When we last met, we discussed the state of the visual effects industry off the back of an expose from Vulture about how terrible it is to work VFX on a Marvel movie. This week, the pile-on continues as Defector’s Drew Magary documents the “VFX crisis” in Hollywood. There are more complaints lodged against Marvel—“Why not do something more interesting, where you’re not straining your budget and 1,000 artists to try and make something that you know is going to look substandard?”—but Netflix also comes in for some criticism, as does Guillermo Del Toro. This is my point about the state of the VFX industry—it’s everyone. It’s everything. It’s not Marvel or Netflix, it’s Marvel and Netflix and everyone else, too.
Over the last week, I’ve heard from a lot of folks working throughout the VFX pipeline, and one thing that surfaced as well is that directors who are staunch defenders of their below-the-line crew, who are known to be fair and even-tempered bosses on set, think nothing of throwing morale-destroying last-minute changes at their VFX teams, seemingly without regard for the work already done. That’s in line with Magary’s reporting on Del Toro, widely considered one of the better directors to work for, at least on set. A huge part of the mounting frustration in the industry is that VFX are absolutely critical to contemporary filmmaking—never mind the CG-heavy blockbusters, every film you see except MAYBE the tiniest-budgeted indies has at least some digital shots in them—and yet they are the most put upon, least respected collaborators in film.
A unionization effort seems inevitable, which would be just one more front in the brewing labor battle in Hollywood. Last year, an IATSE strike was narrowly avoided. Next year, the Writers’ Guild’s contract with the studios expires in May; a month later, so do the contracts with the Directors’ Guild and SAG-AFTRA. Strikes benefit no one, but the labor squeeze of the last decade has been brutal—more work, longer hours, stagnate (at best) pay—all while the trades tout blockbuster deals for the A-list stars and creators at various studios and, especially, streamers. Streaming has revolutionized the industry in many ways, one of which is how people get paid. We saw this in the Scarlett Johansson vs. Disney lawsuit last year, but it has affected everyone. For instance, streaming television shows tend to have shorter seasons with lower episode orders, that means briefer periods of work for writers, resulting in a new normal where many “middle class” writers struggle to get staffed in multiple writers’ rooms a year, instead of having one reliable job.
There’s a lot of resentment built up, and a feeling that the upcoming round of labor talks are going to be cutthroat. In the writers’ strike of 2007-08, digital delivery was new, and a lot of people didn’t fully grasp how it would change revenue streams such as syndication and royalties. This time, according to Matthew Belloni, the writers, at least, are preparing for war, intending to go into their negotiations with a better understanding of what is at stake and how the streaming model isn’t working equitably. There is no doubt a labor revolution is coming to Hollywood. Between the major negotiations of 2023 and the possibility of a unionization effort from the VFX industry, we could be in for a disastrous series of setbacks for Hollywood involving multiple strikes. Or maybe we’ll see some kind of Network New Deal, in which wealth is more equitably distributed throughout the industry. One can always hope.
Live long and gossip,