Runaway production fears loom over organizing efforts

At last week’s Academy visual effects bakeoff, Acad governor Bill Taylor introduced the evening by noting that the seven films still in the Oscar race earned more than $3.3 billion in box office and employed 2,800 artists on six continents.

It went without saying that almost none of those artists did any of that valuable work with the benefit of union representation.

Taylor went on to note the power of the vfx industry and asked the business not to squander its power in squabbling.

He didn’t say what squabble he meant, but everyone in the vfx business knows the industry is facing its first serious unionization push — an effort that’s dialing up passions on both sides.

The news that the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and the Intl. Brotherhood of Electrical Workers were seeking to organize vfx artists — after decades of indifference to pleas from their ranks — came at a peculiar time.

The combination of the 2007-08 WGA strike, the protracted 2008-09 negotiations by SAG and the recession caused the vfx business to plunge, and while the business has picked up in preparation for this year’s crowded tentpole schedule, some companies didn’t survive the downturn.

Most notably, CafeFX and Asylum visual effects of Southern California both closed their doors in recent months. Both were highly regarded for the quality of their work and their humane management.

The global pursuit of tax incentives and cheap labor has sent vfx work to Canada, U.K., Eastern Europe and India, with Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and China also getting into the mix.

As a result, even people who have been vocal supporters of unionization in the past are worried that this isn’t the time — even though vfx artists remain one of the largest non-unionized groups in Hollywood without access to key benefits such as health and retirement plans.

“If the economy was in better shape than it is now I would be all for it,” vfx supervisor Rob Legato wrote in an email.

“My only fear for the rest of the community is, at this time, the studios don’t have much of a reason to stay in Los Angeles for this type of work as it is.

“While I am all for representation and agree in principal that vfx should be unionized, I feel that the same effort to help the workers also hurts them in that the jobs will essentially go away.”

Legato worries that work will flee California, talent will follow the work (as it does already), resulting in a no-win scenario for the American vfx business.

Vfx artists have become numerous and their contributions often replace stars as the main marketing hook for many studio tentpoles. Yet while nearly everyone from carpenters to casting directors has a union or guild, vfx pros do not.

For years, in fact, the showbiz guilds and unions refused to represent them. The vfx supervisor used to be the “visual effects director” until the DGA objected. So vfx supervisors asked for DGA representation. The DGA wasn’t interested.

IATSE wasn’t much interested, either, but toyed with the idea of incorporating vfx pros into existing locals.

Jeff Okun, a vfx supervisor who has long been an advocate of a union, said, “That’s not good for us. Because we lose any voice we may have had; it gets diluted. The needs of a camera operator are different from the needs of a compositing artist or a shader writer or a lighting tech or a vfx supervisor.”

Vfx artists are still subject to the kind of issues that led to the formation of Actors Equity: Going far away for work, only to find themselves stranded, unpaid and on their own if a company folds.

The industry’s whatever-the-market-will-bear attitude toward vfx pros has hardened over the years, too.

“As one executive said ‘You guys are a dime a dozen,’ ” Okun said. “Which is sort of mean-spirited but in a sense, we are a dime a dozen, because no one cares to differentiate between talent and artistic ability and management skill.”

IATSE went public in November with its organizing effort. “You perform services to the industry, and you deserve the same dignity, benefits and voice in the workplace afforded to every other craftperson and creator,” said president Matthew Loeb in a letter to Visual Effects Society exec director Eric Roth and Okun, who is the org’s chair (Daily Variety, Nov. 15).

Bill Brinkmeyer, business agent for Local 40 of the IBEW, said his local began meeting with vfx artists in late October after they approached the union.

“We’ve been holding informational meetings since then,” Brinkmeyer said. “They really need to be organized because they are mostly hired on a daily basis so they don’t have benefits and they have to pay for insurance themselves.The majority are misclassified as subcontractors and therefore have to make their own Social Security and Medicare payments as well.”

Jim Goodman, an international rep for IATSE, said he’s held dozen of meetings with vfx artists since mid-November – meeting twice a week in pizza parlors and taverns, usually with 12 to 25 people attending, along with smaller meetings. Many of those have signed authorization cards, he added, but IATSE hasn’t yet approached the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.

Goodman said that being required to work excessive hours has emerged as the major issue from employers during those meetings. “We’ve often had employees tell us that they can’t make meetings at 7:30 at night because they can’t get away from work that early,” he added.

Other concerns pay rates, lack of health insurance and being required to work as independent contractors, resulting in employees paying an average of $8,000 annually in payroll taxes. “They are in roles where they’re required to show up at a particular time on a schedule and report to supervisors, so they’re not really independent contractors,” Goodman added,

He also said that employees have pointed to last month’s settlement by Lucasfilm with the Dept. of Justice, requiring the FX powerhouse to stop entering into “anticompetitive” agreements with Pixar that the DoJ said unfairly affected digital animators.

Brinkmeyer said the organizing effort will probably take a long time because there’s no single entity representing the vfx employers. That means unionization will likely be on a shop-by-shop basis.

“This isn’t something we’re going to be able to do overnight because there are so many different companies,” he added.

Any organizing effort would have to be done at the level of the vfx studio. Management at those companies declined to comment on the idea, but attitudes within those companies range from wariness to outright anger.

Management worries about losing control over costs and personnel decisions, and about its studio clients simply taking work elsewhere if it tries to pass on any increased costs.

Some raise questions about how union benefits would be funded, since there are no royalties or residuals today on vfx, and such revenues would have to come from the studios and producers, not from the vfx shops that would be the target of a unionization push.

All this has Okun sounding rueful.

“In my heart, I feel the train left the station on a union,” Okun said. “In the formative days of visual effects, we weren’t smart enough, or interested enough, to figure out the business side.

“We’ve done this to ourselves, and we have to crawl out of the box we’ve made.”

After years of indifference to that box, the unions seem so eager to organize the vfx industry they claim not even to be competing.

The organizing drives come after the two below-the-line unions repping most film and TV industry crews — IATSE and the Intl. Brotherhood of Teamsters — entered into an agreement to work together toward common goals in August.

Loeb said at the time, “The Teamsters are our natural allies.”

IBEW Local 40 works under a deal that contains the same terms as the Teamsters Local 399 master contract.

The “basic crafts” contract also covers Local 724 of the Studio Utility Employees, Local 755 of Plasterers and Cement Masons, and Local 78 of Journeymen & Apprentices of the Plumbing & Pipe Fitting Industry.

Brinkmeyer said that although the IATSE and IBEW drives are separate, they share the longterm goal of unionization.

“If they choose IATSE so be it,” he added. “It is strictly their choice.”

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