Guilds? Nah. Here’s Who the VFX Biz Needs

VFX Biz Needs Agents
Aaron Kupferman

Agents are capable of the ultimate special effect: making it rain money for undervalued companies

Sometimes it seems like Hollywood treats the visual effects biz like an embarrassing reminder of the past, the country cousin with the ugly suit who reminds them of who they were before they lost the accent and learned how to dress.

Before films, most actors had all the prestige of carnival acts and were treated accordingly. Movies made actors into icons, but it still took a fight to create the Screen Actors Guild, as well as the Writers Guild and the other guilds that made it possible to have a solid career in pictures.

A lot of vfx pros are clamoring for their own guild and union now, as they’re subject to the thousand natural shocks to which showbiz flesh is vulnerable. I’m not optimistic. I’m not even sure it’s what they really need.

Don’t get me wrong, vfx pros could benefit from things collective bargaining might provide — health benefits, overtime, better working conditions. But a guild or union can’t address the problems bedevilling the companies those artists work for, or the industry as a whole. There’s one thing that can make these artist-driven companies into the stars they should be: Agents.

That’s right: Moneygrubbing, mendacious, self-interested agents — bless their tiny hearts — are just the thing to rescue the vfx industry.

I worked as an assistant in the literary department at APA’s New York office from 1989-92. The agent I worked for repped some of the best and most successful writers in TV. I’ve seen what an agent can do for a productive, successful client.

A lot of actors nowadays, even stars, are finding their quotes shrinking, even if they have agents. But good agents are always pushing their clients’ fees and careers upward. If they hear “no” on one front, they get creative on another.

I know. With feature vfx margins around 5% on a good day, there’s no way a vfx company can afford to pay 10% to an agent. But go with me on this.

If I were an agent repping a vfx company, here’s a one-side transcript of what the start of negotiations might sound like:

“Look, my client’s work is the anchor of your worldwide marketing campaign. They’re the real star of the movie.

“They’re not? Who is? Henry Cavill? Charlie Hunnam? Nice TV actors, but they’re not opening your movie. The only thing opening your
movie around the world is my client’s visual effects. We are making you millions. You need to pay accordingly.

“What do we want? First, credit: Vfx supes get opening credits in a card next to the d.p. And on paid ads, favored-nations with the director. If he’s mentioned, we’re mentioned.

“Calm down. You’re always groping to connect your movies with hits. Stuff like ‘From the Producers of ‘The Expendables 2’? Like anybody ever bought a ticket because of a producer.

“Okay, moving on to fees, we’re dropping this fixed-bid crap. Here’s how we roll: You cover documented costs, like labor, software, overhead. But that’s just compensation for expenses. The fee is $20 million on top of that.

“Laugh all you want. Look, your giant monsters and robots? Superheroes and supervillains? My client’s giving you that. If there was a
star who’d starred in as many high-grossing hits as my client, he’d own half the studio by now.

“It’s you studio guys who now compare hiring vfx studios to casting. You offered us this gig because you want the Jennifer Lawrence of vfx companies. And that’s what we are. We’re cool, we’re sexy, and millions of fans love our work.

“Yeah, sure, other companies are going to share the work. But we’re going to manage all that for you. And since we like making $20 million a picture, and we’d like you to pay us that again for your next movie, we’re going to do it better than you could.

“Okay, now that I have your attention, let’s talk about the definitions we’re going to use for my client’s back-end participation.”

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  1. York says:

    The real benefit an agent could provide is a PERCENTAGE of the film’s gross profits. Until VFX houses and artists are making money on residuals, like actors do, it will be a race to the bottom for the lowest bid and along with that who can get the most subsidies.

  2. mike says:

    ah….. who made iron man? who made transformer? who made tiger in the movie life of pi? acters weared mask and cloth? of course, some scences could be. who are stars? If audience wants to see only stars, go to movie without vfx. shotting with real tiger, and break real buildings. and bring the actors top of building and make him to act spider man. should be good.

  3. tibor warski says:

    As long as there’s kids being pumped out of VFX schools and are desperate to work this industry is always gonna have problems. Oh, and did I mention the companies in the far East willing to do the work for a pittance?

    • John says:

      Of course some people would

      do the work for a cheaper fee. But go make Life of Pi or The Hobbit with graduates kids and Asian companies and you’ll have a very different result ! The knowledge, the skills and the experience of people in big companies with their R&D departments, rock solid pipeline are not things you can replace just like that. It took decades to get there. We has to move and change the business before a VFX post house in China or wherever gets to the same level for a third of the price because then it will definitely be too late.

  4. Jacks says:

    Assuming all the big VFX houses signed on for this I think it could help. VFX houses could be packaged like the script, actors, and directors. I still think we need a trade organization though — and nothing will ever replace the need for a guild/union for VFX Artists.

  5. Good idea, wrong execution says:

    Mr Cohen, agents may be part of the solution but your process is flawed. Execution has gone global and wont return, creativity and R&D is the value.

    These companies aren’t the actors, they’re the studios. The agent should find them finance to make their own content. Look at the history of successful Vfx – filmmaker owned, DD, ILM, WETA – PIXAR is already an audience draw.

    Trying to milk throughput is the fastest way out the door, they need to take the next step forward in evolution.

  6. charles maynes says:

    vfx artists are people, and lots and lots of them are needed to do any serious tentpole film. check out the credit role of any recent film if you dont believe it. They need a guild- just like the Editors Guild or any of the other production Guilds.

  7. The Observer says:

    I think that Mr Cohen has had a stroke of genius.

    This is the best idea I’ve heard so far.

    Thank you Mr Cohen…..

  8. X-ray says:

    One agent representing multiple studios. Agent negotiates cost, lets studios know and then they decide who will take on job.

    ALL negotiations go through this agent. No studio to Vfx studio direct negotiations.

    • Mike says:

      No. Each visual effects company must have its own agent. Every other point of talent already negotiates through agents with the studios, so they know the drill.

      • Mike says:

        Sanjay, because the competency levels at the VFX facilities are different, in my opinion, they need their own agents.

        It’s really no different from actors, where they are all humans, yet, their competency levels vary greatly, and each one uses their own agent.

        And if you have a proven track record, in acting or VFX, your agent should be in a strong negotiating position…which is why agents are able to negotiate tens of millions per film for talents such as Johnny Depp.

      • Sanjay says:

        If each company has its own agent then they might as well have no agent. At that point the agent is just another Bid Producer. If one agent represents multiple studios its collective power. No undercutting or side-stepping

  9. Mike says:

    I think Cohen is right on the money with this…the VFX houses should go the Intel way…”Intel Inside”, to brand themselves apart.

    A good agent should be able to get the VFX house name into the opening credits (next to the production companies), creating a brand that audiences will connect to over a very short time.

    If you look at the VFX breakdown videos on Youtube, the viewer numbers and amount of comments on them, the audiences are starting to discover the VFX houses on their own already, but agents could really bring the lever to the brands.

  10. Albert says:

    Then the producers will laugh and take their business to a vfx house that isn’t so arogant. That is the whole reason why the vfx business is trying to form a guild, union, association, whatever.

    Agents are only able to provide lucrative deals for people who can’t be easily replaced.

    • fair game says:

      The top VFX houses can’t be easily replaced.

      The way you think is the core problem of the entire industry.

      • Eduardo says:

        “The top VFX houses can’t be easily replaced.”
        Tell that to Rhythm and Hues and all the people working in irreplaceable places being lay-off.
        Agents don’t sit in front of a monitor for 14 hours a day. They cut the deal and return with their spouses and kids. The only people who knows the guts of the beast and the producers asking for 75 versions of the same shot are the workers.
        Only who have been there can fight to hold the ground in front of ruthless studios.

  11. Pipe Dream says:

    Good luck with that.

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