An investment website is recommending investors consider buying stock in Digital Domain. This part caught my eye which I tweeted:
New horizontal expansion includes government-funded Bachelors and Masters programs wherein students pay Digital Domain to work for Digital Domain
Soon after my tweet I get an email from a new VFX blogger called OccupyVFX who was able to find audio of the presentation given by Digital Domain’s CEO John Textor. The whole 22 minute presentation is posted above but the surprising part starts around 15:40 when Mr. Textor talks about their new VFX school in Florida called Digital Domain Institute:
Classes starting in the education space, what’s interesting is the relationship between the digital studio and the college. Not only is this a first in a number of ways that we’ve talked about, but 30% of the workforce at our digital studio down in Florida, is not only going to be free, with student labor, its going to be labor that’s actually paying us for the priviledge of working on our films.
Now this was the controversial element of this and the first discussions with the Department of Education, cuz it sounds like you’re taking advantage of the students. But we were able to persuade even the academic community, if we don’t do something to dramatically reduce costs in our industry, not only ours but many other industries in this country, then we’re going to lose these industries .. we’re going to lose these jobs. And our industry was going very quickly to India and China.
So, if 30% of our labor can be free, actually paying tuition, but by your Junior and Senior year at the college, you’re working on real firms (films), as part of the professional workflow, and you graduate with a resume that has five major films, your name in the credits, and more than just an intership level of experience, then that’s the perfect kind of trade off.
It’s one thing to work for low pay, it’s another thing to work for free, but it’s unfathomable to be expected to pay to work for free. The company intends to make money by not only creating content through huge subsidies provided by the Florida government, but by having a workforce of laborers who not only are working for free, but paying a tuition totaling $105,000 for non-residents which does not include food, housing, or transportation costs.
All of a sudden the things I’ve been blogging about in the VFX industry have rapidly become a reality. One of my first articles was criticism of a similar program being offered by Gnomon. I also wrote about how some companies capitalize on the allure of prestige starry-eyed prospects get. I pointed out instances in Montreal, and Michigan where rich US studios took advantage of generous government subsidies and still managed to leave VFX professionals unpaid. At one point I even warned:
Variety’s David Cohen tweeted what sums up the situation best:
Problems at Maxsar Digital & Kerner Optical point up a
#vfx management practice that must stop: using new deals to pay past obligations.
#vfx practice of using new deals to pay old bills is why some refer to the entire vfx business as a Ponzi scheme.
Remember that tweet. Tattoo it to your arm if you can because if you think these Ponzi-like schemes are limited to just small facilities, wait until you get a load of what some of the bigger facilities are trying to do to get subsidy money.
And then Imageworks New Mexico closed as its clients changed their focus onto larger subsidies in Vancouver. The Department of Justice found VFX powerhouses like Pixar and ILM engaged in collusion and we now learn Steve Jobs was involved.
And the reaction by VFX professionals? Apathy.
Former Digital Domain founder and ILM General Manager Scott Ross recently commented with a statement I can’t help but agree with:
I did however get frustrated by the oft times lack of motivation by the workers, the owners, the studios and the director/producers. On the LinkedIn thread, there were only a handful of participants…. this issue has been haunting our Industry for years….APATHY TO DO ANYTHING except complain.
Look businessmen are going to do what businessmen do. They will do everything they can to take advantage of the environment to maximize the amount of money they can make. Sometimes that involves doing something unethical, wrong, or even illegal. It’s our job to prevent such practices.
We’ve let ourselves succumb to fear, uncertainty, and doubt by disregarding obvious facts. Do you really believe that your jobs are going to India and China? Just yesterday Steve Hulett posted on the Chinese VFX industry inability to find skilled talent. It’s laughable to think that the Florida Department of Education gave 100s of millions of taxpayer dollars to DD to build a school of paid free labor in a noble effort to prevent an industry from going to India or China. Even with all that free money DD is still opening a facility in India and China. Someone surely got taken for a ride there!
And where are the VFX jocks that have routinely chastised those of us who urge organization to prevent employers who try to engage in such exploitation? The reaction is “well I can just say no to working for free myself.” Look at what is happening now. A major VFX company is now turning the routinely accepted practice of free labor into a major part of it’s business plan.
I understand the skepticism about unionization. I know some of you could care less about portable benefits and enforcement of labor law but there is something else to this. It’s about solidarity. The idea that lets others know that if you mess with one of us you can expect to hear from all of us.