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

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

VFX Biz Needs Agents
Aaron Kupferman

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.”