Visual Effects Society Panel Explores VFX Unionization

The meeting reached no conclusion on unionization, but explored the issues in depth.

In a wide ranging panel Saturday, the members of the visual effect community explored the pros and cons of unionization. Disagreements and concern were noteworthy but sparks were absent in the polite panel, sponsored by the Visual Effects Society.

Advocating for a union was Steve Kaplan, representing the Animation Guild, Local 839 of IATSE. He argued that the cost argument against unionization “is somewhat fallacious, (because) IATSE has a long history of being able to tailor contracts (to employers’ situations) . . . everything is negotiable.”

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Other panelists disagreed. Ellen Shadur, a labor attorney at Baker Hostetler who represents employers in VFX and other sectors, said flatly “there is a cost.” She said that time off for shop stewards and time spent on collective bargaining and contract grievances can add 15% to an employer’s costs.

Although neither agreeing nor disagreeing with Shadur’s contention, both Furious FX co-owner Scott Dougherty and VFX supervisor John Parenteau pointed out that margins in the business are slim at best.

In the question and answer period, former Digital Domain and ILM chief Scott Ross said, “once Jim Cameron was removed from (DD), it was indeed profitable, (with) 5 percent to 7 percent margins.”

VFX artist and DP Bill Taylor struck a pro-union note. “Being an IATSE shop was helpful,” he said, “(and) allowed us to attract top artists.” He added that there was little cost impact where he worked, because “everyone was (being paid) above scale” already.

Kaplan argued that introducing a union in VFX would cause “all boats (to) rise.” He also argued that improving wages and working conditions required leverage, not fairness arguments. “Fair is the beginning of ‘fairy tale,’” he argued.

Several questioners said the studios were the problem. One said bitterly, “our work (in 3D) pushed up ticket prices, but we don’t get the value of that.”

One issue not explored in depth was whether unionization would increase the share of work handled in other countries. Kaplan said there would be no effect on runaway work one way or the other.

Shadur put the onus on employers if they wanted to avoid unionization: “My personal experience is that if employees sign unionization cards, the employer brought it on themselves.”

The panel was moderated by Marty Shindler, CEO of The Shindler Perspective consultancy.

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