Who will be left?

I promise, I’ll write my next blog post about operating camera. However, for this one, it’s about the Oscars and the industry.

Today, social media is abuzz with the drama surrounding the Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects (“Life of Pi”), Best Directing (Ang Lee for “Life of Pi”) and a visual effects house called “Rhythm + Hues”. As a very terse summary:

  • Outside of the Oscars, 400 people were protesting against lack of residuals for visual effects companies that created movies like “Life of Pi”, namely Rhythm + Hues who are going bankrupt
  • “Life of Pi” was recognized for cinematography despite the majority of the film being green screen or CGI (much like “Avatar”, also won for Best Cinematography). 
  • “Life of Pi” won best Visual Effects, but the team accepting the award were cut off by music as they were trying to mention R+H going bankrupt.
  • Ang Lee, answering a question about R+H going bankrupt, said he wished visual effects were cheaper.

Here’s a link to a visual effects blogger commenting on the drama: http://vfxsoldier.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/an-open-letter-to-ang-lee/#more-3389

This part rang true with me: “[I wonder] if the horror stories of unpaid overtime and illegal employment practices will become the norm, all because you and your fellow filmmakers ‘would like it to be cheaper.'”

I don’t deal well with non-specifics, so I would pose the open question to Ang Lee: how much cheaper? Did you have a number in mind?

According to BoxOfficeMojo.com, the production budget for “Life of Pi” was $120,000,000 (yes, million, decided to use all the zeroes for effect). From what I can tell, better than half of the movie was shot on green screen stages with LOTS of visual effects, or you really did take a tiger to the open sea, or you really did find a floating island such as in the movie.

“Life of Pi” has raked in roughly $583,000,000 worldwide. The “artists” you acknowledge made the movie what it was, but you wish it were cheaper? You wish it were cheaper for them to literally invent the ways to make that fantastical dream of a book come to the screen? Things that were never done before were too expensive? Ya don’t say?

I think that the “horror of unpaid overtime” cuts both ways. They ask for “cheaper”, but somewhere along the line, someone said, “sure”. From the looks of it, those people are now going bankrupt. I don’t know, perhaps R+H were mismanaging their funds, overextending themselves into a spiral to insolvency which residuals or back end points couldn’t save them.

However, another effects house will probably appear next week, and they will better be priced right for the next $120,000,000 budget feature that wants it “cheaper” or else they’ll die off too. In my world, they want a great look, the best equipment, precision and expertise… but we can’t afford your rate or rental. The rise and fall of visual effects houses, talented crew members, talented storytellers and filmmakers… once they’ve all fallen, gone bankrupt, left the industry broke and broken, who will be left? Probably a lot of film students who wax philosophical about the gorgeous cinematography of “The Master” but only shoot on DSLR’s.

In the tornado of social media passive aggressive outrage (of which I am certain I’m now guilty with this post), someone called this need for “cheaper”: the “race to the bottom”. The entire film industry seems locked into this race, crew members turning on crew members, shows striking and scabbing, people undercutting due to ignorance or malice. Hundreds of film students graduate annually, all calling themselves “professionals” and not realizing that means more than talent and skill; it means experience.

Unfortunately, the client isn’t necessarily asking for “experience” anymore. They’re not really asking for “professional” anymore, or necessarily even talent or skill. What do they want?

“Cheaper”.

I’ve read that Seth MacFarlane took a lot of flak for his jokes at the Oscars, but the one that nobody seems to be discussing was one of his first: that Hollywood accountants were working “harder than ever to prove that nothing made a profit.” Ain’t that the truth. I hear “Star Wars” will be profitable any day now. Meanwhile, with “Life of Pi”, it took in $583,000,000 in worldwide box office, had a $120,000,000 production budget… but we wish it were cheaper.

If we continue to agree to terms that make no sense, in the business aspect, then who will be left? Pay your crew, or better yet, agree to pay your crew what they need to get the job done.

Fast
Right
Cheap

Pick 2.

Not directly related, but my thoughts and prayers to Russ McElhatton and his family.

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About wbd3

Camera / Steadicam owner Operator based in Los Angeles
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