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.

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.

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.