Digital Domain, Sound One reveal predations of 'vampire squids'
The attackers fall on us in our sleep. Their fangs pierce our throats. They drain our blood, and what’s worse, they make us their thralls. We try to resist but they are too strong.A pitch for a new horror movie? Sorry, no. I’m talking about the finance guys. Matt Taibbi coined the phrase “vampire squid” to describe the predations of investment bank Goldman Sachs. In showbiz, we’re under attack from a school of vampire squids, ruthless and insatiable, large and small. We can see their bloody handprints on the vfx and post biz, but they’ve crept into the entire business. This must end. Not even the finance guys are immune from attack. These bloodsuckers coldly devour each other if we small fry prove too meager a meal. Let’s take the case of Digital Domain, which just dodged oblivion when Beijing Galloping Horse and India-based Reliance MediaWorks stepped in to buy its vfx business out of bankruptcy. Other branches of the company remain shuttered, their employees jobless, even after the sale. Former CEO John Textor, who led the company through the grandiose expansion that ended in disaster, is a former investment banker, a finance guy through and through, and he applied a finance guy’s political and financial legerdemain to Digital Domain. Subsidies were handed to DD without the required vetting or without hitting required employment targets. Today Textor faces lawsuits charging securities fraud, and a political scandal is just beginning to unfold in Florida. But Textor’s defense will be that DD fell victim to predatory lenders. He argues creditors forced DD into an unnecessary bankruptcy that enriched them at the expense of the company, and that he could have sold DD to the same buyers without a bankruptcy. In a recent conversation with me, Galloping Horse vice chairman and managing director Ivy Zhong confirmed her company had reached such an agreement, but to complete it they were required to transfer funds within 24 hours, which was impossible. So DD went into bankruptcy and hundreds lost their jobs overnight. It’s a squid-eat-squid world, I guess. On Sept. 21 came the news that a Florida investment firm had bought the CSS family of sound companies from Discovery Communications. A few days later, historic Brill Building sound company Sound One was shut down “temporarily.” The release called it a “short-term” layoff “while the management team considers a variety of strategic options.” In a decade of covering this space, I’ve seen several private equity firms buy into post and vfx, all saying the right things about why they wanted to be in that business. John Textor’s firm was a private equity fund. I can remember a few disasters, like Pacific Title and DD, but I can’t think of any of those deals that ended well. Post is a manufacturing business. In my experience, bad things happen when the finance guys get hold of manufacturing. They don’t want to make anything but money. Look at the boardrooms, too. More than once I’ve heard how this financier or that production company has designed a structure that locks in revenues before the movie even begins production. The movies themselves become an obligation to be burned off, not quite industrial waste but inessential to the underlying financial instruments or deals. Here’s a thought: Can it possibly be good for the movies when neither their quality nor their popularity are relevant to the financial interests of the people making them? But we lionize those guys because, well, because they have money I guess. Oliver Stone had these guys pegged a quarter century ago in “Wall Street,” when Gordon Gekko said “I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal.” This must end. Showbiz is a manufacturing business, every bit as much as autos and refrigerators. Once, manufacturing and finance were much more in balance in the U.S., but finance gradually tightened its grip on the economy and the government until it became a stranglehold. Is that battle lost? Must we surrender and become thralls of the finance guys? I don’t think so. We can end this. But only if we wake up, yank those infernal beasts off our throats and put them back in their cages. Want to comment or suggest a column topic?Email firstname.lastname@example.org BITS & BYTES Modus FX has appointed Anne Le Bouyonnec as VP of production. Le Bouyonnec was most recently the project manager at the Cosmodome space museum in Laval, Quebec, and has previously worked on video games such as “Assassin’s Creed” and “Prince of Persia” as studio manager in the Digital Art and Cinematics division of Ubisoft. Bron Animation announced a number of additions to its creative team. Debbie Macdonald, former CEO of Nickelodeon U.K., will serve as a Creative Consultant on the “Mighty Mighty Monsters” specials. Kevin Drew, a co-founding member of music group Broken Social Scene, and Ohad Benchetrit, a contributor to many of the band’s albums, will handle the music for the specials. Bezhad Mansoori-Dara has joined as director of photography for the specials, coming to the company from Pixar Canada. … Manhattan Edit Workshop will bring back their five-day intensive workshop “The Art of Documentary Editing” from Oct 29 – Nov 2. Guest speakers include Sam Pollard and Jonathan Oppenheim. Look Effects produced visual effects for “End of Watch.” Landmark Theatres has selected Barco as its exclusive supplier for digital cinema projectors, converting 202 screens in 41 sites across the U.S. … DreamWorks Animation is using Barco’s Auro 11.1 3D sound technology for “Rise of the Guardians” … Barco has announced the launch of CineCare web, an online tool enabling remote and central management of digital cinema equipment. Production company Bray Entertainment has expanded its use of Panasonic P2 HD gear with the addition of AG-HPX250 P2 HD handheld camcorders. Bray will use them to shoot a Lifetime doc series for 2013. … Panasonic introuduced new studio system camera, the AK-HC3800, which they say will deliver higher-quality video and greater control than more expensive studio system cameras. Cinedigm has announced a long-term VPF deployment agreement with the Metropolitan circuit, covering 11,474 screens. U.K. color management specialist Light Illusions has developed an app for their image matching system MatchLight IMS…. Maxon has announced the worldwide availability of a free student edition of CINEMA 4D R14. … Shawn Kelly and online animation school Animation Mentor will team up to hold an advanced animation workshop at the Improv Centre in Vancouver on the weekend of Nov 3. Goodrich Theatres has expanded partnership with Cinedigm, having converted 274 screens in 2011, to include the use of the company’s Exhibitor Management Systems (EMS) to Manage Movie Booking and Payment Operations. E-on software has previewed its real-time lighting engine, which simulates indirect lighting and will be included in a new version of company’s 3D visualization tool for architectural designs LumenRT.