Tuesday, December 13, 2011

VES and VFX trade organization

There's a LinkedIn discussion going on regarding Vfx trade organizations and the Vfx foundation.

LinkedIn discussion


This also includes some potshots at the VES. I wrote up a response but thought it best to post here as a reference.


I'm on the board of the VES but I don't speak for the Ves so these are simply my personal views. Bob and Colin have brought up some points but I'd like to clarify a few things.

I don't see what's to be gained by bashing the VES. The Ves was formed 15 years ago to be an honorary society, similar in many ways to the ASC and the Academy of Motion Pictures. To honor professionals, to provide education and to advance the art of visual effects where possible with standards and research. And to that end, it's accomplished that. Educational programs are frequently held around the world. A couple of weeks ago there was an event covering the latest on performance capture. Many of these event videos are online at the website (upgrades in progress) The Ves created the Ves handbook and is looking to do more in this area in the future.

I pay dues to the Ves because I do this for a living. I'm a professional and the Ves is the largest group of visual effects professionals. Just as I buy books and magazines and pay to attend events related to my professional. It's a business expense.

I don't begrudge paying dues to the Academy and wouldn't begrudge paying into the ASC if I was a member. If you don't want to join the Ves then don't. If you're a Ves member and wish to see improvements then join a committee. Most of the Ves is volunteer based and that's how the Ves handbook came to be.

There are those that want the Ves to be a trade organization or a union. But that ship sailed when the Ves was founded. It may sound like an easy thing to change the structure and intent of the Ves (or other existing non profit) but it is not. To totally switch to a different type of organization would likely require dissolving the Ves and creating a totally new and different organization. The current members wouldn't be members under a trade organization and the same might apply as a union. The US government treats unions differently than standard non-union groups regarding legal issues. The same likely applies to a trade organization. There are also tax issues that would change. If a cinematographer has an issue getting paid he/she doesn't go to the ASC and tell them to change their entire focus and structure to accommodate the cinematographers needs. If a studio has an issue they don't go to the Academy and demand they become something totally different because the studio has a new need.

The Ves has tried a few times to get companies together to discuss a trade organization but many visual effects companies are very competitive and fiercely independent and didn't want to even consider such a thing. The Ves has also been in talks with the union.
Since none of these things happened (as of yet) the Ves decided to do what it could do to fill some of these gaps and still be true to the type of organization it is. The Ves is proceeding with doing what it can. Is there still room for a trade group or union? Yes, but at this point those aren't formed. So once again, what's the point of bashing the Ves?

Scott Ross has his work cut out for him to try to come up with a plan and sell it to all the major companies. Just as the union has to create a plan and sell to workers.

Trade organizations are typically made up of similar companies with similar needs. They don't tend to be made up of individuals. A Vfx trade organization would likely be based to some extend on the AICP and be about trying to standardize the billing and client relationship part of business. That's a different need than most workers.

Outsourcing
Here in the US we've been hurting because of the amount of tax incentives and outsourcing going on elsewhere. Some of the thinking is that the trade org or the foundation would be able to solve this problem. However both the proposed trade org and vfxfoundation are international, same as the Ves. You'll notice most unions and trade groups are regional (state, country, etc) Part of the reason for that is so they are all on the same page and can advocate their government to do things that would benefit them. (It's also cleaner from a legal perspective as well.) Being international means you can't hurt one subgroup while aiding another. I don't think London Vfx companies would be thrilled about the trade group they pay money into using that money to lobby California for more tax incentives. And we're now to the point many companies have satellite companies in other areas of the world and what were once local companies are now owned by large companies elsewhere. All of which makes it difficult to try to reduce or balance outsourcing.

Expenses
The trade group is budgeted at $3 million a year. That's a lot of money. Certainly more than the Ves. The foundation is at the other end of the spectrum. It doesn't plan to ever charge any membership fees. I've never belonged to any medium to large membership organization (professional or hobby) that didn't charge for membership. Sure, you can get a bunch of people together on the web without charging but much beyond that will require some funds at some point. Real expenses start happening when you're trying to service a number of people. Office supplies, web registration, web updates, legal fees, etc. Not everyone can volunteer full time for any length of time. Will job postings cover these costs? If you want sponsors then someone is going to have to spend time contacting companies and trying to make arrangements. One of the benefits of some type of paid membership is you separate the serious from those who aren't serious. Those who simply join everything on a lark.

Trade organization
One of the potential benefits if there was a trade organization it might it simpler for a worker group (union or other group) to negotiate. One group to deal with instead of dozens of smaller companies.

The downside is a trade organization could use it's strength in numbers to avoid any worker groups. One of the member companies could simply state that they were planning on cutting down certain worker benefits or thought certain types of jobs in Vfx were paid too much and they weren't going to be raising their rates for the next few years. There are legal issues with collusion but it can also be a gray area.
There are those that think if a trade organization benefits companies with more profits, that those profits will trickle down to the workers in benefits and pay. That's unlikely to happen. If companies make more profit then they will likely award their management and return more to their investors. They might put more money into equipment but they will still layoff people at the end of the project.

The hope is that if there is a trade organization it will create a stronger industry and if that trade organization is setup correctly more companies will be profitable and stable. And likewise it's possible it may raise the bar on bidding work and doing the work. All,of these do indirectly benefit the worker but it's important to not confuse the purpose and aim of a trade organization with a worker organization.

Ultimately it would be good for all of visual effects if in addition to the Ves there was a true trade organization and a workers group.

11 comments:

  1. Hi Scott, you make a lot of good points...

    I share some of your skepticism, but I also feel like we have to do something, even if what we do fails. Better to have tried and failed than to have never tried at all.

    With regards to the VES- me personally, I have never benefited directly from the VES. I once gave a talk with Eric Roth and some other senior sups/artists for the VES to some students. It was a worthwhile cause. To their credit, they put on a great deal of lectures, etc.

    The problem is the VES is getting involved, when technically they can't do anything. They should step aside and allow whatever movement that happens to happen. By having the VES put out a bill of rights and claim to be revamping to VES 2.0, it just confuses the issue. That's when people like myself get upset, as I see no point in what the VES is doing in that realm. They should stay out of it. They are risking their non-profit status by taking a political stance.

    You, as a member, are allowed to take your own stance. We know you are pro-union. There's nothing wrong with that...until you drag the VES into it, and then we have some problems. And that's where I don't understand what's going on. How can the VES be doing anything- even meeting with IATSE? It doesn't make sense.

    VFX Foundation is supposed to be a grassroots movement. You point out that anyone can create a website and collect people on the web. You of all people know the power of social media. It's that power that I am trying to leverage. I think the people will eventually decide what is important to them, and they will react accordingly. But don't discount the power of the Internet Scott, after all, your blog does have an audience, doesn't it?

    Joe

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  2. Scott, as usual, concise and to the point. Every thread or online discussion concerning the VES, unions, or trade organizations should reference this page.

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  3. @ Joe - With all respect to you Joe and your unselfish efforts with VFX Foundation, I can't help but disagree with your comments about VES getting involved especially in the absence of a workers group or a trade organization.

    I applaud anyone and any organization (especially VES) who steps up for the benefit of it's industry or members. How can that possibly or logically be a bad thing?

    There is enormous integrity to the the Bill of Rights in that it represents the hard work and input of many esteemed VFX practitioners. It's now a rallying point for the industry. I suggest it helped frame much of the energy and input on Scott's challenge to the industry.

    The VES is doing the best it can with the tools it's got. Now it's time for the artists around the world to come together and lead and time for the VFX companies around the world to lead. I thank Scott Ross for begging the question (however not at the expense of the VES). But now there seems to be some movement and that is always a good thing.

    Respectfully,

    Bob

    I will equally join and serve any organization who makes this kind of contribution.

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  4. (breaking this in 2 comments since blogger limits comments)

    Hi Joe,

    To each there own. I'm sure some would say the same about the Academy or other organizations.

    Actually we can do things, we just can't create things like collective bargaining agreements, etc.

    Here's a case where the VES is darned if it does and darned if it doesn't.

    Let's set the wayback machine to the point where the VES looked into this (9 months ago?) No VFX companies were willing to create a Trade Organization. The union had small meetings with some employees of some companies but wasn't getting anywhere. At that same time the VES was getting a lot of feedback from members about how we should be doing something. So we did. We made the announcement to bring the VFX industry issue public and to put a spotlight on. Until then much of what we discuss was out of sight for most of the film industry. And there was a large positive response from the membership. The VES then proceeded to create the Bill of Rights as a first step to what we thought were some of the issues to be dealt with. And it too received a very good response from the membership.

    So here we are 9 months or so later. Still no trade organization although Scott Ross has now taken up that fight. Still no union. You've opened up your foundation site. Maybe things will happen, maybe not. But you can be sure if the VES hadn't done anything we'd be getting even more scorn. Frankly I think we've help to bring these issues out and hopefully get people in all areas talking.

    So how did the VES confuse things? I think the VES has made it clear what our position is and what we've been doing. Has that prevented any company from forming a trade organization? Has that stopped anyone from filling union cards or joining your foundation? If anything the Bill of Rights should be looked on as a starting point for any organization.

    And no, we're not in danger of losing our non-profit status. And to be clear i don't see this as political. The VFX industry is out of balance and the VES has been asked to help by the members. We're not siding with any group or region. We're simply stating there is a problem here and outlined in the Bill of rights what we thought the should be the norm.

    The board is made up of a group of people with a wide range of ideas and experience and opinions, as it should. If you notice the vast majority of my blog posts are to inform and educate since that seems to be lacking in my view.
    I'm hoping it starts people thinking about possible solutions. I do think both the workers and the companies should be looked after, supported and protected. Whether that's a union or a workers group of some sort or your foundation, doesn't specifically matter to me as long as it provides reasonable working conditions and benefits. If there were a trade organization they could
    set some basic standards for working conditions if they were truly interested.
    The studios, companies and workers all have their wants and needs. Part of this is to find that balance and is sustainable.

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  5. Continual health care has always been a problem in the age of digital visual effects and one of the top items members request of the VES.
    Will a trade organization provide it? Will whatever worker group provide it? Remember, this has been on the member list for the last 15 years and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to solve itself or that another group is going to solve it in the next few months. And so the VES has tried to do what it can.

    One of the things I looked into was whether all of the vfx companies that already provide health insurance could pool their payments to a group employed by all of those companies. That would make a great deal of sense. Lower insurance costs due to the greater number of subscribers. The ability for those people to go from company to company as projects change and still be covered made a great deal of sense. Bob Coleman and the Business/Legal committee also looked into it. It make so much sense there are Federal laws dealing with this. It's called a MEWA. There are car dealerships and other types of groups that do this. The bad news is there were several management groups that didn't play according to the rules. Here in California they didn't monitor or regulate these so the state government simply made it illegal to create any more of these in California as of a few years ago. These still exist in other states.

    Regarding IATSE - Yes, the VES can meet with IATSE or the studios or any other groups. We’re trying to facilitate communication by all groups that affect our members and the industry. We’re not endorsing nor are preventing any of these. We represent the largest group of vfx workers, so yes, the studios and IATSE do want to talk to us if it relates to visual effects.

    Regarding the foundation - I’ve never said the internet or social media weren’t great platforms. My concern is that people start attacking the VES based on member fees or the cost of running a full organization. It would be great if all non-profits had no costs associated with them. No dues, no expenditures. But that’s not reality. Any group (VES or Foundation) at some point has to pay out of pocket expenses. (I pay for websites to host some of my videos.) And that money has to come from advertising, sponsors, membership dues and other sources.

    In the end the VES would like nothing more than these issues being handled by specific groups and to focus on the honorary society. As Jon Erland noted years ago, in most industries there are 3 main groups (like a 3 legged stool) - trade organization (which the studios have), workers group or union (which other film people have) and an honorary group (Academy, ASC). Visual Effects is an industry with only 1 leg of that stool currently and that's the VES. No point in attacking it simply because the other 2 groups haven't been formed yet.

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  6. Hi Scott,

    I feel like Joe's comments mirror my thoughts on the VES pretty accurately.

    People are bashing the VES because it seems like they issued the "Bill of Rights" solely in a bid to appear relevant. The "Bill of Rights" looks to most vfx artists such as myself to be a bunch of promises without anything to back them up. The idea of a "Bill of Rights" suggests that there will be a governing body to enforce them, but the VES mostly likely has zero power to enforce anything, so they look kind of ridiculous publishing those rights in the first place.

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  7. The first step is to get everyone to acknowledge there are problems. Second step is set some targets as to what is desired (Bill of Rights). Next step is to see about doing what can be done to achieve those items. That's what we're doing now. The mistake people make is to assume the VES has no influence and no power. We can't collectively bargain but we can push things along and may surprise people with what can be done. Look at the occupy movement. They don't have legal contracts but are certainly able to shift some things and have influence.

    The VES could simply stand on the sidelines and not do anything but wait for trade org or union to final get their acts together. Or we can do what we can now and hopefully at least lay the groundwork for more to come.

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  8. All efforts, communication, propaganda, press, meetings, blogs etc. are in some way, helpful to any cause. That we are all ( some, at least) talking about the state of the VFX industry shows movement. Whether or not that movement results in positive change, is still debatable and might be so for awhile.

    As to Mr. Erland's three legs of a stool analogy... yes, a stool does need at minimum three legs to stand. I contend that we are not a stool, just stoolies!

    The VFX industry has a myriad of issues... mostly financially driven. Hollywood, like any other business is primarily about profit and secondarily about "having juice". The VFX industry has neither. It should have both.... and lots of it.

    While we can disagree about management addressing the needs of the workers ( I say that management is fully aware of what the artists need, they are the folks that management sells and why customers give VFX houses their business), I hope we can agree on the importance of the sequence of gaining juice/profits.

    Unfortunately, it seems that the VFX facilities do not see the need nor have they been vaguely interested in forming a Trade Association. I, for the life of me, cannot understand why.

    As to a Trade Association annual budget.... the big 10 do about $1billion a year in revenue. To make a trade association work, to lobby the necessary governments, to have the necessary staff it will take a serious commitment from the facilities.

    And the VES.... a wonderful group of well meaning folks that have done some great things over its history. Unfortunately, the founding members decided that the VES was to be an honorary society with limited abilities. Now, 15 years later it has "2500 honorary members" and seemingly has no ability to change its mission nor its capability to affect serious financial change in our industry.

    My hope is that the VES, at present, the largest VFX organization, use its resources to foster and support a Trade Association and to not be fearful that a new organization take away from their membership and dues.

    The International VFX Trade Association should be modeled off the AICP. There is precedence.

    I ask you all to start to look to the light at the end of the tunnel and realize that if we don't act that light will very well be a train.

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  9. Correct regarding the industry.

    The VES hasn't tried to stop a trade org. The VES has tried to gather Vfx companies for a trade org and ran into the same issues you are. At a certain point it was diminishing returns so the VES decided to focus on what it could do rather than trying to push companies to do what they should do.

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  10. Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.

    Peter Drucker

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  11. ...leadership is defined by results not attributes.

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