Members of the visual-effects community are protesting President Barack Obama’s visit to DreamWorks Animation’s Glendale campus on Tuesday in order to draw attention to foreign and state film tax incentives that are luring work out of Hollywood and to far-flung outposts in New Zealand, the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
The president had been scheduled to address the entertainment industry’s contributions the U.S. economy, but protestors hope that the hastily planned rally will pressure him to acknowledge the struggles of top visual-effect talent to find work and the bankruptcies of such Oscar-winning firms as Rhythm & Hues and Digital Domain.
In an interview with TheWrap, organizers acknowledged that many of the president’s top donors are studio chiefs who have benefited from subsidies and credits that help lower the costs of the movies they make. However, they hoped that Obama, freed from concerns of another White House run, might take a stance that could alienate past supporters.
“Now it’s time for Obama to leave his legacy,” Dave Rand, a visual-effects contractor who helped oversee the protest, said. “Does he want to be remembered as the president who got paid off and didn’t take a stand? This would be a great way to put himself back on top.”
“He’s says he’s all about jobs, jobs, jobs,” he added. “This is a way for him to honor that promise.”
To that end, Rand has created t-shirts that are green, a reference to the green-screen footage over which visual effects artists construct digital wonders, and is hoping that protestors and DreamWorks Animation employees wear them as a sign of solidarity. Protestors will congregate at Griffith Manor Park and will gather on sidewalks near the studio, security permitting.
Tom Capizzi, a former Rhythm & Hues employee who arranged for permitting at the park, said he anticipated that a minimum of 50 people will show up. A spokesperson for the White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the protest and a spokeswoman for DreamWorks Animation declined to comment.
However, White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Monday that the choice of DreamWorks Animation for Tuesday’s speech reflected the number of jobs being created by the company. The venue was not chosen because DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg was a top bundler for Obama during the 2012 presidential election and one of his most important contributors.
“DreamWorks obviously is a thriving business and is creating lots of jobs in Southern California and the fact of the matter is Mr. Katzenberg’s support for the president’s policies has no bearing on our decision to visit there,” Earnest said. “Rather, it’s an opportunity to highlight the success of one business and the success that they’re having in creating jobs in Southern California.”
Capizzi said the protestors were inspired by similar demonstrations they participated in around the Oscars last spring, but said the emphasis will be focused on the loss of jobs, as opposed to other issues that plague the visual-effects industry such as a fixed bid model that negatively impacts profit margins.
“We feel publicly dissed by what Obama intends to say about all the jobs being created,” Capizzi said. “It’s like, ‘have you been paying attention?’ We don’t want that message to make the news. Hey, these jobs are not coming to America and the ones that are coming back are minimum wage, they’re uninsured and they’re part time. I wouldn’t have taken them in high school. I’ve got kids who are college age, am I supposed to tell them to get an education so they can get a job?”
In some respects, DreamWorks Animation is an unlikely focal point for animation and visual-effects workers’ outrage. As the anonymous writer of the influential industry blog VFXSoldier noted in a post last weekend, the studio hires many members of the Animation Guild, has been praised for creating a nurturing working environment and has kept many animation jobs in California even as rivals show a greater appetite for overseas labor. Production delays did necessitate cuts to staff this year, but those layoffs were not related to outsourcing.
Still the writer behind VFXSoldier believes that the time is ripe to draw attention to actions the government can take to make subsidies less appealing. In particular, VFXSoldier commissioned a study last summer from the D.C. law firm Picard, Kentz & Rowe that found that countervailing duties could be imposed on films that have benefited from foreign subsidies, which would theoretically make them less financially attractive for studios.
“If the president wants to promote job growth in the entertainment industry, the last place he should probably do it is in Hollywood given what’s happened in the visual effects industry,” the writer of VFXSoldier said. “It’s not about making DreamWorks Animation look bad. Imagine how much worse it would look if he came to Hollywood touting job growth in an industry that is being decimated by foreign subsidies.”
Rand believes that no matter how many visual effects artists heed the call to organize outside the president’s speech, the media coverage about the planned protest will further galvanize the anti-subsidy movement.
“We’ve already won,” Rand told TheWrap. “Our goal was to get the president’s attention and there’s no way with all the media coverage that one of Obama’s aides hasn’t whispered into ear, ‘We have to fix this speech.'”