Saturday, August 10, 2013

Film Subsidy Bubbles

Film Subsidy Bubbles
Dangers to those in the subsidized areas even if they may not be aware of it.

Someone on an email group questions why subsidies for visual effects were bad and why would we want to do away with "Our subsidies".

First off they're not our subsidies. The film studios are the ones who lobbied for them. They're the ones who profit from them. Not the vfx companies, not you, the vfx worker, and not the taxpayers.

All the vfx companies obtain by moving to subsidized areas is the 'opportunity' to bid on a project. Same competition. Same need to submit a bid the studios will accept.

Subsidies aren't what fund visual effects. World wide demand is what fuels visual effects. The studios make the films for a global market and most of their profits come from visual effects films. If they wish to make tent pole films they will continue to make films with visual effects. Reduction or elimination of subsidies would not cause visual effects work to disappear. What it would do is hopefully instill some basic management and planning of the visual effects to tell stories rather than abusive and excess amount of wasteful work.

What the studios gain from subsidies is someone (the taxpayers) who will cover a sizable cost of the film. This reduces their risk and allows them to make more profits, sooner. Thanks to the generosity of unsuspecting taxpayers.

It's useful to think of subsidies as what they are, economic bubbles. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Housing bubble - Banks were practically giving away home mortgages with no down payments. There was so much profit to be made some bank loan officers were forging documents. There was so much profit to be made people were rushing to become contractors and real estate agents. Many were investing their life savings on a sure thing so they bought houses to 'flip'.

Things were going great until they weren't. The housing bubble popped and was one of the main causes of the world wide recession in 2008 which we will continue to struggle with for years, perhaps decades. People were wiped out out. Even those not involved in the housing market saw their house values, retirement funds and their investments drop like a rock. Unemployment skyrocketed and hundreds of thousands of homes were foreclosed, many of them illegally.

But don't worry about the banks. They're doing just fine. They made huge profits on reselling the loans and on the foreclosures. They even got mountains of money from the government.

Tech bubble - A few years earlier there was the tech or internet bubble. People were betting their life savings on this new internet thing. Startups were happening in every other house. People were rushing to be web designers. The gold rush was on. Until it wasn't. When it all imploded many lost their life's savings.

But don't worry about the banks or rich, they got in on the IPOs of the best companies. They'd be laughing their way to the bank if they weren't already sitting there.

Silver mines - In the 1800's there were a few silver mines where silver was discovered. And almost overnight towns would spring up complete with saloons, stores and churches. People moved across the country to feed on the potential money. They either became miners or sold to the miners. And then the mine would run dry and it would all stop. Many of these towns turned into ghost towns as people fled to the next place. The entire economy for them was built around the silver mines. People lost their savings and moved on.

But don't worry about the banks or the owners of the mines, they did ok.

And if you had asked any of those people involved the day before those bubbles popped, the people would have told you everything was great. They all thought it would continue. Until it didn't.

Not creating an industry 
The film lobbyists and others who would make a profit from them, convinced the politicians of Michigan that it was in their best interest to build stages. Because they would be an ongoing profit center and employ over 6000 people. After all, they were creating an entire new industry there. And the politicians in their infinite wisdom backed the cost of building the stages (and the bonds required) by using the pension funds of the police, firefighters, teachers and others.

Then they learned the hard lesson that they weren't really creating an industry. They were simply leasing it at a high cost for a very short time. They were simply paying studios to come to their location on a film by film basis. And the studios would only bring films if they provided higher and higher amounts of cash every year. They had to compete with other countries and states and the ones to win film projects were the ones who outbid others and gave the studios more free money. Both the 'winners' and the losers were losers.

Many don't seem to see the downside of subsidies, especially if they're in a subsidized area. And just like the other bubbles, these people think everything will continue to be great.

Real World Example
Let's do a review of how this works and why it's not great for those working there. In this example I'll use Vancouver but it could be anywhere in the world.

Vancouver in the days before subsidies had their share of film production. Vancouver was a city and had a number of scenic locations for shooting (ocean, harbor, mountains, forests, city streets, snow, etc) There was some work from both Canada and the US. The lower exchange rate encouraged some projects to shoot there as well. If the subsidies never happened the  film production in that area would continue to grow at a rate that matched demand. The industry would be as stable as any production hub can be. Most of those who had film jobs would likely remain reasonably employed.

When the subsidies were created in that area they created a huge pull for all productions, especially those on the west coast. Many projects went to Vancouver along with a number of the below the line jobs. According to some of the SaveBCFilm people, over 20,000 now depend on the film industry. Many of these couldn't be filled because they had not evolved over time to the new size. This was simply a politician pulling switch. That required bringing in workers from all over the world. That required training many locals in film production.

Many jobs were lost in Los Angeles and surrounding areas, places that had evolved over the last 100 years and had maintained a certain balance. Because this was where the studios with the money were located. This is where most of the writers, directors and producers made their homes. So this eco system that had developed was being drained not due to lack of demand but simply by politics.

And in the meantime Vancouver continued to balloon. VFX companies from the US and even the UK were forced to set up shops due to the demand for this free money from the studios. This in turn required many working in the US and other countries to now move to Vancouver to continue working. The original intent for many of these film subsidies is to create more jobs for locals but in many cases the jobs are filled by foreigners. The clamor for more people and the lure of money also tends to bring out the 'for profit' schools to start pumping out even more students. So these graduates join the work force of a local industry that is already expanded beyond what it can support naturally. This while other areas are experiencing high jobless rates simply because the jobs have moved. No new jobs were created. Simply the shifting of existing jobs in most cases.

And we see this same pattern repeat itself around the world in other countries, regions and states. And the same people pushing for these in one area are in fact the same source of the funding and lobbying to push all other areas, each competing against the other but all ultimately working for the same small set of clients.

The people working in film and visual effects in areas with subsidies have now become dependent on the subsidies. They have become dependent on government handouts or welfare in a sense. The government ends up covering a sizable amount of their labor costs. And these subsidies must increase on a yearly basis and must out spend other areas competing for the same exact work.

Now you have thousands of people who's private industry jobs are in the hands of local politicians. A very large portion of the film industry (individuals, vendors, stages, sub-contractors, etc) in those areas has now expanded beyond what it would support naturally if there were no subsidies. This puts those areas in a very dangerous and fragile position. The entire structure could collapse at any moment since the politicians could pull the support, the only thing holding all of it up.

Film production and visual effects has always had ebb and flow of work so that makes it difficult but places with subsidies have additional factors to consider. If a subsidized area reduces their subsidies due to change in politics, then it will all fall down. The taxpayers in these areas won't always be so ignorant of what it's actually costing them. One day they will realize they're seeing the Emperors New Clothes re-enacted with their money. And the other thing these subsidized areas have to worry about is another location out bidding them by providing even more free money. They're competing against other locations and if they lose, they may lose big time.

Vancouver, BC has seen this in action just in the last year. Ontario and Quebec started offering more incentives and the work to Vancouver slowed down and the work in these other areas increased. Those in Vancouver also fail to see the irony when they cry foul over the subsidies when a large percentage of the work they had was based on themselves outbidding in the subsidies war. And as in all wars, there are losers.

And Vancouver and their SaveBCFilm had no control of these other political groups in other locations since they were competing with them. They had no control over their own local industry since they had built it on fictional and temporary support. They had not built a self sustaining industry with it's own content creation but rather a simple service industry greatly dependent on the good graces of local politicians (receiving money from the studio lobbyists) rather than business and talent.

And we see this repeat itself all the time. Michigan loses to Louisiana. State or area X loses to area y because of a shift in subsidies. The amount of work remains the same, it's only question is where it will go and this is now controlled by government payouts than by any other selection criteria.

So now rather than having a few healthy and stable locations for film and visual effects production, we see the work spread out to many more locations which tends to make each location weaker. Rather than a large eco system that is self sustaining, these are smaller systems which are not self sustaining. With so many new areas developing there is more competition for the exact same amount of work. And there are new areas announcing film incentives almost on a weekly basis. These areas are all fighting for anything and everything. Those jobs that were 'created' in those locations may evaporate at any time since film production is starting anew with each film and not as a permanent industry. And one thing is for sure, the work is constantly in flux and shifting around the world. No place is safe or permanent. Those on top today will likely be on the bottom tomorrow.

And because these areas have all been expanded beyond their self supporting means, they're all in danger of popping. And so eager are they to keep the work they are willing to keep outbidding others. Those who have moved there, those who trained there, those building their own businesses there and all of those working there are in a very precarious position and yet fail to notice their local industry is supported by the least reliable support. A politician. Like those in other bubbles, they fail to notice the dangers until it happens. It obvious to those on the outside but those riding the bubble fail to see it or simply prefer not to consider the reality.

And who is pushing for subsidies in all of these cases? The studios, the only ones who gain in the end from any of these and the ones who play each location off the other. But don't worry about the studios. They'll be just fine. They'll just move to the next place after your area pops.

What's happening in LA could easily happen to Vancouver, London or any other film location. And not only is it possible to happen, it will happen at some point. There's no magic that protects your area. Studios eager to make money in the short term have no allegiances since the subsidies have merely turned the discussion into a cost issue.

No problem
There are those who think that that's the way it is now and that we should get over it. They don't see any problem moving every 3-6 months like migrant workers. They see no issue with being treated as a commoditized migrant worker and they feel the best workers will win out. Sorry for being the bearer of bad news but that's not how it will play out. Just because you're willing to move doesn't mean that you can move. Many subsidies are dependent on locals (residents who have been in a location for over a year, file income taxes there, etc) and so when given a choice between you and someone who can fulfill their subsidizing criteria, your 'qualifications' may not be enough to counter the need for a subsidized worker. Some countries are difficult to get working visas and so even if work is available and you have great qualifications, you likely won't be hired. And don't forget that each area has been expanding and expanding already. There already is an excess of visual effects and film workers due to subsidies. As the work continues to shift based on subsidies you may find yourself shut out from working, regardless of your qualifications, experience, skill level or talent. Then you might consider why subsidies aren't the best for the industry and the people who work in it. Rather than being based on  quality, efficiency and cost criteria,  subsidies are only based on which politician will provide the most money.

Many of these locations that have subsidies would continue to do work after the subsidies go away. They have now built up infrastructures and experienced and talented people. It won't be as much work but it will be more stable and more long term.

Ultimately that's what we're striving for. A healthy and stable industry where quality, efficiencies and other factors are the deciding criteria on where a production does their work. These are all in the hands of the companies and the workers in those locations. Right now your local industry is in the hands of a 3rd party that you have no control over - the politicians. That may be good for the studios but that is no good for those of us working in the business.

Related Posts
Visual Effects Tax Incentives / Subsidies
Risk and subsidies
The Impact of Visual Effects Subsidies


  1. Very nice information. I am looking this kind of blog. Please keep updating..I am going to bookmark your blog.

  2. Amen! Im am a vfx worker in los angeles. Been doing it for 15 years now, and ive worked for everyone whos anyone in film. I am now looking to exit the bussness, its so unstable in this area now. Ive talked to numerous other freelance vfx artist in los angeles like myself, who cant find much more than an occasional 2 week gig (if your lucky) and most of them are also looking for an exit stratagy. I guess the studios got what they wanted, cheaper costs. To bad it cost me my dream. Oh well, on the the next ...

  3. Richie "the Bulldog" SanderAugust 28, 2013

    It's over people. Wake up and smell the pixels.


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