About 45 visual effects workers attended a rally just outside DreamWorks Animation in Glendale, California, on Tuesday, where President Barack Obama was touring the studio’s facilities and was set to speak about the strength of the entertainment industry. The protesters weren’t supportive of the president’s claims that the VFX industry was in good shape, as the entertainment sector has increasingly come under fire in the past several years, even as the need for VFX work increases.
Organizers told The Hollywood Reporter that the protest was not intended to be a direct shot at Obama, DreamWorks Animation President Jeffrey Katzenberg, or the company’s VFX workers. Instead, protestors sought to use the spotlight to raise awareness for the problems currently plaguing the VFX industry, specifically pointing to foreign subsidies as one of the industry’s biggest issues. While foreign subsidies are indeed a huge problem, it’s certainly not the only one for the troubled sector.
The plight of the VFX industry has received a lot of attention over the past year, even if it perhaps hasn’t had as much attention as it should. An report by io9 following last year’s Oscars points out a lot of the most glaring facts about the industry, starting with the widespread layoffs at both gaming and film VFX studios.
Major VFX studios — the ones involved in both blockbuster productions and award-winning films — have not made out any better than smaller studios. Rhythm and Hues, the Oscar-winning effects studio behind Babe, The Golden Compass, and Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, was forced to declare bankruptcy earlier this year. German VFX house Pixomondo, which created the Oscar-winning special effects for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, announced its plans to close both its London and Detroit operations.
The foreign subsidies problem revolves around VFX studios taking up foreign government offers to subsidize parts of the cost of production in return for moving VFX houses to that country. The fact that VFX firms would choose this route and risk the consistency of work in Los Angeles or New York proves that there are other issues at work.
One of the biggest problems is the sheer cost of VFX work — in hours, equipment, development, and other areas — that is necessary for the studios to function at a high level. Since VFX houses are often contracted on fixed fees, having worked on a blockbuster film may not mean much to the bottom line when hugely expensive equipment and working hours are factored in.
“If the president says we’re gaining a lot of jobs in the film industry, that’s not true,” Daniel Lay, co-organizer of Tuesday’s rally, said to The Hollywood Reporter. “We’re here to correct the record.”
According to the trade publication, protest organizers are seeking to bring a countervailing duties action in the World Trade Court. This would force the U.S. government to put duties on incoming VFX work, effectively mitigating the financial incentives of moving the work to other countries. There have also been pushes for the global VFX industry to unionize, but the attempts have so far been ineffective.
“Right now there are just no jobs to protect. We have to stop the bleeding first,” Lay told The Hollywood Reporter.