Last night the first in a series of online town hall meetings was held - organized by Lee Stranahan, the panelists were Chris deFaria -Vice President, Warner Bros. Pictures, Jefferey A. Okun – Visual Effects Society Chair and visual effects supervisor and Scott Ross – Co-Founder of Digital Domain & former CEO of Industrial, Light and Magic. Rather that try and recap the two hours of discussion I am going to give my opinion of what I saw as the key things to come out of this discussion and what the next steps are.
It was two hours of open, frank discussion that on its own would be important but in addition to the audio discussion there evolved a back channel of discussion on twitter and ustream. The way the web event was structured guests could hear the panelists and could type questions to them, but the audience could not discuss amongst themselves, this is something Lee is looking into addressing for the next event. Users took advantage of tools on the net to fill that gap, a member of the audience has posted an mp3 of the event online, you can find the link to that as well as a lot of the twitter comments by searching on twitter for the hashtag #vfxtownhall.
Ok, now to dive into the commentary portion of this post. What did we learn from this?
If you are looking for a villian in this quest for respect and fairness for the visual effects industry, you are wasting your time. On every level it seems we are our own worst enemy. Chris deFaria raised the issue of leverage. It could not be more clear that visual effects films drive the box office, we have the leverage, what we lack is an organized front to capitalize on that leverage. Hollywood runs on leverage and we are leaving that power unused.
Lee chose the panel to represent the three parties that create visual effects - the studios (deFaria), the vfx houses (Ross) and the artists (Okun). The spotlight in this event quickly shined on the vfx houses and artists as the ones who need to step up and seize the moment. This brings me to the first action item I came up with from my interpretation of the meeting:
Action Item #1: VFX Houses unite!
The heads of all the major visual effects houses need to get on the phone with each other today to plan a meeting to be held as soon as possible. Put aside egos and competition and organize a meeting with two goals - stopping the race to the bottom that is the way the business is currently being conducted and forming a trade organization. We need a voice, a lobbying group that has a strong leader fighting for visual effects and working with the vfx houses to apply the leverage they as a combined group represent. Houses need to stop selling themselves as who can bring the lowest rate to a project through tax incentives and outsourcing and focus on creative, innovative solutions to create unique work. No one can do this alone, there needs to be more cooperation and less underbidding. There needs to be a trade association.
Moving to the artists... probably the most frustrating part of the night was when it came to discussion of the artists themselves. I say frustrating because there was not much in the discussion anyone could say that would make an artist feel better. Artists were told they need to take personal responsibility by not accepting working conditions that are abusive. Waiting for a guild or union is not the answer although I think it was clear in the discussion that everyone thinks that the formation of a guild is what needs to happen... Chris deFaria even went as far as saying that our goal should be for the studios to be on board with that to the point of insisting that work on their films be done solely with guild represented talent. Jeffrey Okun made it clear that the VES is prohibited by its charter from engaging in organizing, so this guild needs to be something new and just like the idea of a trade organization we are left looking for a strong leader to drive this process forward. I think that will happen, primarily because there are existing large unions who have to be looking at the large number of artists they stand to represent if they organized visual effects. This is an area that will take time but there are some things we can do right now.
Action Item #2: Artists Unite!
First, if you are an artist it is time to take inventory of how things are going for yourself in a big picture way. How are you progressing in the industry? How are you doing in your personal life, what are you doing towards your financial future? We need to move from a place of wonder at how cool our jobs are and what amazing stuff we get to do and understand that none of this would be possible without us. Which brings us back to leverage. What can the individual artist do? Artists need to talk to each other, continue the conversation this event has already spawned. Companies that don't follow local labor laws or run abusive environments need to be exposed and people need to stop working there. One of our next podcasts will be with a labor attorney to talk specifics of what an individual can do and should be aware of. Artists need to talk to each other about these issues, in person and by harnessing the power of the internet.
I think this is one area where the Visual Effects Society needs to step up. There has been talk of the VES providing sample contracts or suggested terms that members could use to provide a unified front when talking to employers, that needs to happen as well as anything else VES can do to educate its members and the community at large without violating its charter. This is a critical moment in the history of visual effects, what VES does at this moment will define for many of us the value and perception of that organization going forward.
Action Item #3: Keep this momentum going
Last night almost 450 people from around the world sat for two hours listening to a discussion about the issues visual effects as a maturing industry face. They extended the conversation on twitter and other channels and that carried on into the next day. I encourage you to become part of that conversation, even if you don't use twitter regularly check out that link above and see what people are saying about this topic. Listen to the town hall, join the next one (likely to be held in late April, we'll let you know here when it is announced). Talk openly and loudly about the issues raised here and be an active part of the solution. There may be no easy answers but we can only move to a position of power by raising awareness and sharing information.
Thanks to Lee and the panelists for making this event happen. It is clear that we are a passionate bunch who have chosen our careers because we love visual effects, in my opinion we are going to need help applying a business model on top of that passion to move the business and our careers into the next stage. Lee has informed me that he is working on a way for last night's panel to respond to further questions people may have and the Q&A section from the event was archived and we will be working our way through that to see what answers we can get to questions posed there that were not able to be addressed in the event.
The slides from the event can be viewed here: www.slideshare.net/Stranahan/vfx-online-town-hall-1.
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