A Union for the VFX Industry? Too Little, Too Late

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Is a universal VFX union a realistic idea? With the industry’s globalization and the development of a free market in the last decade, unionization is not a viable solution.

Profit is the main goal of every known industry, and the VFX industry is no different. In the last few years, the VFX industry has become a very competitive labour market and the prices of services are going down. Small players in the industry have lost strength, whereas larger companies have gained from the free market bidding process.

In a situation like this, implanting a union in the industry would further aggravate the local job market by continuing to eliminate smaller firms and pushing VFX work to large companies or to even less expensive ones overseas. This scenario would totally skew the industry and the creativity and innovation inherent in it would suffer greatly.

Unless the whole collective of international VFX professionals endorse a union, it won’t have any impact on studio policies and decisions.

No Unity = No Change.

As VFX advocate David Stripinis acknowledged, “in order for change to happen, you have to present a united front. But the VFX industry can’t stand together because [its workers don't] share common goals”.

Stripinis nailed the issue right on the head. The VFX industry has a completely different landscape than that of an administrative office, airline or a factory, or any other industry that employs groups of workers with collective goals and well-defined roles and tasks. Stripinis explains,

“Many American VFXers want portable healthcare and pensions. People in Canada, the UK and New Zealand don’t share that cause because they have nationalized healthcare… Americans also want an end to subsidies. Again, Canadian, UK, and New Zealand workers don’t want that.  Why would a British VFX artist want to get rid of the one major advantage they have?”

The VFX landscape is too diversified to have the entire industry stand together with a common goal. Without this foundational unity, a union would be like going to war without a rifle.
In any case, now’s a bad time to create an industry-wide union. While about one-quarter of Americans were in unions in the 1960s, that number has fallen by half, to just 11.8 percent in 2011. This decline in popularity of unions is due to their loss of power to the competitive labour market. The fact is, companies can’t offer more money or health benefits to their employees if they compete with the free market; it’s financially impossible.

Unity Without Gains.

Some VFX artists are still fixated on the idea that global unionization would drastically improve the state of the industry. Unions can definitely help the industry proactively by offering health and welfare plans to its members. However, in crisis situations, unions have consistently lacked the negotiation power in the last few years that is necessary to create industry-wide change.

For example, McGill University`s administrative strike lasted over three months and caused financial strain and stress for both picketers and employees crossing the picket lines. When both the University administration and the union reached an agreement, discontent reigned on the strikers` side; they were to receive a fraction of the salary increases they anticipated.

In most cases, bargaining units come out of lengthy battles without getting even half of what they’ve asked for; their ordeals turn into massive concessions. In the end, union members are never happy with the results garnered from years of union fees and striking.

You want more Health Benefits and Better Salaries? Investment in Diversification Ensures Survival.

One of the key arguments that VFX artists use to justify a union is that the industry generates a lot of money and must therefore be protected. The top movies grossing at box offices are indeed those with VFX. However, Companies don’t survive on one revenue alone; they make it by having a wide-reaching, diversified company that can benefit from several profit-making components. The key to profiting is diversification. Without diversification, media and entertainment companies will sink.

Using Disney as an example as to how diversification keeps a company afloat, the company reported that Studio entertainment revenues recently decreased 12% which translates to a loss of $84 million. Still, Disney on the whole reported a whopping increase in profits of 21%.
Where did the profits come from? Television and theme park income.

Currently, ESPN and the Disney Channel have proven to be the company’s main strengths by reporting income of $1.7 billion. As for the current state of Disney’s film and VFX component, the impact of The Avengers movie will only be seen in Disney’s third quarter. Regardless of box office success, most of Disney’s profit comes from it’s diversified portfolio of offerings.

Diversifying isn’t easy; for smaller companies than Disney, it requires a lot of financial investment as well as planning and manpower. If VFX studios are already stretching themselves thin to diversify their offerings, they certainly can’t handle the demands of a unionized environment that will impose rules and sanctions. Studios simply can’t offer more to its employees when their focus and resources are invested in surviving this intensely competitive industry.

The Future is Remotely Connected.

All in all, the idea of global unionization is a thing of the past, and in any case, impossible. Not only is the majority of the VFX industry made up of freelancers that compete with each other, but the industry is also characterized by international outsourcing. Unionization would only weaken the industry under these conditions and eventually destroy the aspects of the industry that ensure its survival.

Current advocates for VFX unionization are all for unionizing local industries that have specific needs. If unionization will take rise in the next few years, the movement will be far from universal.

David Stripinis is right – “typical VFX business models need to change”. Nowadays, continuous modernization and increased collaboration between post-prod departments are key aspects of a contemporary and successful business. Using social software and data cloud technology not only permit companies to evolve with the market, but also give companies the freedom they needs to prosper.

What will be the future state of the industry? The future is disconnected, but not disengaged; it’ll be remotely connected. Collaborative cloud technology, with employees working from home and supervised remotely by a supervisor. This situation seems like the most viable option for an industry that is constantly being thrown challenges and evolving away from any sort of unity.

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