VFX crisis, piracy and are we to blame?

I’m sure a lot of you have seen the coverage of the protest at the Oscars this week. VFX house R&H declared themselves bankrupt, the straw that broke the camel’s back for a lot of people in a broken industry. R&H are the VFX house responsible for films such as Life of Pi and Moneyball, yet despite these movies raking in billions in revenue, they’re closing their doors. VFX in films exploded as a relatively low-cost alternative to practical FX (who have also been under-paid for years, some would say VFX has just joined the club,). The problem now is that VFX houses are now being monopolised by producers and being forced to accept lower and lower budgets while still being expected to produce the same quality of work.

So why do they put up with it?

Producers know that without movies to work on a VFX house has no work. So they offer a low-ball, unrealistic budgets and the VFX houses have no choice but to accept them. As a result most VFX houses are happy if they break even, and most don’t. Most lose money. This poster best illustrates the demands placed on all creative industries by non-creative types who hold the purse strings:

the creative problem

*I don’t know the original source of this image, if you made it please let me know so I can add a credit

What you have to understand is that anyone who enters into a visual/aesthetic job has the uncontrollable need to make things that make people happy. Just as sales people are motivated by targets and bonuses, artists are motivated by the joy they bring to others. Now, sadly a smile or laugh does not pay the bills – which is why many artists are poor, but also the happiest people on the planet. Because our motivation is intrinsic, not extrinsic, this need to make beautiful things that make people happy is, more often than not, taken advantage of. When you look at the VFX situation with this idea in mind you can start to see why they, like illustrators, web designers, painters etc., have put up with it for so long.

artist won't work for free

*I don’t know the original source of this image, if you made it please let me know so I can add a credit

But if all VFX artists have such an intrinsic pride in their work, why are there so many poor VFX movies?

Bad films are good business

For years I’ve been mystified as to why there are so many crappy movies out that have such bad VFX in them.

I’ve been praying that eventually the viewing public might get fed up of being treated like chumps by movie producers. We might get fed up of paying our good money to watch bad films, but it never happened. Why? Because bad movies are good business and nobody actually cares what we thought of the film, or if it gets good reviews or not, as long as it made money. As I said above, VFX is good bang for your buck for a movie producer – they can make a movie for a relatively low cost and then turn a profit just from the small amount of people who pay to see it in the hope that it might be good. So the cycle goes. The producers keep making crappy movies and, as their standards get lower and the dollar signs in their eyes get bigger, they force the VFX houses to take increasingly unrealistic budgets to the point where they’re losing money making pitiful low-budget films. Or in the case of R&H, losing money making billion dollar movies!

Ever thought the trailer was better than the film?

Well that’s because it usually is. Bad movie makers put out a deceptively good trailer that makes people pay their $16 to go see it,and spurred on by the hope factor we cross our fingers for for the best. But by the time we’ve handed over our hard earned cash and sat through a tragically bad movie it’s too late, we can’t get our $16 back. There’s no money back guarantee for movie.

It’s sad that I go to the movies now thinking ‘gee I hope this isn’t shit’ more often than I go thinking ‘I’m so stoked to see this, I know it’s going to be awesome’. If you feel the same, that’s proof there’s something seriously wrong.

Who’s to blame? and is piracy our way of saying we’re fed up?

Now it’s not all Hollywood’s fault. We as the viewing public have a lot to answer for. Movies are a product like anything else, and a product is only worth what you’re willing to pay for it. And we keep paying top dollar for trash. If we stopped going to see the crappy movies, they’d have to stop being made and VFX houses would be able to say no to low-ball budgets. Thus keeping companies who make the best products, like R&H, in business and getting paid what they deserve for all the joy they bring.

Saying this, I do think a slow moving revolution is happening. We’re starting to not trust the movie trailers any more, we’re seeing them for the advertising machines that they are and, as a result, there has been a shift in the conscious of the viewing public.

If we see a movie trailer we trust and that looks credible we’ll pay to go see it at the theatre – no questions asked. However, if we see a trailer that looks dubious, one that makes us think ‘I kind of want to see that, but I’m not sure it’s going to be worth my $16’, we download it instead of taking a gamble at the theatre. Movie piracy has become, not for everyone but for a lot of people, a way to try before you buy – a kind of insurance against that feeling of being ripped off.

VFX houses might be broke, but most of the viewing public is broke too. It’s about time movie producers started respecting us a bit more and stopped with their ‘make it and they’ll pay to watch it’ attitude. We are getting savvi and ruthless with what we do, and do not, spend our money on.  We’re no longer in the golden age of the baby boomers, our money is worth a lot to us and there is nothing worse than feeling like you’ve been robbed when you pay to see a crappy film. For some, piracy is a way of saying ‘it’s OK, but it’s not good enough for me to pay for’.

But piracy can’t be the way

I’m certainly not saying that piracy is acceptable, but it didn’t just appear out of know where. Inventions are created to solve problems – piracy was created to solve a problem. Again, I’m certainly not saying that piracy is the right answer to whatever problem it was trying to fix, but we really should be doing better and more in-depth research into why it has thrived and what motivates people to download – because the answer certainly isn’t just that we’re all crooks.

The movie making industry is at a turning point. We should be doing more to make sure we steer it in the right direction and make sure that it doesn’t derail leaving thousands of casualties in it’s wake.


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