Skip navigation

I’ve had a thought…

Speaking of money in the film industry… Those actors and directors make a lot, don’t they?

Combining their up front fees with “back end” residuals and other royalty payments, an A list actor or director can potentially make tens of millions off a successful film. Which, I hasten to add, is just fine with me.

I do not begrudge them these stratospheric amounts of money. I say, “good for them!”. They negotiated with the studios and persuaded them they were worth it. They were able to show the studios that their involvement in the project would dramatically increase ticket sales and that’s why they get the big bucks.
For example, Tom Cruise gets paid millions for his movies because:

Tom Cruise = Box Office

If the studio wants Tom Cruise, they have to negotiate a price with him. If Tom Cruise says he wants X million dollars to do the film, the studio cannot go to someone else who can give them Tom Cruise for half that price.

Remember that. It’ll be important in a little bit.

Which brings us to visual effects and the current buzz rippling though the film community and yes, even spilling over in to the awareness of the general public.

To get you up to speed… visual effects facilities around the globe, great and small, where artists create the amazing spectacles you see in your favourite films are loosing their shirts and going out of business as they are squeezed by tighter production schedules and ever decreasing budgets. Meanwhile, the film industry and studios in particular have never had it so good. They are raking it in. The studios have been enjoying what is literally the most profitable era the 100+ year old film industry has ever known.

This disparity between visual effects and the rest of the film industry was brought to the fore when Life Of Pi won this years Oscar for Best Visual Effects while the primary vendor Rhythm & Hues (creator of an unbelievably fantastic tiger named Richard Parker), failed to meet payroll, filed for bankruptcy and laid off staff just a couple weeks earlier.

Here was a company creating breathtaking, award winning effects for a film which at last count has grossed over $600 million and they went broke working on it. How was this possible?

The puzzling irony of the situation was writ large for all to see and these events coming together have proven to be a flashpoint for the issues, spurring the community to voice their concerns about saving their increasingly fragile industry.


So… visual effects aside, the film industry is doing pretty good. Don’t believe me? Look at this list of the top 20 grossing films of all time…


1 Avatar, 2009
2 Titanic, 1997
3 Marvel’s The Avengers, 2012
4 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, 2011
5 Transformers: Dark of the Moon, 2011
6 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2003
7 Skyfall , 2012
8 The Dark Knight Rises, 2012
9 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, 2006
10 Toy Story 3, 2010
11 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, 2011
12 Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, 1999
13 Alice in Wonderland, 2010
14 The Dark Knight, 2008
15 The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, 2012
16 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 2001
17 Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, 2007
18 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, 2010
19 The Lion King, 1994
20 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2007


If there is one thing that is immediately obvious from this list, it is this:

Visual Effects = Box Office

The top 20 grossing films of all time are all visual effects driven blockbusters. None of them would have been possible to make without a massive contribution by digital visual effects .

Say it with me:

Visual Effects = Box Office

So here’s the rub. How do we get Visual Effects facilities to have the negotiating clout of your Tom Cruise A list actor type? If one visual effects facility says it will cost X million for the job, what’s to stop the studio from finding another facility that will do the job for half that?

Think about this though, films like Avatar, Transformers, Harry Potter, The Hobbit, Avengers… All these incredibly profitable humongous Visual Effects Blockbusters take a literal army of talented artists backed up with just as many producers, editors, managers, People in IT, software, systems, etc – all within a facility with an awesome infrastructure of high speed network, render farm, workstations, communications, etc…

And think about this… The A List Blockbuster Visual Effects Driven Movie will always take a huge amount of people and resources to create those amazing visual effects. No matter how fast and cheap the computers and software gets, no individual – no matter how talented – will ever be able to create the Visual Effects like we see in Life Of Pi in their bedsit on a laptop. Nor could a small 30-40 artist facility nor even a medium 100 artist facility. Every Visual Effects Blockbuster is a monumental undertaking. In fact, there are only about eight facilities in the whole world that are big enough with enough expertise and resources to accomplish the top end visual effects to this level of perfection on that sort of scale. These facilities are:

  • Industrial Light & Magic*
  • Sony Pictures Imageworks
  • Rhythm & Hues
  • Digital Domain
  • The Moving Picture Company
  • Double Negative
  • Framestore
  • WETA

Do you get where I’m going with this?

If these eight companies got together and, while still remaining competitive with each other, stuck to a set of guidelines and practices to their mutual benefit**, they could be just like Tom Cruise!

Imagine the next blockbuster project for bidding that comes to one of the big eight. They bid on it as usual, but then they set the terms of residual payments (unheard of in Visual Effects!), maybe guidelines for extra charges when the studio changes stuff in post (another one we used to have but have since lost), how about some royalties on all the toys and stuff they sell of the monsters and spaceships we design? Hey, why not?!

Whatever. I’m just riffin’ here and it’s not my area of expertise, but my point is, the studio might then say “screw you… We’re going to one of the seven other huge facilities” and they get the same story!

If the big eight stick together on this, the studios will have no where else to go. They can’t go to one of the other big eight without being presented with the same standard contract on top of the bid. They can’t get the work done at smaller facilities – not only because they don’t have the capacity and supervising a job across 30 facilities would be even more expensive, but because in all likelihood, the smaller facilities will also be on board with this fab Visual Effects coalition too! Solidarity!

Look at that top 20 list again. That’s a helluva lot of money – most of it made very recently in the last few years. Visual Effects Blockbusters make too damn much money for the studios to abandon making them altogether. In the end, they will accept the big eight conditions (and fear not… they will continue to make stinking boatloads of money!)

This is a call to action, you big eight facilities. Wake up! You have all the power in this situation. You just never realised it. Make some calls. Meet up with each other. Hammer this thing out. It seems like a ridiculously easy thing to do. Start small and work from there.

Make it happen.

Oh, and us artists? We need to join a union. Now. Seriously, we are the only people in the whole of the film industry that aren’t unionised. It’s time.

That is all.


* I’m aware that ILM is now owned by Disney and Imageworks is owned by Sony. I’m hoping that they have enough autonomy, separate from their parent studios to join in. If not, that’s where unionisation of the artists comes in. Right?

** or whatever you call it. I don’t speak legalese, but you know what I mean.


  1. hey Joe

    I see where youre going with this – but my issue is surely Tom Cruise is just one person, one entity. And although there are only 8 BIG facilities, there are a lot more ‘almost but not quite’ as big facilities. The producers and studios just dissect the work down further (even at the expense of quality) to save some pennies, and get the work done, sharing it out.
    You just cant make a Tom Cruise film with cheaper, slightly less talented Tom Cruises (Tim Cross?!), but you CAN make a vfx film with 5 instead of 1 slightly cheaper, still as talented (the talent will follow the work) vfx facilities.
    Were screwed!!



    p.s. where you working now?

    • Without one or more of the big eight onboard, they will never be able to make something like, Life of Pi, The Hobbit, Transformers, Avengers, etc…

      The small and medium facilities do some spectacular work, but they simply do not have the manpower or infrastructure to accomplish a project on that sort of scale.

      I’m working at one of the big eight right now – MPC!

  2. e plurabis vfx, unum. 😉

    • doh, i meant, e pluribus vfx, unum. lol.

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. By What if? | Joe Pavlo Visual Effects on 06 Mar 2013 at 4:07 pm

    […] Last week I talked about how the biggest Visual Effects Facilities were missing a trick by not recognising the clout they could wield with the studios by forming alliances or some sort of a trade association. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: