Skyline: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Don’t look up. The theater floor is more entertaining.

This weekend saw the premiere of the film Skyline which was produced and directed by Colin and Greg Strause who are VFX Supervisors and owners of the Los Angeles vfx company Hydraulx. The film was made with a budget of $10 million and and debuted with $11.6 million this weekend. I have some good things to say about this film… and some bad and ugly things to say too.

The Good

You have to give the Strause brothers credit since they were able to shoot a film in Los Angeles with a budget of $10 million and still pay a decent rate for LA vfx artists. That’s a great thing and we should all celebrate in the success of that. The idea that you have to go outside of Los Angeles to get low cost vfx is not necessarily true. Battle For Terra was another low budget film that was made all in LA with LA vfx artists that were paid decently.

The Strause Brothers are hard workers and have incredibly good technical knowledge about shooting films for vfx so they were able to be efficient with their budget. Much of the exploding costs for vfx are made by hastily made decisions on the set that lead to unreasonable demands on vfx facilities.

One of the possible solutions for vfx facilities to become profitable was to start producing their own films and focus less on servicing the vfx of the big studios. The Strause Brothers have walked the walk by producing and directing their own film that is probably going to generate a nice chunk of change for them.

The Bad

For all the credit the Strause Brothers deserve, this was a terrible film. In fact, many of the critics are choosing this to be the worst film of the year. The most scathing review came from aintitcool.com:

SKYLINE is what happens when someone shows up with a $10 million check and never lets these two geniuses sober up enough to realize just how fucking asinine their idea really is.

The Brothers Strauss are perhaps the single most inept filmmaking duo working in the studio system today.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this film was green lit while the brothers were out doing a few drinks with Brett Ratner.

Is it a good thing for our industry that mediocre films like these are used as the roadmap to profitability for vfx facilities?

This is the second film the Strause brothers have directed and it seems there hasn’t been much improvement from their first film: Aliens vs. Predator Requiem.

I couldn’t get past the first scene in that movie because it was so laughably bad. A father and son are having a good old outing in the forest and BAM! FUCKING ALIEN OWNAGE! I mean really? I could’ve swore I came up something similar when I was six years old!

But who cares about the quality of the film as the Strause brothers will be the first to brag that AVP2 was the second biggest Tuesday opening for a film in December, EVER! Seriously. Who brags about that? Should they time the release of their next film so it can be declared as the Biggest Yom Kippur Opening During A Leap Year?

The Ugly

Look, it’s known amongst the vfx community that many people who have worked at Hydraulx have had serious problems as alluded to in this post on fxguide:

However, it should be noted that Hydraulx engages in dubious, if not outright illegal, business practices – specifically: misclassification of employees as independent contractors, violation of state overtime time pay laws, and tax fraud stemming from the deliberate avoidance of paying employer mandated taxes.

I’ve heard many similar stories of former Hydraulx artists who are incorrectly classified to work as independent contractors where they are responsible for the employer’s taxes. Many of them are not paid overtime appropriately and receive payment for their work long after the 30 days mandated by the employer. It’s nasty stuff but artists need to work and are afraid to report such violations.

How much more expensive would a film like Skyline be if they appropriately paid OT and correctly classified workers as employees? I seriously doubt the Strause brothers would just pick up shop and move elsewhere if they had to follow the law.

I think it’s unfair that while artists are working unpaid OT and potentially putting themselves in a situation where they may be audited, the Strause brothers are driving Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Bentleys, flying private jets, wearing $25,000 watches, and drinking shots of Dom Perignon at Las Vegas clubs with Paris Hilton.

However the moral of the story is something that Steve Hulett mentions on his blog about the Hollywood industry all the time:

There is no right or wrong, good or evil, fair or unfair in this industry. There is just leverage. You either got it or you don’t. If you have it, use it. If you don’t, find out how to get it.

Soldier On.

40 Responses to Skyline: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mercedes, @ftwo. @ftwo said: Skyline: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly: Don’t look up. The theater floor is more entertaining. This weekend sa… http://bit.ly/cbSt1J […]

  2. Martin says:

    However, it should be noted that Hydraulx engages in dubious, if not outright illegal, business practices – specifically: misclassification of employees as independent contractors, violation of state overtime time pay laws, and tax fraud stemming from the deliberate avoidance of paying employer mandated taxes.

    That wasn’t you on FXguide? I honestly thought it was when I read it. Sorry if I’m wrong.

  3. Martin says:

    Oh yeah, secondly — I saw Skyline on opening weekend & thought it was fine. Gretest movie ever? No way, but thoroughly underserving of the mauling it’s getting. My review was ‘Every bit as crap as mainstream Hollywood VFX-centric crap, but at one tenth the price & owned by the VFX artists.’

    • Dorkman says:

      owned by the VFX artists.

      Did Hydraulx offer the artists that worked on the film backend points?

      I’m genuinely asking, because I don’t know. They may have, in which case this may truly be a significant landmark when we look back on this in the years to come.

      If they didn’t, then no. The film is not owned by the VFX artists. It’s owned by the producers, same as it ever was. The producers just happen to work in VFX as well.

      • vfxsoldier says:

        I don’t think Hydraulx artists would get residuals. Ironically the Strause brothers do get residuals because they are members of the Directors Union.

        Furthermore, what makes the vfx union significant is that all IA members receive residuals indirectly in the form of Health and Pension benefits.

        50-60% of those benefits are already being funded by residuals from films many of us work on. Even films like Avatar pay into that pool. We just haven’t signed up to claim it.

  4. n says:

    “Is it a good thing for our industry that mediocre films like these are used as the roadmap to profitability for vfx facilities?”

    Mediocre or not, it’s a film they own outright. VFX-for-hire is for suckers. The road to profitability is to *own your intellectual property*. Every day your facility works for somebody else is a day closer to when you go out of business. Everybody knows this, and more power to these guys for doing something about it.

    Besides, their script was crap, but at least it was better than the idiot ideas that Digital Domain was cooking up a few years back.

  5. Rolling Red says:

    Skyline aside, bad movies are made in our biz all the time. It’s who do you know in Hollywood that assures the funding, not the quality of the script. Now, lets get back to that *leverage* thing. Great quote by Steve Hulett.

  6. tim Crean says:

    i think you made some great points at the outset, but the article quickly degenerates into your subjective judgements about the Strause brothers. Even here in NY Hydraulx is known as a tough place to work, but to base your article around an anonymous comment on fxguide is hardly a smoking gun, or even relevant to the bigger story about us owning what we create. It’s more disappointing to see you link to some movie critic’s review. some of the best films in VFX history were commercial flops and/or panned by critics. (not saying Skyline will be regarded similarly, but i think i make my point.)

    i really like your blog, and i’m a company owner which probably makes me a bad guy in these parts, but i think this post falls below the standard you’ve set in your previous writing.

    regards,
    tim
    SUSPECT

    • vfxsoldier says:

      To say that a company that illegally classifies workers is “a tough place to work” is a bit sad. If I’m a facility owner who is following the law and the company across the street underbids me because they engage in illegal I’d be mad as hell. Why do you condone such a practice?

      And you wonder why we think you’re “the bad guy”. Is your company called suspect because it also engages in similar illegal business practices?

    • Winston Smith says:

      “Hydraulx is known as a tough place to work”

      Uh, the point is that they are violating State and Federal labor, wage, and tax laws. As “a company owner”, you should be well aware of these issues and the significant legal and financial penalties that may result from violations of the law. If you’re not aware, then I suggest that you talk to your business legal advisor and tax accountant asap.

      Simple question for you Mr. Crean:

      Do you now, or have you ever, misclassified your employees as independent contractors? Simple yes or no will suffice.

      Here’s a guide to help you answer the question:

      http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p15a_09.pdf

      Or, perhaps you can let the IRS help you to figure it out by filing this form:

      http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/fss8.pdf

      Cheers!

  7. mananama says:

    “For all the credit the Strause Brothers deserve, this was a terrible film.”

    And your point is……………

    Seriously Soldier what gives? Why the tirade? You bring up some valid points but back them up with nothing more than snide remarks, personal insults and heresay from other forums.

    Get back on track.

  8. fx says:

    weeeeelll there is also the issue of how they paid for the fx.
    http://www.thewrap.com/movies/column-post/skyline-and-battle-los-angeles-release-date-fight-20168?page=0,0
    It seems like battle LA pays them they to be the main fx house. They take that money to pay artist to work on THEIR movie and Battle and deliver a weaker result to Battle.

  9. creative1 says:

    I appreciate that you want to be a voice of reason to fellow VFX artists, and I appreciate that you’re looking out for the general welfare of our industry. I don’t appreciate your particular tact, or your lack of fact checking.

    First things first, get your facts straight! Do more research before you try to enlighten us all.

    Secondly, don’t comment on how this movie was made possible, since you clearly don’t understand, and you fail to state the facts.

    Finally, and most importantly, don’t assume you intimately know how a particular company is run from a single quote from a single article! If we did that for all companies, all employers would be mislabeled as terrible places to work!

    • vfxsoldier says:

      I have access to a copy of a contract from someone that has worked at Hydraulx that illegally classified him as 1099. There are many other people I know that have worked there as 1099 also.

      • creative1 says:

        There are proper channels that the alleged employee could have turned to during their employment that could have resolved the issue of being misclassified as an independent contractor.

        Being 1099 doesn’t mean that you’re an illegal worker. It means you are an independent contractor, as defined by the IRS and upheld by a court system that has set precedents for acceptable classification of employees. Being 1099 vs W2, in and of itself, is of little importance to the courts. Legally binding contracts, written by lawyers, are also of little interest to the courts when it comes to interpreting these laws. Has hydraulx in fact been sued, or charged with any such crimes for this, or any other employees status, overtime pay, or any other legitimate legal issue? No.

        Outside of pointing out that Skyline is a terrible movie, what else have you provided us with? Anyone who has the eyes to see and ears to hear can reach that conclusion themselves within a matter of seconds after experiencing the film. I assure you the audience will feel more robbed than any former employee of hydraulx ever will!

        Your article states “I think it’s unfair that while artists are working unpaid OT and potentially putting themselves in a situation where they may be audited, the Strause brothers are driving Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Bentleys, flying private jets, wearing $25,000 watches, and drinking shots of Dom Perignon at Las Vegas clubs with Paris Hilton.”

        They shot Skyline with their own equipment, in their own apartment, with a crew of less than 20 people who all worked on deferred pay, and finished the entire movie for less than $20 million, much of which came out of their pockets.

        Relativity bought the film rights for domestic distribution for $10 million, and then went to Universal through an existing agreement get distribution. The Strauses dug into their own pockets to finish the movie and pay their VFX crew, knowing that if they finished on time, Univeral was going to spend close to $30 mil in P&A costs.

        The Strauses, the principal actors, the writers, exec producers, and even composer, are all waiting for the payoff on the back end. Unfortunately, the only winner here appears to be Relativity. Universal will not break even domestically on P&A costs, and gross profit points may never fully cover on the back end what the Strauses spent. If you know anything about how box office numbers translate down into actual dollars in people’s pockets, you’ll get a clear understanding of how what was at stake may never be recovered.

        I have said nothing new. All of this can be found through Wikipedia, or even in interviews with the Strauses regarding Skyline. What matters here is that you missed the article: 2 VFX artists turned directors go broke trying to make their own movie that turns out to be a flop.

        Add insult to injury if they didn’t pay their artists correctly, and so perhaps most people may want them to fail. In the end though, there are only a handful of artists at hydraulx still employed, so who really wins at the end of the day?

      • vfxsoldier says:

        I’m getting a charity fundraiser together for the Strause brothers right now. I saw them on the corner of Lincoln and glencoe begging for gas to fill the ferrari.

        I’m hoping we can get enough money together so we can work (for deferred pay of course) on their next movie called Bottomline.

        The plot goes like this: Two brothers hire a vfx student out of school (1099 of course) only to find out he is actually an alien: FUCKIN ALIEN OWNAGE!!!!

        It comes out during Yom Kippur too!

      • Hopefull says:

        The people at Hydraulx on 1099 were working on company property, using company equipment, taking direction from company employees, and working set hours set out by the company. All these things go against being classified as a independent contractor and factors that legally make someone a employee.

  10. creative1 says:

    If your claims have merit, then someone should follow through with a class-action suit that includes all past employees who might be due overtime or other compensation that was witheld. The burden of proof will primarily be on the employer if enough people come forward, and a settlement that benefits the plantiffs would probably be reached quickly. There are plenty of employment lawyers out there who will work on contengency, especially if an entire class is involved. If the situation was as bad as you all make it out to be, step up, do something about it! At this point you’re picking on a crippled business that is struggling to make it. Not only did they bet the bank on Skyline, but they no longer are doing FX work for the major studios as a result of burning brides in the process. It is a no win situation at this point.

    • Hopefull says:

      There were those who didnt fall for the 1099 shenanigans. So you’re right. If those persons who did fall for the 1099 scam want recompense they need to step up.

      As far as burning bridges in the making of Skyline thats all on Hydraulix. Believe me…they didnt do it for altruistic purposes like uniting VFX studios/artists to get out from the oppressive thumb of the major studios. They did it to make money for hydraulix. So if they did in fact “bet the bank” and lose its on them.

      They in fact may have hurt the chances of VFX houses coming out of the shadows of Major studios by churning out such a POS movie.

      • creative1 says:

        Let me guess. You’re one of the ones that didn’t fall for the “1099 shenanigans” then? This industry is unlike any other. It always surprises me how many artists have no basic finance, business, and legal knowledge. Then again, those that do are typically spineless saps that will agree to unfair conditions just to work on “the next big thing”, and they disregard the circumstances. After all, working is better than not working, even if it’s not on the best terms, right? Starry eyed and full of dreams today, crushed and defeated tomorrow. It’s a never ending cycle. There is a fresh batch of starry eyed students ready tomorrow to fill up sweatshops like Hydraulx. They know they’re in for abuse, but they simply don’t care.

        I openly challenge anyone to take a stand against this or any other company that is operating illegally, but my gut tells me you won’t, and you never will.

        Complaining anonymously online is less work, so let’s all keep doing that, like VFX Soldier does. Does anyone take this shit seriously? I doubt it.

      • Hopefull says:

        Well what about you creative1? Has every company you’ve worked at been perfect angels? Have you never seen any inappropriate behavior on the part of companies? Why dont you stand up and scream your name from the heavens and decry who wronged you?

        The simple fact is to do so would put a target/black list on said artists back.
        The simple fact is also that on every company Im at I talk frankly with my co-workers regarding my rate, 1099 vs w2, legal and illegal working conditions, OT laws, etc.

        All I can do is not let myself get screwed over and pass along the info to all the people I meet in my travels.

        And whether you or anyone else takes VFX Soldier or this site seriously the fact is that people talk about it. It sparks a discussion. And it is these discussions that lead to change. Just because information is posted anonymously doesn’t make it invalid.

        And your little schpeal about young artists and them working for peanuts…thats a unfortuate side effect of the oversupply of people wanting jobs. All we can do is make sure the young and talented arent taken advantage of and make sure they’re getting paid what their worth.

  11. Ivan says:

    So far as of Nov. 30 this movie has made a little over 47 million worldwide. Any chance of some sort of follow up on Skyline? Who made what and so on?

    Just from a purely business aspect the movie was a success. If the other issues that some have could be recitified that would be nice.

    • Hopefull says:

      As financially successful as the movie MAY have been the initial movie was so bad I believe the Skyline name is forever tainted.

      And I say “may be” financially successful because no one knows the budget for sure…the 10mil number is a rumor as far as I know. Plus the actors were all paid on the back-end so who knows how big a cut they had to be promised to accept the job. Also minus the marketing and distribution costs who knows how well the actual movie performed.

  12. Owner says:

    What is the 1099 scam you guys keep talking of? U act likely the artists don’t want to manage their own taxes as contractors. If u know what u are doing, U can the money go further. It seems there is some fallacy that hydraulx forces artists to this. That’s bs, and doesn’t make sense. Why would they care? Taxes either come out up front (employee) or later (contractor). It seems to me that the real scam is contractors realizing they owe a lot in taxes, getting mad about the situation (of their own creation I might add), and then trying to argue that they were employees, in which the state assumes the burden is on the company, not the contractor. It’s basically equates to people changing their deal so the tax burden falls on the bigger company, even if this is contrary to what was agreed upon. Human nature seems to be to forget the truth when it benefits them. And human nature is for flame artists getting paid $120/hr to complain about getting clocked out when they are on personal phone calls for forty mins , and to post that they were clocked out when they visited the bathroom. All of those who spend so much time trying to unionize the vfx industry should wake up and drop it. It will be the end. As people have posted, hydraulx paid full rates and paid everyone ot in accordance with state law for skyline, and all projects that matter. If you want to improve your pay, fight the illegal subsidies that other states and countries are offering the studios to take our jobs from us. It is THE issue facing the industry. Tax incentives are an evil, illegal Practice that we must stop.

    • vfxsoldier says:

      Oh my. I really hope you aren’t the owner of Hydraulx because this comment merits it’s own article:

      https://vfxsoldier.wordpress.com/2010/12/04/vfx-union-meeting-for-hydraulx-employees/

    • Jimmy Goodman says:

      Dear Owner:
      you ask “why would my employees care? (if they are classified as “independent contractors”?
      it is because, by doing so, you have shifted the obligation of paying payroll taxes from your company, to your employees; at a cost of $8221 per year. $6621 of that is for social security tax, and $1600 for medicare tax. You should be paying those taxes, not your employees.
      But, let’s be fair, let’s ask your employees to vote, in a secret ballot election; what would they prefer? To pay your taxes for you? Or, perhaps, to be covered by a union contract, with such advantages as being entitled to overtime, sick pay, vacation pay, holiday pay and medical insurance coverage. What say you???
      Jim Goodman

  13. Hopefull says:

    “What is the 1099 scam you guys keep talking of?”

    Employees either being forced or offered 1099 status when under the letter of the law they shouldn’t. Work on-site, on company equipment, under set hours, taking direction from company employees…..then you yourself are an employee under the law, regardless of if you want to be 1099 or not.

    When 1099 the tax burden is taken off the employer and put on the employee. Yes, some people may be able to take advantage of the extra write-off…and others wont. But again, under letter of the law 1099 shouldn’t even be an option.

    “It seems there is some fallacy that hydraulx forces artists to this. That’s bs, and doesn’t make sense. Why would they care?”

    Why would who care? The government…well they care cause its the law…and because they are also missing out on other taxes like unemployment and FICA taxes. Hydraulx cares because getting to classify employees as 1099 saves them money.

    “As people have posted, hydraulx paid full rates and paid everyone ot in accordance with state law for skyline, and all projects that matter.”

    Wrong…1099 peoples OT didn’t start until after 10 hours a day. So Hydraulx got A LOT of work at the standard rate when it should have been OT from the 1099 people.

  14. Duh says:

    I hope the person posting as “owner” is not the actual owner of hydraulx. If someone that ignorant and blatantly conceited is responsible for other human beings, please god, give me cancer now! No-one that retarted could possibly be in charge, right? How is it hydraulx is still in business and places like asylum are closing? Are we doomed or what?!

  15. […] I am compelled to bring this up is because one of the owners of Hydraulx may have commented on my Skyline article. I hope (and pray) that this is some sort of fake because if it really is a comment from a VFX […]

  16. […] from a VFX facility owner, then we have got some major issues. I’ve reposted the comment from here: What is the 1099 scam you guys keep talking of?  U act likely the artists don’t want to […]

  17. Kevin says:

    Oh, come on! You agree to these terms before you start working there. If you don’t like them don’t work there, if you think you’re mistreated don’t work there. Stop bitching! The brothers are arrogant but you also have to look at the both sides of the story: I’m sure if you run your own company you won’t be happy to find out that your Flame guys are chatting or talking on the phone while are being paid 120$ an hour.
    And if the Straus brothers are still in business, it means that they’re doing something right!

  18. Slave2daMan says:

    I know for a fact that not every Hydraulx artist was paid in full for there long hours of overtime put in on Skyline. Some got IOU’s. When will the IOU’s be paid?

    *This just in! One of the owners of Hydraulx bought himself a new Ferrari after the release of Skyline. Gave his old one to his dad.

  19. Jimmy says:

    Quasi-topical. I know several people employed – present or past – at Hydraulx and they all would agree with ‘anons’ comment in the article. On top of that, one of the people I know quit due to the verbal abuse from one of the brothers(dunno which), to the employees. I was happy to see their failure. Schadenfreude. It’s what’s for breakfast.

  20. […] with “cheap” visual effects, this is actually a pretty expensive film. For example, Skyline was made for $10 million dollars and has made the same amount worldwide. Of course nobody knows the […]

  21. […] commenter who claims to be one of the owners of Hydraulx commented a few months ago: If you want to improve your pay, fight the illegal subsidies that other […]

  22. […] Smothers Brothers Strause enjoy driving their Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Bentleys, flying private jets, wearing $25,000 watches, and drinking shots o…. But they don’t make a […]

  23. apcalis says:

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