Visual Effects Society Chief Grilled on Tax Incentives, Union and the Oscar Snub

Eric Roth, head of VES, explains why he's pushing California to embrace new subsidies

It has been a devastating few weeks for the California visual-effects business, but there are signs that the battered industry is ready to fight back.

This week the Visual Effects Society called on state leaders to pass new tax incentives designed to keep more effects work in Hollywood. The group argues that California film subsidies, which began in 2009, are insufficient, and that until they are more generous, effects work will continue to migrate to places like Canada and the United Kingdom that offer more comprehensive packages for studios.

Getty ImagesThe group, which is an honorary society with some 3,000 members around the world, also is pushing to establish a "VFX Congress" as a way to channel the outrage of many workers in the industry into concrete actions.

The congress will have a lot of anger to exploit. The Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing by Rhythm & Hues Studios last month coupled with deep layoffs at DreamWorks Animation have pushed a depleted business to the breaking point. Tensions are bubbling over, with 500 people taking to the street last weekend outside the Oscar ceremony to protest the state of the visual-effects business. They have also outfitted their Twitter and Facebook profiles with images of a blank green screen to symbolize what many movies would look like were it not for visual effects.

Also read: Visual-Effects Protest Spreads to Twitter, Facebook

Their outrage intensified after a team from Rhythm & Hues won a Best Visual Effects Academy Award for their work on "Life of Pi," only to find themselves ushered off the stage to the theme music from "Jaws" as one of the winners (below)  began expounding on the company's financial woes.

Getty ImagesTheWrap spoke with Eric Roth (above), executive director of VES, about the Oscars snub, the viability of a visual-effects union and his group's decision to push for more subsidies.

Have you been surprised by the intensity of the protests?
We completely understand all the frustration that exists out there. It has been bubbling for awhile, and it just reached the perfect storm.  Visual-effects artists are the difference makers when it comes to creating the kinds of entertainment that people worldwide want to see, but visual-effects as an industry is not afforded the respect that it deserves. 

Some of these people are working 100 hours, they're not getting healthcare coverage and they're being forced to get on an airplane every time they get a new job. They're concerned and they're upset about the way the industry is evolving.

I know a lot of artists were angry that the "Life of Pi" team was played off before supervisor Bill Westenhofer could talk about the situation at Rhythm & Hues. Why did that bother people so much?
When you have an Oscar-winning picture that is having its effects created by company that is bankrupt that's a problem. Then at the moment when you have a billion people watching, to have something like that happen.

Everyone else was allowed to congratulate everyone. It was seamless, but our category does not get the respect that is should.

Why did you decide to push California Gov. Jerry Brown and state legislators to embrace more subsidies?
If we could press a magic button and say no subsidies anywhere in the world, we would do that. We would prefer that, because at a talent level, California could compete with anyone, anywhere in the world at any time.

But until that exists we need to stabilize the situation in California. We need to do something as soon as we can to stem the tide.

Do you envision that the congress will involve a lot of venting or do you want people to craft a clearly defined course of action?
It will start with venting, but I hope that we will have the opportunity to have that turned into some concrete steps. It's only logical that many, many people who are upset with the state of affairs will want to talk about it.

People are hurting, and they're angry about how they have treated. We want to create a forum for people who want to speak up and hopefully that will lead to some good ideas about how to change things.

Why not push for the establishment of a union? Many of these work-related issues could be improved by having a better organized labor force, no?
Officially, VES has no position on that. There are very very strong emotions on both sides of that issue, although I don't think anyone, anywhere would argue against the validity of wanting healthcare and pensions and not being abused at work. It would have been great if a union had formed 20 years ago, so the financial impact of organizing could have been baked into the equation for companies.

A lot of people are afraid that if it happens now, it will create more problems. I'm sure it will be a topic of hot discussion and all issues should be discussed. At the end of the day, we need to have conversations about business models, because we're a worldwide industry that's changing at breakneck speed and we have to be strategic.

What's the next step?
The next step is to find a location that can fit 500 people [for the congress]. We're doing the logistical work of talking with venues and we hope to announce something soon.

Do you feel like studios are getting the message the people in the visual-effects industry are frustrated?
Absolutely. Studios are run by smart people with sets of unique pressures. They have to deal with bottom lines, and I know that privately they would love to bring more work to California, but they see incentives in other states and other countries, and in order to get their bottom line moving in the right direction, they don't have a choice.