Here’s some food for thought while we’re in the midst of summer blockbuster season.
Someone very late last night (I apologize for not remembering who) posted a question asking why we hardly ever see practical effects in movies anymore. The effects in even the biggest, most expensive summer blockbusters are generally computer renderings, which, despite their sophistication, oftentimes just don’t look as good or seem as convincing as practical effects.
The short answer is: it’s cheaper.
The longer answer is that special effects artists are unionized while visual effects artists are not. As you might expect, the latter are ripe for exploitation. Remember the Academy Award protests?
Digital production, as the Variety article notes, has become a globalized business, which makes it particularly hard to organize workers. The nature of the work also makes it very easy for a studio to shop around for the cheapest rates. This has resulted in a race to the bottom in the industry, in which VFX work leaves countries with relatively stronger worker protections and higher wages to countries with lax labor laws and low wages. Predictably, this has led to worker exploitation. One former visual effects artist in India recounts,
At one studio, artists are asked to work without salary for at least four months, at which point the studio can ask them to leave if they didn’t find their performance “good” enough. At another studio, they reduced their staff in the 3D animation department from 150 people to a mere 5 people. One studio takes Rs 30,000 (approximately $550) as a deposit from artists and only returns to the artist (without interest) once they complete two years employment at the studio. [Note: An average MONTHLY salary might be Rs 7,500 ($138 month) so the deposit is equivalent to nearly 4 months salary.]
This situation isn’t just a result of technological advances and the ‘natural’ workings of the free market. David Sirota points out
That’s where governmental subsidies came along to distort the market. Violating the spirit, and the letter, of World Trade Organization regulations and U.S. domestic trade statutes, industrialized countries like Canada, Britain, Australia, Germany and New Zealand have started offering massive taxpayer-financed handouts to studios if the studios source their visual effects and post-production services in those nations. In British Columbia, for example, public subsidies pay up to 60 percent of the entire salary of visual effects workers. The United Kingdom and New Zealand have been following suit with recent efforts to further expand their own subsidies.
This never-ending taxpayer-funded bailout has grossly distorted the global market for visual effects, artificially deflating studios’ overall price for visual effects in the high-subsidy nations.
Things are quite dire. As Sirota notes, U.S. states are spending about $1.5 billion in subsidies fighting over the scraps of domestic visual production work that are left but these investments of taxpayer money aren’t generating significant revenue or local economic growth. Dozens of visual effects companies have gone out of business or are teetering on the edge. Artists at home can’t find work and artists overseas are being treated like indentured servants.
The Variety article assesses the crisis quite bluntly:
A harsh question has to be addressed: Would the studio tentpole business be viable if it couldn’t get vfx companies, states, nations and, yes, even artists, to subsidize the pictures either through tax policy, working for below cost or accepting poor compensation? In short, would tentpole production make financial sense if the studios couldn’t play all these people for saps? I’m not convinced it would.
You might think it’s odd that I’m writing so much about what is, relatively speaking, a rather small segment of the U.S. labor market. And I am not at all an expert in the movie business. But I do pay attention to labor issues and have noticed the same interlocking pattern of outsourcing (when possible) or casualization (when not), flagrant abuse of workers, and deeply misguided government policies—a pattern which always results in fewer good, full-time jobs, lower wages, and deepening inequality.
It’s not just blue collar factory workers or Walmart employees or fast food workers who are being underpaid and overworked and thereby forced to subsidize profits that largely go to shareholders and CEOs. It’s also well-educated, white collar workers in highly skilled fields.
Perhaps the comfortable, white collar folks who supported NAFTA and other neoliberal policies that have decimated U.S. manufacturing are finally realizing that no worker is insulated from these trends. It doesn’t matter how smart, educated, skilled or hardworking you are. If the bosses can figure out a way to rip you off, they will.