Scott Ross needs to have a debate with himself.
I want to thank Jeff Heusser for giving my blog a shout out on fxguide today. I was really excited to hear that he conducted another interview with vfx industry vet Scott Ross. He was general manager of ILM and founded Digital Domain and he has recently been involved in an effort to help create a trade union to organize the VFX facilities.
If you have a moment please take the time to listen to the podcast. While I found myself agreeing with alot of points, I almost crashed my car when I heard Jeff and Scott completely contradict themselves on a labor organization to represent the artists. According to Jeff Heusser:
Everybody I talk to, what they are interested in is not what you would normally think of for a union. What they are interested in is portable benefits, help with enforcement of labor laws because there are a lot of people who are not following the labor laws, and retirement plans. Those seem to be the three things that I hear most from the artists. Seems like an odd time for a union to be discussed.
Okay. That’s like complaining of stomach pain, headaches, and vomiting and then coming to the contradictory conclusion that going to the doctor would be a bad idea. Here is some news, while VFX facilities and Scott Ross have talked the talk about giving artists portable benefits, respecting labor laws, and creating retirement plans, The Animation Guild has walked the walk for almost the past 60 years.
- They provide not one, not two, but 3 retirement plans. I was vested in over $13,000 dollars after only 450 hours of service each year without paying a dime. I even posted my IAP statement as proof.
- They provide great health insurance that lasted for 17 months AFTER I left the guild to work at a non-union vfx house. In fact, Steve Hulett did a comparison of the Guild health plan to the health plan provided by Digital Domain. DD’s health insurance was a total joke. Best of all, these benefits were portable if I ended up at another guild facility.
- They have cracked down on employers who violate labor laws. Recently, TAG offered access to their lawyers to help unpaid VFX interns get paid.
What makes things worse is how Scott Ross piles it on. He essentially uses every argument to validate the creation of his trade organization to invalidate artists joining a guild. It’s unbelievable.
If a union was to organize the workers, particularly here in the United States, what it would do is it would make the cost of business considerably higher to the employers which would therefore:
A) Lower the margins even greater therefore forcing those companies out of business.
B) (They would) Not being able to compete at all because, face it, there is no union in India and there is not going to be a union in India and the Indian artist is making probably 40% of what a US artists is making already.
How can someone so successful be so misinformed? A labor organization would put vfx facilities out of business? I don’t know what planet Scott Ross has been on but it’s the studios and some of his business partners that have been putting vfx facilities out of business, and they have done so with complete glee as famously mentioned in a Variety article by an unnamed producer:
Scott Ross alluded to his famous feud with Digital Domain co-founder James Cameron which is well summarized in this Forbes article of how Cameron almost put DD out of business during Titanic. The feud became so heated that at one point James Cameron said the following through his lawyer:
Ross professes to be unconcerned and vows to stick to his ambition of becoming the next Pixar. “There’s a huge growth opportunity,”he says. “Studios are making movies that ultimately don’t make money, so what’s the problem?The problem is they don’t run it like a business. They make cans of Coke for $10 a can. Can you make that can of Coke for a dollar? The answer is yes.”
Yes, that’s right James Cameron thinks VFX is the equivalent of making a can of Coke. I wonder how quickly and easily that can of Coke would be made elsewhere if the whole vfx crew at Weta Digital walked out on Avatar during crunch time? If Scott Ross agrees with that kind of statement and that VFX is already being made for 40% less in countries like India and China then why do they keep doing business here? Why is ILM Singapore recruiting artists here to go work there? Couldn’t the cheap locals create VFX instead?
I’ve pointed out that this is essentially the VFX outsourcing boogeyman argument used to scare VFX artists. The jury is coming back in on doing visual effects in developing countries and the quality has not improved and the cost advantage is quickly dwindling. VFX facilities continue to stay here because the talent resides here, not because of some charitable donation.
And then there is the costs associated with the guild. Scott Ross argues that the guild would make the costs of doing business higher for VFX facilities. At the same time he argues that VFX facilities need to write him a check to help start a trade union. Does Scott Ross realize how much its going to cost to hire lawyers and lobbyists to create a global organization that works with all VFX facilities and state, local, and federal governments? What’s to stop studios from awarding vfx work to shops who avoid Scott Ross altogether?
While a trade union will add extra overhead costs for vfx facilties, the guild would most likely replace costs that are already being administered in the forms of health insurance, and retirement benefits. Best of all the costs for these benefits are shared by the big 6 studios in the form of residuals and thousands of members in various locals that are part of the greater IATSE labor organization. In 2005, $347 million dollars in residuals funded the healthcare and retirement plans and we VFX artists are sitting around wondering why we can’t get any benefits when every other discipline in the Hollywood industry ranging from actors, directors, truck drivers, and caterers are receiving those benefits. All you have to do is sign a rep card which is pretty easy.
What got me steaming mad at Scott was when he eluded to the wage minimums as if they were maximums:
I can’t imagine having a conversation with Dennis Muren and saying okay well Dennis you know the rate now for the VFX Supervisors is X and so were going to lower (your salary).
Simply outrageous. That is completely WRONG. The wage minimums set by the guild are just that – minimums. There are no maximums, however employers love to use it as a way to smear the guild and it needs to stop. It’s wrong. In fact, many of the top talent that Scott Ross employed at Digital Domain left to go work for DreamWorks Animation which is under a TAG contract. If it were so true that TAG was lowering talent wages then why are so many going there? Maybe because it was a better deal?
It’s moments like these that remind me of an email sent to me by an owner of a small VFX shop which contained the following:
Occasionally there’s the rant “UNIONIZE!!!” ….a thought just occurred to me; unionization could be good for VFX shops. If the shops could somehow step aside, and let the angry artists directly insist on humane treatment from the studios, it’s politically easier; visibility is important. Right now, the struggling VFX shop owners have to go into a studio office and argue that a larger check should be cut to them so some peon that the decisionmaker never sees can feed his children. If that peon could argue his own case directly to the studios, there’s a way better chance of getting heard.
we are too deperate to fight. the workers should do it for themselves.
This begs the question to me and it’s a question I would like to pose to you Mr. Scott Ross:
What purpose do VFX facilities serve?
- They fund vfx I think, but no, the studios do that.
- They create a pipeline for vfx to get done, but no, the software engineers and TDs do that.
- They create vfx, but no, the artists do that.
At the end of the day I can’t find a reason why VFX facilities should stay in business. They are unable to earn a profit. They are unable to provide job stability and benefits to their workers. We are essentially freelancers working for a poor middleman. Maybe if those really skinny cats die and get out of the way we could all join a guild and start negotiating directly with the big fat cat studios.
meow.. um I mean.. Soldier On.