This weekend, movie fans around the world will join the film industry in celebration of movie magic, but many of the people who make that magic happen won’t be partaking in the festivities.
Coinciding with the 86th annual Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, hundreds of visual effects professionals plan to hit the streets in Hollywood to protest the rampant production tax incentives they say are wreaking havoc in the industry.
The rally is being organized by the Association of Digital Artists, Professionals & Technicians, or ADAPT, a nascent trade group that aims to protect the interests of the effects industry. In a town rife with powerful entertainment guilds and lobbying power, unionization has proved elusive for VFX workers, despite their growing importance for Hollywood’s bottom line. Most Hollywood unions -- including SAG-AFTRA, the DGA and the WGA -- were founded decades before the advent of digital effects or the proliferation of visual effects in blockbuster movies.
ADAPT was cofounded by Daniel Lay, a visual effects professional and author of the VFX Soldier blog, a journal of issues facing VFX workers. Lay wrote the blog anonymously until November 2013, when he revealed his identity. In an interview with Variety, he said it was time to go public as ADAPT was moving toward becoming a formal organization.
As with any labor union, initial organization has been a challenge, and many workers who are established in the industry are hesitant to speak out and risk being viewed as troublemakers. Asked by email if any of this year’s Oscar nominees in the visual effects category are participating in the rally, Lay said no, but he added that some who may be sympathetic don’t want to “anger the U.S. studios.”
Sunday’s protest -- dubbed “VFX Oscar March in March” -- will begin at the famous intersection of Hollywood and Vine, just eight blocks from the Dolby Theatre where the Oscars ceremony is held. According to a Facebook event page created for the protest, about 276 people plan to attend so far, while another 160 say they may attend. The main focus, according to the ADAPT website, is to garner support for legal action to “help end the current subsidy race.”
The entertainment industry in Los Angeles has struggled for decades to combat runaway production as movie and television producers are lured by aggressive tax incentives to other states and foreign locations. The programs are often wildly popular in states where they are offered. In New York, where qualifying productions are eligible for a 30 percent tax credit on post-production expenditures, the entertainment industry is booming, with $3.76 billion spent by the film industry in 2011 and 2012, according to the Governor’s Office for Motion Picture Development. In recent years, some VFX shops have had to close or file for bankruptcy protection as effects work has moved overseas to places like China.
Critics of tax-incentive programs say such programs are a form of corporate welfare, fostering a “race to the bottom” that forces effects crews to uproot their lives for each new project as producers chase the lowest bidder. “These actions have led to a bidding war between governments that maximizes the amount of free taxpayer money for Hollywood productions that end up making billions of dollars,” ADAPT writes on its website.
The VFX rally isn’t the only labor issue making headlines this Oscar season. In Chicago, the factory workers who handcraft the Oscar statuettes have been in a protracted labor dispute with R.S. Owens & Company, the local awards shop that has produced the Oscar trophies exclusively for the last 30 years. The two sides have been unable to come to a collective bargaining agreement since R.S. Owens was acquired by the Canadian company St. Regis Crystal Inc. in December 2012.
VFX Oscar March in March begins Sunday at 1 p.m., Pacific Time. Participants are encouraged to wear “green screen” green.