When Below-The-Line Goes Over The Cliff: Class Warfare In Hollywood

If you have a friend or family member who works in the entertainment industry, then you've probably seen them change their Facebook profile picture or other social media avatar to this:

vfxunion__span

This image represents a green screen, a necessary tool for digital visual effects designers, the latest Hollywood sub-industry that's about to fall off its own fiscal cliff.  Most people don't know that Sunday's Oscar ceremony was picketed by members of the visual effects community trying to raise awareness about the financial hardships many in that industry face.  You see, Hollywood studios have basically been involved in a class war against below-the-line talent (like visual effects artists, writers, prop people, production designers, etc.) for some time now.  With movie budgets ballooning past all semblance of reality, many of the studios have started outsourcing the VFX work to cheaper locales overseas in order to take advantage of significant savings in cost and manpower, as well as tax breaks and subsidies.  For the artist who's slaved over a hot computer for years in order to make the physically impossible digitally possible, this relentless "cut costs at all costs" approach has resulted in long hours, poor working conditions, bad pay, no respect, and potential job loss.  Too make matters worse, most of the artists and the companies they work for don't get to participate in any profit sharing if the film is a hit.

When I lived in LA, I interned at two separate digital effects houses, one of them did the VFX for Smallville and the other was finishing up some VFX for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.  I saw first hand just what they went through.  Say what you want about the Pirates franchise, but there's no denying that the visual effects were stunning.  I think Davy Jones is the most perfectly realized digital villain ever made because of the blood sweat and tears those animators poured into him for 20 hours a day, seven days a week, for months on end without a break.  When the project ended, their pay was barely better than mine!

Anyway, this above-the-line/ below-the-line rivalry came to a head during this Sunday's Oscar telecast when Bill Westenhofer, a VFX supervisor for Rhythm and Hues, accepted the award his company won for their work on Life of Pi and had his mic cut when he started to talk about the financial difficulties facing his company.  In fact, Rhythm and Hues, the powerhouse FX company behind Babe, Happy FeetThe Incredible Hulk, 300The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Hunger Games just filed for bankruptcy because it kept getting underbid by oversea FX houses.  It didn't help matters when Ang Lee failed to thank the VFX guys in his Best Director speech and actively undermined the entire VFX industry a few days ago by publicly wishing that visual effects were cheaper.

IO9 has a nice write up here about the situation.  You should also read this piece by Drew McWeeny of HitFix, one of the best film critics on the web today. They explain better than I do why this is important.

As a film fan, this bugs the hell out of me because I want to see quality work made by people who are good at their jobs.  As a producer it frustrates me because I've seen too many people boxed out of deserving financial reward because they weren't powerful enough to fight for their rights.  As a human being and American, it angers me because this schism in the entertainment world pretty accurately mirrors the class war going on in the rest of the economy. And as a lawyer, it incenses me because there are so few legal avenues available for these guys to fight back, even if they are willing.

As a general matter, our current law is somewhere between 10-15 years behind the times; for all intents and purposes it's stuck in 1997. When it comes to protected groups, this country has done a good job legislating to protect people against discrimination based on race, gender, national origin, age, and disability.  But it's clear that Congress does not recognize any class division in this country and thus has no intention to protect class through legislation.  And make no mistake, above-the-line types like executives, directors, and producers are in a wholly separate financial class than the below-the-line talent like VFX artists and writers.  They're the ones living paycheck to paycheck.  They're the ones going without medical coverage so they afford gas to drive their kids to school, they're the ones who never know where the next paycheck is coming from and as a result rent their homes instead of owning because they could lose their job like *that* and heaven help them pay property taxes in LA with no money coming in.  So when the high muck-a-mucks make a decision to freeze out the VFX artists from getting any kind of financial or personal recognition, much like they did during 2007's Writer's Strike, it means that their legal options are few and far between.  In short, the VFX artists don't have any legal rights to fall back on outside of any contractual ones that might have been breached.

Devin Faraci over at Badass Digest (another of the web's best film journalists) suggested that it's time for the VFX artists to unionize, and I like that idea. But Devin also recognized that as a culture we've largely moved past that.  And really, it's not like belonging to the WGA helped the writers in 2007.  So what else can the artists do?  Well, raising awareness and generating public support is certainly key if they want to increase their bargaining power.  But to be honest, I don't really think they have a strong legal challenge here, and that pisses me off.  Our current law is just not adequately designed to help those who earn less than others, and now the VFX artists in Hollywood are going to be the next casualty.

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA