Times are sour in the visual effects business. Companies are folding, artists are getting stiffed, and workers are split over unionization.
Many complain especially about instability, long hours and being forced to choose between a decent quality of life and their career.
Yet Santa Monica-based Luma Pictures is thriving, both creatively and economically, taking a radically different approach. Luma eschews freelancers as much as possible, hand-picking artists who have broad experience plus one or two areas of excellence, then putting them on staff and aiming to keep them on long-term. It’s instituted a profit-sharing plan and some of its top artists are getting shares in the company.
The company also discourages overtime. Its standard work week is 45 hours. Co-founder and CEO Payam Shohadai says that every time they ask someone to stay late, “we’re failing slightly.”
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“I try to instill this sense of giving reliable normalcy to our employees,” said Shohadai. “In our model, everybody works their best and hardest in order to not have that overtime.” In contrast to much of the industry, which is frustrated at months of six and seven day weeks, he says Luma employees have never worked a Sunday, and the company avoids working Saturdays. They regularly take time off for company-wide recreation, like beach days or trips to Magic Mountain.
When a crush early this year forced them to ask for more overtime, with one employee reaching 80 hours in a week and six working 60 hours for six weeks, they rewarded the entire staff with a five-day paid vacation in Maui with their families.
How good is their work? James McQuaide, senior VP of production for Lakeshore, who has hired Luma on numerous titles including all of the “Underworld” franchise, said “They do some of the best creature work in the world — as good as Weta, and they are the gold standard these days.”
Diana Giorgutti, Marvel’s vfx producer on “Thor,” for which Luma did the “Destroyer” sequence, said “I’ve not come across anything yet we can’t go to them for.”
The issue with Luma isn’t quality, but quantity. They prefer to stay small. Luma has about 63 artists right now, and has never been much above 80, even with when it’s had to take on freelancers for a crush. By contrast, big vfx studios regularly reach 600-1000 seats.
Shohadai and Luma management regularly choose quality of life over quantity of output. McQuaide said he recently had a friendly argument with Shohadai, urging Luma to take on all of “Underworld 4.” “I said ‘Shouldn’t you consider taking on all the creatures in this show? Because then you can tell everybody you did 250 creature shots.'” But after thinking it over, Luma declined.
“My sense is they only take what they can excel at,” said McQuaide. “Greed does not factor into their decision-making,” he said. “Most companies, when they have capacity, they’ll take it on. (At Luma) it’s like they decide as a group what work they want to do.” Because Luma has a small, stable workforce, clients get to know department heads well enough to call them directly with notes. At the same time, clients say Luma is competitive on price with overseas companies that offer a tax rebate.
“To keep (the work) close to me, and to work with people I know, is kind of a no-brainer,” McQuaide says.
Shohadai says his underlying philosophy is to put service to employees and clients first, and the bottom line will take care of itself. “More people want to work for you, more people want to work with you. Therefore you have more choices about what to work on.” He said the company has done better every year. “We don’t have debts. We own our equipment, our software, our building. We have cash reserves,” he says.
Shohadai has thought about opening a branch in an area that offers tax incentives but he’s hesitant. “If you’re a service-based company, the company is the people,” he says. “Even if I open a branch in Canada or some other country, say Luma Pictures India, that doesn’t make it the same company.”
He estimates from the time they start up, low-labor-cost companies will have about 15 years until their labor costs rise to levels similar to the U.S. He thinks that we’re about 10 years into that, so he believes that cost pressure will start to abate in about five more years.
Counter-intuitive as Luma’s people-first approach may be, Giorgutti said it’s similar to the philosophy that drives Marvel.
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