Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Straw That Broke The Tiger's Back

VFX movement solidarity symbol
NOTE:  A bankruptcy sale of Rhythm & Hues remaining assets are going to be auctioned off on July 23, 2013. The assets include workstations, chairs, desks, flat screens and an array of technical gear. The last vestiges of the company will be gone following the auction

Maybe you were one of the billion people watching the Oscars’ 85th Academy Awards ceremony last Sunday. I was tweeting & texting my comments to a friend while watching the show. He is in the VFX industry and was particularly interested in who would win the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

When Rhythm & Hues supervisor Bill Westenhofer accepted the Oscar for the studio’s work on Life of Pi, Westenhofer thanked everyone and said, "Sadly, Rhythm & Hues is suffering severe financial difficulties right now, and I urge you all to remember..." 

His mike went silent and the band was playing him off with the Jaws theme music. This awkward moment left countless Twitter followers breathless. No doubt Academy attendees were embarrassed by the non-scripted screw up.

My friend’s blood was up. “You see that! They cut off his mike!”.

For VFX artists, like my friend, along with VFX artists who were protesting down the street from the Dolby Theatre, this was the last straw. 

The artists wanted Westenhofer to tell the world about the inequities of the entire American VFX industry. The artists were thwarted by the motion picture industry -- once again.

In what should have been a triumphant celebration of Life of Pi,the evening turned sour, illustrating that there are indeed cracks in the fantasy world of the Oscars. And for the first time, there was no one in VFX to “fix it in post.”

And neither would the humiliation stop with the Jaws music.

Later on in the program, Ang Lee accepted the Best Director Oscar for Life of Pi. Earlier his film won the Oscar for Best Cinematography. In accepting the Best Director's award, Lee never mentioned that the company that created his visual effects was filing for bankruptcy. Instead, Lee thanked his wife, Taiwan and his lawyer. 

Lee, who has publicly criticized the VFX industry for being too expensive could have been magnanimous and acknowledged Rhythm and Hues dedication, professionalism and craftsmanship during a time of turmoil for the VFX studio. Lee could have admitted that without visual effects artists, the Bengal Tiger never would have come alive. 

The Tiger Is Not Real
Lee’s acceptance speech probably infuriated the some 400 protesters down the block, among them 250 former employees from Rhythm & Hues who were laid off following the company’s filing for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy  February 13.

On Tuesday came the news that Dreamworks animation will lay off 350 artists after 4th quarter results from 2012 revealed a $83 million loss.

Rhythm & Hues' demise comes six months after Digital Domain’s massive failure. (See in “A New Way to Fail in America”).

There is no single factor to blame, not even the current recession. There are no culprits, as there were with Digital Domain. But rather, the seeds of these bankruptcies were planted well before Life of Pi was ever a book.

There have been many poor decisions made in the VFX industry in retrospect. Perhaps none were more important that failing to create a business worthy of respect.

Visual Effects has never been part of a business plan for motion picture studios. While hundreds of entrepreneurial boutiques built extremely sophisticated technology, married to creative genius, VFX never developed into a business model.

Instead, VFX grew up as a wonder child and remained an adolescent for far too long. It never matured and remained child-like and slow. As it grew up in the shadows it became the lost step-child no one wants to talk to at parties.

Why VFX works and other methods don't

Most business decisions were “one-offs” and based on small change. Because they were stunted from a young age the artists were prey for bullying producers who made them feel inadequate and not worthy enough to ask for what they felt they deserved. Along with periodic humiliation from parent-like producers, the step-child exhibited poor self-esteem and would always be glad to do more for less. There was no one they could model themselves after. Why would they? But then again, even writers had agents and unions.

In every day terms, when a producer or director had a problem with an under-developed script that hampered the shooting schedule or if the creative talent needed to spike up the story arc, producers would go to the dark secret closet and ask the unworthy to “fix it in post”. This became standard practice, paving the way for producers to ask for the moon if for no other reason than to see if they could.

 Unlike a collaboration with other creatives,the big movie studios never gave VFX people a place at the table. So, VFX took on the role of janitors. Typically, their wages were minimal and their job status fell as a result. They were never respected well enough to be given a fee for service, like the unionized crafts and art design departments.

“In VFX it’s like being hired to do the costumes for a movie --- and then making one costume at a time,” says my friend, experienced in such matters.

If a small VFX company ever tried to negotiate for a better budget, producers would suggest they had the option of going younger or going off-shore where VFX artists work cheaper than free—for longer hours.

A salary discussion nearly always implied that there was someone out there who would gladly do the job for nothing.

Inevitably, you as an artist are invisible and don’t deserve recognition even when you win something, say like Best Visual Effects at the Oscars.  .

When Life of Pi began production, the big studio producers were already exploiting this uncommon labor force.

With a go or no-go decision, and with no power to negotiate, Rhythm & Hues was in no position to quit. Rather, they chose to risk business failure in order to finish the film because they had faith in what they were doing.

In a not-so-perfect world, that alone should be worth paying for.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What Is Wenger Not Telling Arsenal Fans

In sunny Florida, few baseball teams are as anxious to get back to spring training as the Oakland A’s.  Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland A’s, can't wait for his 2013 team to take the field on opening day.  Beane is better known as one of the more popular characters Brad Pitt has played in the movies, (Moneyball).

Across the pond in the chilly dark and damp soil of the English Premier League, Arsène Wenger, manager of Arsenal FC is leading a fifth place team into the last leg of the season, some 21 games behind the leader, Manchester United. The end of the season may not come soon enough for the beleaguered French-born Wenger.

Beane and Wenger share more than a job title and attitudes, they share a philosophy borne out of a need to make their small market clubs competitive in a highly unbalanced sports league. Both teams had once dominated their leagues and were perennially headed for the championships. Today, the Oakland A's and Arsenal need to do more with less -- again.

Both Arsenal and the Oakland A’s play in a league dominated by rival teams that can spend their way to a championship, buying the best players and giving the fans what they want: trophies. 

While Billy Beane has enjoyed his new celebrity, following the film Moneyball and a spectacular 2012 season in which the A's brought a prestigious trophy back to Oakland, Wegner has been all but tarred and feathered by Arsenal fans.  

Mid-way into the season, Wenger could not sign a prized striker and had to let him go to a money-rich Manchester United. Now Robin van Persie is tearing up the league.  Wenger has also failed to sign anyone who could replace Persie during the transfer window.  

All this occurred at the same time as Arsenal ticket prices have increased, annoying fans who were used to watching their team dominate the English Premier League. Nostalgic to a fault, the Arsenal fans have protested bitterly in countless blogs, calling for Wenger’s head because he’s failed to bring home the cherished vanity silverware to the posh North London club.

The taciturn Wenger has shown the strain under the pressure. At a press conference this past week the soft-spoken Wegner parried with querulous sports writers, refusing to answer questions because reporters were conducting it more like a mock trial than a press interview.

Outside the Emirates Stadium, fans were carrying placards calling for a mea culpa and booing Wenger after a home game loss to a lesser club in a lower league. The fan blogs convey a profound frustration over Wenger's refusal to spend money. 

Arsène Wenger has tried to allay their fears but the fans are not hearing what he’s not saying. Wenger refuses to discuss off-the-field business with sports writers or fans.

As club manager for Arsenal the past 16 years, he has been lauded as as a brilliant on-field manager as well as a crafty general manager who has built a career on knowing when to sell a player when his value was high. 

Wenger may be the only manager in English or European football with a degree in economics. He rarely lets on to anyone about the off-the-field role of the manager or how he works with the Board. Because he refrains from disclosing much information it is impossible to understand the constraints Wenger must face.

One of the constraints may be working with an absentee American billionaire owner who asks for a profit. Perhaps Wenger is limited to operating on thin margins and no rewards. Whatever the problems, Wenger is keeping them to himself, which gives rise to more speculation.

The best insights into that role comes from Billy Beane, who can relate to the job of turning one of the poorest teams in baseball into a profitable and competitive team --- at a fraction of the budget of the New York Yankees and other big money teams. 

“When I think of Arsene Wenger," Beane says. " I think of Warren Buffett. Wenger runs his football club like he is going to own the club for the next one hundred years.”

From time to time Wegner has reject the prevailing opinion of the fans, traditional English football pundits and reclusive owners when it comes to buying big name players. The transfer season is an open seller market of players with inflated prices and Wenger admits to looking at players but when the window closed, Arsenal didn't spend a Farthing simple because the data doesn't support it. 

Wenger is smart enough to know that with his budget he could never compete in an era of inflationary paychecks and rising costs. Instead, he may have turned to finding a way through numbers and data to help making the club more efficient. This sounds suspiciously like “soccernomics”, the European equivalent to Moneyball.

In a rare admission during one of the many nasty post-game interviews with sports writers, Wenger was asked about a loss to one of the lower-level clubs and whether it was time to bring in a highly skilled players to challenge the league leaders for the remainder of the season. Wenger shot back,” I don’t think anyone realizes that we are the only team in the Premier League that is making a profit.”

His comment went largely un-noticed and unchallenged by sports writers. Wenger must know that the two Manchester teams are not making enough revenues to service their rising debt, despite Manchester United’s Initial Public Offering (IPO). Manchester City, now in second place, revealed it is spending some $200M US alone on trades, transfer and the like, well beyond its means. Compare this figure to what was forecast in 2013 for all Premier League teams  spending: $300M US in player acquisition. 

Arsenal is not in the same league as Manchester City when it comes to spending money.

Recently, Beane, who is finally getting the attention he deserves at the winter baseball meetings, knows about fan revolts and attacks from sports writers. For the first time in his career Beane is a celebrity among men who had mistakenly discounted him during the past decade.

It seems unlikely Arsenal fans and the Board will give Wenger much more time to prove his methodology: to build a competitive level team without going into bankruptcy. 

After Arsenal's loss in the Champions League on Tuesday, British sports writers and pundits were back in their offices throwing dirt over Wegner’s career. This loss, on the heels of another loss last week, will mean Arsenal will have no trophies from the 2012-13 season. 

Wenger will have failed to bring back trophies to North London. Somewhere, someone will remember in the future that it was Wenger who last delivered a profitable and a winning season.

It is unlikely his critics or fans will ever comprehend Wenger’s lasting contribution at Arsenal. Being a man of few words, he may have to go somewhere else for a while and wait for the rest of European football to arrive at where he’s been all along..

Friday, February 15, 2013

Lucky Charms Needed for Irish Filmmaker

Irish filmmaker calling on the wee people for funding help

NOTE TO READERS: Lessons Learned. This funding project (Harmonica Blues, below) came up short, no pun about the wee people intended. I learned a lot from the experience, and I believe that with my other projects:

1- I will ask for a larger amount to fund the project. We asked for too little. People are more likely to be a part of something larger than their day-to-day lives. I don't mean raising super huge amounts of money, but a respectful amount.

2- I will have more marketing collaborators involved in marketing a film with posters, trailers and other promotional material at least one year before the funding drive begins. 

3- I will do more research along the way in terms of learning what people are looking for in a movie in which they can participate. Mostly, people who give money want to be a part of the FUN. This is their ticket to get into a fun project, where they might even get to name a character, suggest a story line or come up with a fabulous "movie line", even a tag line. And even get a film credit for it. 

4. Next, I think it's important to focus on the film's story, not just the script.  What is the vision for the film? Why make it?  A script is an evolving document, a blueprint on paper, while the story cuts through to the heart. The story is beyond the words of actors, it is the feeling people get when they hear a story.  Message: Serve the story not the script.

5. Lastly, too often in the film world there is the race to have a hot writer, a hot acting talent, or a hot script to raise money. Well, inflated hype does not serve the story. And besides, who knows what the f**k is  "hot" is anymore. Stick to the fundamental of making a story the best it can be. Focus on what is real, not crowd funding hype. (Sure, a measure of promotion is needed and it can be clever, but the craft of telling a story has to be there. ) 

When I am not writing this blog, I am working on several screenplays and pitches scattered here and there across the known universe. Recently I got word from Alan Walsh, a gifted Irish director, who tells me that Harmonica Blues, the script we'd been working on as co-writers the past three years, is now ready for production.

With a polished script in hand, a veteran crew, and a superb cast we're now ready. All that's needed is funding and the clock is ticking. The funding cycle ends just six days before St. Patrick's Day.

Walsh intends to raise the money from "crowd funding", a venture now common among independent filmmakers who have watched traditional sources of film funding dry up in the wake of austerity measures. 

As of this writing, there are 20+ days to raise the money. 

As a co-writer on Harmonica Blues, I am keen to see these actors in roles I helped create. After working with them on paper, I crave to see them come alive on film. 

I invite you to take a look at the Fundit film project for Harmonica Blues.

You will see a brief description of the story along with a short promotional trailer.

This is not just a film, this is an entertaining collective work from people who have put it all on the line to make their dreams come true.

We appreciate your support.