. The studios were setup as film factories to be as efficient as possible. If you finished a film on Friday, you'd start another film on Monday. The stages, sets, back lots and rear projection allowed them to shoot a wide range of film settings within the confines of the studio lot. If you want New York in the 1890's you go to one block of the back lot. If you wanted a1940's Midwest town you'd make a left into that back lot street. Many 'locations' were within easy driving distance of the studios, which also had ranches and other outdoor areas where they could construct western towns or other special settings.
With films like Easy Rider studios started to reconsider what they needed. Many back lots were sold for short-term gains and more true location shooting was done. In some cases if a film could be shot at a lower price in a different location that made sense. In other cases it made sense to go to another location if that truly was the location in film.
When films like Star Wars and Close Encounters were filmed the majority of visual effects were done in Los Angeles. When ILM moved to northern California that spread the work a bit but still the majority of the big, Hollywood vfx work was done within California. VFX companies were on a relatively level playing field. The jobs were awarded based on ability, quality and costs.
As the digital age of visual effects got underway some countries and states started offering tax incentives that included vfx. The digital age enabled the use of computers and software to be setup anywhere. VFX artists can be brought in from anywhere else and setup with little effort. VFX artists can be trained in the basics locally. The internet allows images to be sent anywhere quickly for work to be done and reviewed anywhere else. The studios, always eager to save money on things that weren’t under their umbrella, were more than happy to start sending out work. In their view, vfx are a commodity that can be done anywhere.
At this point a number of countries offer tax incentives, rebates or even pre-investments in films in exchange for a certain amount of work to be done in that country. Various states also have tax incentives as well to try to get millions of dollars of production costs to come to their state. The details vary greatly and can be a smart or bad investment depending on the details.
From the various governments viewpoint (state and country) an incentive means that they can draw film production to their location. A film production can bring in millions of dollars to a given locale fairly quickly. A factory doesn’t have to be built over time before people can be employed and there usually aren’t a lot of ecology studies required. All the products, services and rentals that can be had are paid for by production (hotels, catering, car rentals, hardware stores, etc). The crew spends a fair bit of their money locally on things like restaurants, bars and leisure time activates. If a location is portrayed well it may mean extra tourists in the future. When long-term incentives are in place then an entire film studio infrastructure can be built in that location and crewmembers of all types can be developed, including visual effects artists. Many third party companies develop to service the motion picture industry at these locations.
Companies in Vancouver, London and similar locations are doing well since they don’t have to compete on a level playing field. With a 20% or more savings via the government it’s difficult for vfx companies in the U.S. to compete directly.
From the studio perspective their main aim is to do a film as cheaply as possible and still make it work. If the film is a major VFX tent pole movie with a lot of difficult or new vfx then they will pay top dollar to make it and to ensure it will be done on time and to the quality required. But this only applies to those shots and sequences they feel need to be done at expensive vfx companies. One step down from those types of shots (certainly simpler compositing and roto shots) or lower level vfx film and price becomes one of the highest priorities.
A Hollywood studios first choice is usually Vancouver simply because it’s in the same time zone, is just a 3 hour flight away and they all speak English there. Second choice would probably be London since it’s the next closest location, they speak English and studios executives and key personal enjoy the London life. Next would be Australia. (New Zealand with Weta is primarily on the big projects and not so much a cost saving measure). India, China and other locations are further down on the list if the studio executives and key personnel think they will have to go there. If they don’t have to personally travel there, then the studio is all for sending the work anywhere in the world.
Obviously some studios now have infrastructures setup in various locations and their choice will be dictated by their established suppliers. You’ll notice most editing and sound mixing still happens in the U.S. since the filmmakers and studios spend a fair bit of time involved directly in these activities. They’re also not at the same level of expense as vfx.
Some people think that the studios won’t go anywhere just based on price but it’s very dependent on the nature of the work. There was an article a few months ago where most of the studios were now sending out their subtitling work (as done on the DVD’s). The cost savings to the studio? $600. A $100 million dollar movie and they send out the subtitling to a different country to save $600. I’m not a studio accountant but I suspect there might be a few other budget items that would yield larger savings but since subtitling (and vfx) are done by third parties it’s an easy win for any studio person to make that decision.
Unfortunately the location that has the most to lose (and gain) from subsidies is California. They have done too little, too late. A large revenue stream for California (especially southern California) comes from movies. There are a lot of people employed in this business and they in turn spend their money locally on services and products.
Runaway product continues to suck out revenues from California and unfortunately most of the California legislation can’t get a simple grasp of the obvious. Motion pictures are one of the U.S.’s largest exports.
People (and politicians) assume since movies bring in huge revenue that everyone who works in movies are ‘gazillionairs’ to quote another internet forum. What they forget is the vast majority of people involved in movie making are making working wages. The median income for writers in the Writers Guild is $44,000 a year. Most VFX people make more than this but if it’s averaged over all vfx artists and dry spells it may not be as much as you think.
Some US companies are opening satellite companies in other countries that are able to offer a better price break. There are multiple arrangements. In some cases they simply outsource the work they feel can be outsourced such as Roto. In other cases they have a full working relationship where the foreign company does a fair bit of real work on the actual product. Some companies operate independent shops in different countries that can be leveraged, as the work requires it.
Part of the issue is what is to be gained for everyone involved. If the focus of the studios is purely on the cost factor, having a US based VFX company doesn't necessarily gain them much. They're willing to pay top dollar today for certain projects with a lot of R&D but what happens in a few years when those techniques and software are more readily available in off the shelf products? If your California vfx company has some specialty (water, fire, etc) what happens when that’s all in the next major update of a software package? Will you continue to get work? What happens when vfx production management elsewhere is brought up to the same level? Will the studios continue to be willing pay more to a U.S. company to act as an intermediate?
Will most of the work being done in the US move out of the country and the only thing remaining be the vfx company executives and accountants?
If you live in a country that is currently doing well (healthy vfx production) because of the incentives or reduced expenses what happens when that changes? At some point your government may reduce or eliminate the incentive. Another country may offer a higher incentive. The world and local economy may increase the cost of doing business such that the incentives aren’t enough or another location may end up being even a lower expense because of changing cost of living factors. The studios will quickly move to the lowest priced area that can provide them what they need. Can you and the company you work for compete on a level playing field if it had to? Is your company truly efficient? Does it have the talented artists and R&D people required?
If you live in California (or starting here) what can you do?
1. You can work at some of the larger companies such as ILM, DD, etc. These still get large projects but they still lay off massive amounts of people and still go through cycles of feast or famine work so there’s no guarantee of long-term employment even if you’re considered on staff.
2. Consider working at a small to mid-size shop that continues to maintain a reasonable balance of work. Many of these do all television work (which is usually done here or in Vancouver) or that at least do some television work to help balance the work.
3. Consider moving out of country to where the actual work is being done. This sounds like a simple fix to anyone who doesn’t consider the implications.
a. There are already people working there. Are there enough job openings to make it worth moving there?
b. How long is the project? Is this a permanent move or will you have to shuffle off again in few months to somewhere else?
c. Can you qualify to work elsewhere? Many countries require work visas and other paperwork. Some incentives require crewmembers to be living in the country for a given length of time. Just because there is technical and creative work elsewhere doesn’t mean you can just move there and start working.
d. Can you work at reduced wages if that’s the reason the work is located in that country? If you’re at a location that is getting work based mainly on the cost of living can you work there yourself at the reduced rate and feel comfortable? Does the local taxes and other issues reduced the income even further?
e. What happens if you have loved ones, family, house or other connections here? If you’re young and single it may be fun and exciting to move to another location. For those of us with families do we sell the house and uproot all family members (taking children out of school and away from their friends) to go work in another country? Do we leave the family for long periods of time? (6 months to a year or longer) Do we try to rent out the house and hope to return someday?
It’s a sad state of affairs when experienced vfx artists, with all of their creative and technical skills, are likened to migrant farm workers moving to where the work is. At least there’s a real reason farm workers move is because of locations of the crops and growing seasons. In the case of the vfx artist a cubicle is a cubicle, no matter where in the world it’s located. The only reason for moving is purely at the whim of the counties incentives and the studios.
Unfortunately I can’t offer any real solutions. The unions can’t prevent work from moving out of the country. The politicians seem to be the few who have much control over this so they’re the ones to contact. I know that there are some organizations trying to make this better. If you’re in a location doing well then enjoy it while you can. If you’re in California it’s likely you’ll have to do what you have to do. There are now some vfx supes that spend months shooting in one country and then do the post in another country and spend most of the year away from their families.
Will there be enough of a demand and balance that all the vfx companies and artists throughout the world can keep reasonably busy and can enjoy the fruits of their labor?
(Links added 7/12/10 based on VFX Soldier comment posting. See comments for my basic response at this time. The links all make interesting reading and really get to the heart of the matter.)
VFX Soldier VFX Subsidy War Grows Into Global Trade War
Every week there seem to be new updates on state or country incentive programs.
Clint Eastwood makes UKFC plea - Entertainment News, Top News, Media - Variety
Here's a snippet:
Scottish-born producer Iain Smith, whose credits include "The A-Team," "Children of Men" and "Local Hero," expressed the need for the government to quickly form a plan or risk producers looking elsewhere to shoot films.
"While we have a fantastic infrastructure, we have to protect that as much as we can and in order to do that we have to compete against industries in other countries," said Smith. "There's no doubt we need to tighten purse strings but we need to be careful we don't asphyxiate the film industry in general."
But in an article written for Blighty's Observer newspaper on Sunday, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt hit back at critics.
"If we are going to face budget cuts I have a duty to ensure that taxpayers' money is spent where it gets the most bang for its buck," he said. "It is simply not acceptable in these times to fund an organization like the U.K. Film council where no fewer than eight of the top executives are paid more than £100,000 ($160,000)."
Hunt added: "Stopping money being spent on a film quango is not the same as stopping money being spent on film."
"This new credit will give New York post production services a much needed competitive edge," explains Rich Friedlander, co-founder of Brainstorm Digital. "We increasingly saw visual effects post work going to Canada thanks to their their Digital Animation or Visual Effects tax credit (DAVE). This new program will allow work that was filmed in New York to stay through its entire production cycle. It's a major move that will attract and keep top talent here in state."