How creative people get exploited

NPR had a good report this morning on an issue that was discussed earlier (see here and here) that looked the dire straits that the visual special effects (VFX) industry is in, even though the films that they make possible make a ton of money. For example, Life of Pi has made $600 million dollars worldwide while Rhythm & Hues, the company that made it possible by producing the stunning effects and for which it won an Academy Award, has filed for bankruptcy.

The report confirms what reader Gordon (who works in the industry) told me in an email and is the familiar story of business people taking advantage of the naivete of creative artists who are so eager to work on challenging projects that they get themselves locked into fixed fee contracts where they end up having to work much longer and harder than originally anticipated, with no extra money, because of repeated requests for changes and improvements by the filmmakers.

Creative artists in any field, unless they are so well-established that they can call the shots, are always at a disadvantage. The trouble with creative people is that they are, well, creative. What they passionately want to do is create work that they are proud of and if you dangle an interesting and challenging project in front of them, they will be strongly tempted to accept. This makes them lousy at getting even a reasonable deal, let alone driving a hard bargain. As a result they can end up working for far less than their labor and skills warrant. They are also usually perfectionists who cannot bear to let substandard work go out with their names on it, even though the imperfections may be so slight that only they or their peers will even notice them, the vast majority of the rest of us being completely oblivious.

It is this combination of factors that seem to be at play with the decline of the US VFX industry and that is really too bad.


  1. Mano Singham says

    Aargh! You are quite right and it was sloppy of me. I have corrected it. Thanks.

  2. Alverant says

    Ahh feature creep, we’ve all seen it. “Just make one more change, it’s the last one I promise.” The IP laws definitely need a rewrite so they are better for the creator and keeps the companies from exploiting their creations for a hundred years or more.

    At a SF con one author said copyright should last “30 years or the death of the artist”. That way a creator can make money all his/her life (living off old creations if necessary) as well give it as inheritance to help for a while. Then it’s public domain.

    Back to the subject, how can we fix it? As a customer people want a good deal and for things to be done to their satisfaction. If an artist doesn’t do a good job, how much should they get paid? I think a lot of this depends on everyone being honest, courteous, and realistic. I can’t see an artist intentionally doing a bad job just to get some more pay, but I can see a buyer being supicious if a project takes longer than they think it should.

    Back when I was part of a website development company we had things spelled out in a contract. Any little tweaks or changes added to the final cost. Artists need to do that too, IMHO.

  3. daved says

    While we’re piling on, I’ll point out that “$600 million dollars” is redundant – should either be ‘$600 million” or “600 million dollars.”

  4. knut7777 says

    I also work in the industry, and have been in the thick of the rather heated discussions on this topic in recent months. While I would say that loving your job too much is a recipe for exploitation, it is not just the case that artists are not being fairly compensated for their work.

    The companies that produce visual effects are suffering from a business model which does not allow them to operate at a fair margin. The market is distorted by subsidies and sweatshop conditions in places like India and China.

    Neither are we all a bunch of trippy air-heads. The model for creative service companies of many sorts is of a creative/business management team. To survive decades in the business requires a strong sense of the needs of the client, and the business and market structure in which we operate. Remember, this is commercial art, done for a client, to a client’s specifications. Creative input to enhance that beyond the specification is the realm of the team leaders, the CG supervisors, not usually the working artists. Moreover, I would characterize the job as about 20% creative and 80% engineering. The creative aspect depends on client communication and is difficult to outsource. The engineering aspect is unfortunately much easier to outsource.

    I do not see a solution in unionising, or subsidy. What I do see is a business that grew up quickly, without the protection of unions, and is ripe for exploitation by the film companies.

  5. kyoseki says

    It seems that the problem isn’t just the US, I’ve spoken to a few friends in the UK and they’re facing the same issue – follow their own jobs to Canada because of their subsidies or get laid off.

    I’m less concerned about India/China than I am about the Canadian subsidies, because in the case of Canada it’s the same people doing the job, they’re just being forced to move to Vancouver or Montreal to do it.

    … of course, this means that the provinces offering the subsidies don’t actually employ many Canadians (other than the ones who were already working in VFX In the first place), but it seems that everyone is going to continue chasing after a piece of that pie.

    … and, of course, Canada is just the problem du jour, what happens if China decides to start offering significant tax incentives? Are we all supposed to just uproot and move there because the studios want an extra tenth of a per cent profit on their movies?

    The good news is that the entire industry is completely bollocksed at the same time, so if anything’s going to happen, it’s going to happen now.

  6. ttch says

    A similar situation is happening in book publishing where some major publishing houses are enticing novice writers into contracts where they receive no advances, pay the publisher’s overhead (editing, artwork, marketing, etc.) from the revenue due them, and lose their copyrights — and worse! See, e.g., this post of links from the outgoing president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, John Scalzi:

    A Compilation Of the Week’s Rabble Rousings on Contracts and Advances

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