#2.176 – The Most Good

#2.176 - The Most Good
#2.176 - back
sent from: Esher, Surrey, UK. destination: Weybridge, Surrey, UK

How will joining a union fix things? Wont it just make it harder for the vfx facilities to stay in business?
I’ve heard this a lot recently. A union wont fix everything. What a union can do is give you a seat at the table. It will give the collective energy and power of the vfx artists a place at the table. You will have what you do not have now – leverage. You may think you already have leverage – because your employer is a nice person, and you hang out occasionally so it seems they listen to you. You do not have leverage. The company you work for does not care about you in any meaningful way. This isn’t about sticking it to the facilities. This isn’t about getting at some vast store of gold that the facilities are hiding – we know that doesn’t exist. It’s about ensuring that when your employer is looking at the “lumpy” demand for work and facing new business challenges that their first (and at present only) answer isn’t to push all this onto the artists, to make you work harder for less pay. Uncompensated OT is working for less. It’s about leveraging our power into forcing the facilities, with your help, to come up with new solutions, new efficiencies. If it costs them money to turn around that new 11th hour change from the client, there’s an incentive for them to do something about that – even to the point of saying.. no!?
At present the true costs of doing business are hidden behind vast amounts of untracked and uncompensated OT. How can future work be bid accurately? If the facilities say – if we have to pay OT we will go out of business, what they are saying is – our business model is broken. In that case, I would argue, it’s time for a new business model. A union can’t give you a job, or guarantee you can keep yours when work slows. It can prevent you from being abused. We shouldn’t look at the problems of any solution and do the least bad. We can’t do nothing. A union offers us the chance to do the most good.

8 thoughts on “#2.176 – The Most Good

  1. Love the blog, I really do… but…

    If you want to get paid for your OT, only work for companies that pay for your OT
    If you want Healthcare, ask for it, if they dont have it find a company that does (not a problem for you).
    Pension… ditto

    Well, you say, there arent enough companies that play by the rules so I cant just go to another employer. If they arent playing by the rules now, its probably because they dont know how to play by the rules and survive… assuming, as you said that there are no hidden treasure troves being hoarded by unscrupulous shop owners. I know I am being a bit flip here, but if the logic is that by unionizing that somehow companies will be forced into the light and not just forced out of business, doesnt work for me. Expecting a third party to be able to come in and force a company to give you these things, regardless of cost, seems counter intuitive to me.

    Honestly, thats what the market needs, the bad players need to disappear, they lower the bar for everyone and make it that much harder for those that do play by the rules. Just be aware of the near term effects and that will likely be fewer jobs in the market place. This will all just be temporary of course as the market will find it equilibrium post union, post trade organization, post apocalypse. Good artists will still be able to find good jobs… but… if people would do for themselves what they already have total power to do they can achieve the same goals and save themselves the dues, the initiation fees and the politics.


  2. Hi there,

    Thank you very much for your thoughts and taking the time to write.

    To address your second point first, I agree. I've written several times about how the market likely needs a correction for the oversupply of companies and, by extension, artists. I think the overall pool will shrink, needs to shrink. That good artists will find good jobs, well, that's open to debate, and I'll start with me as case number 1, selfishly :). It's entirely possible that this is it for me, that the universe is telling me that there isn't any room for me anymore. I don't like it, but I can deal. I'll go hungry for a while, but as Spock has said, “I've been dead before”. Basically everyone in the industry needs to ask themselves where they think they'll be in 2, 5, 10 years time, where they want to be, and act accordingly.

    This is independent, in my mind, from whether people who choose to remain have the right in being fairly treated at work, and receive compensation for the hours that they work. So to address your first point, it isn't that simple. “The rules” are different in different countries. There is NO rule in the UK that artists should receive OT. So companies don't pay OT and it's completely legal. Is that OK? Is that fair? Most people think not. How has it not been an issue until now? UK facilities did pay OT above a certain number of hours a few years back (55 hrs a week if I remember at a couple places), and they still give 'TOIL' (time off in lieu) for weekends worked. It's not the same as OT as we all know. And about 5 years ago working any OT really was the exception, it was a better situation in London than in California. Of course the temperature has slowly risen and the frog is frantically boiling away, wondering what happened.

    By your reckoning, does that mean no one should work at a London company, if they don't get OT? If they go to the USA, or India, or Canada, there's a lot of other issues to fight there, to be aware of. Dneg, Framestore, MPC, Cinesite, etc. are all good companies, run by (I believe) decent people. But there's no one pushing them as a group from the worker side to improve conditions. Individuals can go up against that as much as you like, but they will get shot down. Only collective action will, I believe, cause any kind of change here. It will get messy, and I have doubts that people have the stomach to do what I think they will need to in order to get what they want.

    I could go on about why I think a union is the best structure around which to organise and collectively deal with the facilities, but I suspect it's nothing you haven't already heard.

    Long term, I think we're going to see a shrink in the facilities. It could be that only one or two big places remain in the future, and a ton of smaller satellite offices scattered throughout the world. Everyone else will be collections of artists hired directly by the productions themselves, a model much more akin to 'regular' production now, and in that model unions are even more important in balancing the other side of the equation than they might be right now.



  3. I wrote you a reply, but its pretty long so I thought I would ask before hijacking your blog… happy to share it though.

  4. Please correct me if I am wrong, but isnt the unpaid overtime in the UK a result of people signing the WTA opt out? Which as harsh as it sounds is a choice that each person makes when they accept a job. I dont see that as any different than an artist here in the US who asks to be paid hourly and is told they can only be paid a flat rate. For me its really not about Union=Bad or Union=Good but does Union=what you actually want. Unionizing will get you a starting wage and get you paid overtime but it may just put some of the companies you work for out of business. Inevitably, in the near future, that means more artists competing for fewer jobs and I hope that people are aware that is a possibility.

    I appreciate how hard it may seem to have any power in this industry, but I am just not so convinced that we need a third party to stand up for rights we already have. Example, EA here in the states… they got sued several years back and lost and had to pay back OT and now follow all the current labor laws. This wasn't something that unions forced on them, it was the artists who got together and filed a Labor complaint and won. Not all countries are the same of course and here in the US they factor in retaliation and its illegal to fire an employee for filing a labor complaint, so that makes it easier.I really don't think that the VFX industry is the first one to ever experience these kinds of problems so I am sure that every country has some form of legislation to prevent this kind of abuse, people just don't seem to want to use it.

  5. To be perfectly honest, as much as it makes sense for my argument for it to be a matter of choosing to have a better work environment, I realize how simplistic that is. It's not because its wishful thinking but rather because our industry is recalibrating to deal with globalization. It's an over supply of capacity that is fighting a lack of demand. If there was a shortage of artists to do this kind of work, we could all write our own rates on a napkin and slide them across the table like in the movies. Those days are gone, for a variety of reasons.

    One is Tax incentives and subsidies actually do work… they have hyper accelerated the natural development of the VFX industries in every country/city they are available in, like they are supposed to do. I am not one of the down with incentives people, they are a way for governments to encourage economic development in industries that are desirable. Now I do believe that desirability has been oversold by the MPAA and the over abundance of capacity is one of the results of that oversell.

    Another is that VFX is so cool. The number of schools that taught VFX when I started in the industry was ZERO… you learned as you went along. Over the years, with incentives spurring the expansion of the film industry world wide, VFX education has become its own industry and schools are turning out hundreds (maybe thousands) of new artists every month. In any industry where there are so many new mouths to feed, there is always a tendency for the new kids to cut their rates or to work unpaid OT in order to get their feet in the door. After years of doing that, its almost second nature for people to expect that as the norm on both sides of the employee/employer coin. So now your a junior artist working without OT for less than you wanted because in the back of your mind, there is another you coming up from behind, or worse still, your potential boss is telling you he cant pay you what you want because he can find 10 other people who are willing to do the work for 1/2 that.

    There is definitely going to be a contraction, I totally agree with you, unionization might very well an accelerant on that fire though. My 2¢ is that near term, unionization in the US is going to push the trade imbalance even further in your favor, so the UK is in for a short term boom (as is NZ and AU… Canada is IATSE, so they are going to have to increase incentives if they want to outpace you guys). Soon enough, as you mentioned, studio side VFX is going start becoming more and more attractive because why pay for salary + overhead + profit when you can just do salary + overhead. In the end I think we are eventually going to end up with a few specialized companies that do the really complicated stuff and the bread and butter work is going to be done on the lot. and I think we are going to see a bit of a rebalancing happen with work swinging back to the US.

    Hopefully in the next 10 yrs or so we will see the upside of globalization start to produce stronger studios around the world that are successfully exporting films into the US and other markets. There are some great foreign films being made now, they just aren't getting the same traction because of the stranglehold the US studios have on distribution. Filming has globalized, VFX has globalized, but for better or worse, the profitable IP is still dominated by the US market.

    As for you and your future, you're a creative, smart guy, I think you will be fine whatever you decide to do.

  6. Anonymous, at the risk of turning Juan's blog into a platform for socialist propaganda, I'd like to reply to some of your comments above. In particular, the points about individual choice and long-term vs. short-term decisions.

    I'm simplifying of course, but the primary problems with capitalism fall into those two categories. As you mention, some of the actions being considered (e.g., forming a union) will have negative short-term implications. But the long-term implications if we don't take action are even worse. What's been happening is that the large corporations who currently have a near monopoly on distribution have been exploiting the CG workers. The effect of this is to transfer wealth from the workers to the corporations. Such a transfer of wealth also transfers influence and power.

    Now this might seem ridiculous to even say. After all, most CG workers are relatively well compensated (compared to unskilled labor or even other types of hired artists) but it is a _trend_. And the longer this trend continues, the less power the workers will have and the more power the distributors will have. It will get worse, not better, and a union is one possible way to stem the tide.

    Second, to the point of individual choice, it is important to remember that in any society one's choices have impacts on others. I understand the mantra of capitalism that the workers are in competition and this is supposed to produce a more efficient world for everyone, but that model presupposes a rather balanced power distribution between employer and employee. In this case we don't have such.

    So when a student comes along and is (understandably) desperate to get his foot in the door and accepts an outrageously low salary, this is not just their personal sacrifice: it hurts _all_ of us. And the reason it hurts us is because as individual employees we don't have anything close to the power of our employers. When the employer comes back to us and says, “Hey, this student is working OT without extra pay, so should you,” we can't just quit, because we don't have the resources to be unemployed. The distribution of power is not balanced. Again, a union is one possible way to restore some balance.


  7. Keith, I agree, something does have to be done and it will only get worse before it gets better if people sit still and hope it will change. I also fully realize that Unions have been very effective in industries where there is a clear and direct relationship between those doing the work and those who control the work. Unfortunately we have a middle man in our equation and that's the VFX studio. Entering into a CBA with a VFX studio is like Unionizing the a Car Dealership because the Car Manufacturer decided to only sell their cars in a foreign country. Sure, on paper everybody gets better pay and healthcare, but the Dealer cant force the Manufacturer to give them cars to sell.

    Reverse the scenario, you have been going to a Mechanic for a while and they have offered to work on your car for what you feel is a fair price. You go in one day and their prices are 10-15% more for the same service. Do you just pay more because you like them or do you think to yourself, maybe there is another mechanic out there thats cheaper… Sure there's quality and reliability, but those things are a somewhat intangible and unpredictable metric compared to COST.

    The reality of film budgets is that the majority of the numbers are all neatly lined up way before the first frame is recorded. There is always contingency $$, but it is extremely rare for a production to deliver 100% on budget so by the time post begins, that's all gone. Couple that with “fix it in post” and the hundreds of creative decisions that are made on the shoot that change the scope of the VFX component of the project, what your left with is a production side equation that heavily leans on COST, not quality or reliability, they let that be the VFX studios problem… if you dont do a good job on this we will never work with you again…. You get the picture.

    There seem to be plenty of people who feel that Unionizing will force VFX studios to properly budget and charge more for their work, but don't you think if they could simply charge more for their work they would? If I knew I could just go in to the HR office and say I want 15% more money and get it, I would have done it years ago… But there is a reason why the production companies are dictating what they will PAY as opposed to the VFX Companies saying what it will COST… the film industry has effectively increased the global workforce to a state of overcapacity by successfully lobbying for world wide tax incentives and, independently, the industry has developed a robust pay for play education system that is exaggerating that overcapacity.

    In the end, there are a lot of artists that are getting completely screwed and its totally not fair, but fair is not a prerequisite for reality. I am not Pro or Anti Capitalist, I am not Pro or Anti Union but I do feel that the industry is out of balance right now and it's going to be a difficult an unpredictable future. I do feel that Unionizing with the industry in this state will be easier than its ever been but will also do more to exacerbate the short term decline than people may realize. Perhaps after the dust settles, and the industry has gone through its transformation, unionized artists will be able to find work directly for the film studios, but this will require a complete re-negotiation process so that will take time too.

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