For months, as Sony has sought to slash its studio budget, there has been speculation that the Sony Pictures would sell or shut down its Imageworks visual effects and animation company.
But late Thursday came a different announcement: Sony Pictures Imageworks is moving its headquarters from Culver City to a new facility in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The move, confirmed by Sony, parallels that of Digital Domain, which moved vfx production from Los Angeles to Vancouver some time ago. With the addition of these moves to the bankruptcy of Rhythm & Hues Studios, the feature film visual effects industry in Los Angeles is in full collapse.
Imageworks spokesman Steven Argula told Variety that Sony is committed to keeping Imageworks open and a part of Sony.
“Sony’s investment in this move shows their commitment to Imageworks — not just for animation but for live-action vfx,” said Argula.
The new Imageworks facility in Vancouver’s Pacific Centre neighborhood will have capacity for up to 700 staff, twice as many as Imageworks employed in Vancouver during its peak of production on “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” Only a small office will remain in Los Angeles to work with Los Angeles-based clients. Usually such facilities are staffed with sales reps and primarily provide a place for clients to conduct shot reviews via teleconference with artists elsewhere.
Imageworks currently employs around 270 people in Culver City. It is not clear how many of them will be offered the chance to relocate, and how many might take it if offered. But any vfx artists who choose to remain in Southern California will find their options limited.
Though a few feature-oriented companies remain — notably Hydraulx and its sister company, Lola, and smaller studios including Luma Pictures — the talent pool in L.A. is likely to shrink, making staffing more difficult for those companies.
Sony’s statements that it was “committed to” its L.A. headquarters were always transparently disingenuous. A move to Vancouver was inevitable in the current economic environment unless Sony shed itself of Imageworks entirely.
Daniel Lay, the “VFX Soldier” blogger who is helping lead the campaign to set up tariffs to counter foreign production subsidies, emaiIed Variety to say “Imageworks’ move to Vancouver isn’t surprising given that many workers have been given ultimatums over the years to move because BC taxpayers are paying almost 60% of resident salaries.
“However as we learned with Imageworks New Mexico, subsidies don’t last and some other government will offer more. All this does is lead to a continued cycle of displacement for everyone who works in the industry and this is why many of us are leaving.”
Imageworks closed its New Mexico branch after subsidies there were scaled back. Another Imageworks branch, in India, was set up to take advantage of lower labor costs, but it too was closed.
Imageworks picked an auspicious moment for the announcement: After having no films in the crowded summer of 2013, Imageworks had “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” this year and worked on the upcoming Tom Cruise starrer “Edge of Tomorrow.” Its upcoming slate includes Disney/Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy”; “Pixels” for Columbia Pictures; the “Angry Birds” movie; and for Sony Pictures Animation, “Hotel Transylvania 2” and the next, still-untitled Smurfs movie.
British Columbia native Jason Dowdeswell remains as head of Imageworks’ Vancouver operations, with the title VP of production operations. The company has added Mark Breakspear as vfx supervisor and Shauna Bryan as VP, new business and production executive. Both were most recently at Method Studios in Vancouver.