Monday, September 12, 2011

Funding for Independents

When a Mother Ship goes down (Disney Feature Animation Florida, Fox Animation Phoenix, to name but two) there are usually small studios full of ex-employees that spring up near the smoldering crater, willing, able and anxious to take on new work. The issue isn't mastery of craft, but ability to finance projects. For instance:

Artists at [Secret Legion Studios in Orlando] want to produce what they hope will be an Oscar-worthy, animated short film, “Combover for Dinner.” The light-hearted tale is about a middle-age man who invites the “girl of his dreams” over for dinner as he tries to win her heart while hiding a not-so-hiddensecret: his combover. ... Before they can do that, though, they will need more than $150,000.

The company is selling smart-phone apps to raise the money. To date, it's sold 7,00 applications, which means only 146,000 to go before financing is assured.

We wish them the best of luck.

The problem for small animation studios dependent on bringing jobs through the door and executing them well to remain alive is, even if you have a facility filled with gifted, hard-working people, you are still at the mercy of our fine, entertainment conglomerates for projects. They will either like your work or not. They will either give you new assignments or not. And if they don't, you will soon be out of business.

Not an easy road, bidding jobs for regional commercials and public service announcements, waiting for the Big Break. Hopefully Secret Legion will get its short made, be nominated for a Little Gold Man, and climb from there. (All the while keeping artists employed.)


Anonymous said...

This Secret Legion? If so they need better vision. Hollywood is not about story, it's about money. Hollywood is a big dumb ape, but also a very powerful animal that can rip your arms and legs off and kill you. Never underestimate the ape. Secret Legion will need a ton of bananas to keep this ape in check which sadly I doubt they have the resources to accomplish. Also, saying good luck to them is like sending a soldier into war with a slingshot/pea shooter and "hoping for the best". They will get killed and fast in this economy. If after 10 years Paramount can just dump Dreamworks Animation as a partner, a cash cow worth billions, what chance does a little secret legion have against the ape? If I recall correctly Dreamworks has 2 little gold statues and it didn't make any difference to Paramount.

Sad but true.

Dave Rand said...

I look forward to the day when it's realized that creation of a stable artistic environment becomes the most profitable and promoted business model. Creative minds don't work well under fear or stress or constant change. Worrying over whether you can buy a home or have a family when your world is in constant flux drains most of the energy needed to create. The most valuable money making tool the studios have access to is "software" based. It's not Maya or Houdini or Nuke, it's the minds of the creative.
Creative artistic and technical folks are not migratory mellon pickers or navy seals or vikings. We like stability so our minds can be free to create. The ridiculous bidding process has forced shops to try everything but the most profitable models for both themselves AND the studios. They have tried massive expansion and contraction, moving to were the incentives are the best, or getting third world artists to do their work for a bowl of gruel. This just disrupts lives and moves the talent further and further away from the director and the bottom line. It surrenders and crushes all creative power and thereby the profits.
Lately the new twist, hiring 100 artists on 2-4 month contracts knowing it takes 6 months to learn their custom tool set. Then weeding out those that crumble under the pressure and effectively tossing the baby out with the bathwater, simply ridiculous. Or the flopped and illegal attempt at the sharing of databases of artists pay in an attempt to fix the "problem" thinking its our wages when it's really everything else but.
Creative people need to be managed by creative people not by popes or officers or hopped up HR people, producers, and executives acting like white knuckled masterminds leaving valuable talent to squander in the desert. .. Dave Rand

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, Shorts do not have a high ROI unless you were Pixar in the 1990's.

Anonymous said...

Good luck to them!

On a slightly different topic first it was Pixar Vancouver, now is Imageworks and Digital Domain moving to Vancouver too? Canadians are no Indians they can deliver good quality...

Anonymous said...

Canadians certainly can do that for sure. However, if you'll notice if you go to work there, that most of those shops are populated with non Canadian talent. Not because Canadian talent is rare..there's just not enough of it. It's the incentives, said to be illegal by the WTO but not enforced, that have USA projects from USA studios being sent to Canada. Somewhat sad in a time when USA jobs are needed in the USA. One day i'm sure Canada and other nations may make their own blockbuster films, that is once they've created the infrastructure using USA money.

Anonymous said...

The animation studios that are part of "our fine, entertainment conglomerates" all started from somewhere. Granted it's hard to make it as an independent, but not impossible. And it's the thinking that you can make it, even against all odds, that's going to pull this country out of the mess we're in.

In fact, if you read Clay Christensen's research on disruptive innovation, it's not hard to imagine your smaller independents succeeding and disrupting the industry.

Anonymous said...

Dave Rand articulated why I'm looking to get out of a business I love. I've made a good living for a while now, but the negatives in the industry are only getting worse, and I'm sick of it.

Anonymous said...

The reason it's hard to find Canadian talent in Canada is because they're working here in the States - I work with 5 presently. So it's a double wammy - they take American Jobs as America is exporting work to them, YAY!!!

Floyd Norman said...

The first two guys really nailed it. As much as I love the art of animation I would never choose it as a career today. Of course, studios have always needed money to survive. But, back in the old days it wasn't always about money. Today, it's about nothing else.

I'm not bashing the business I love. I simply regret what it's become.

Anonymous said...

What's sad, Floyd, is that I hear people who are 26 or 27 years old, who have been in the industry all of 4 or 5 years, saying the same things you and Dave Rand are saying. How much worse can things get before we all move on to other things?

Anonymous said...

What's sad, Floyd, is that I hear people who are 26 or 27 years old, who have been in the industry all of 4 or 5 years, saying the same things you and Dave Rand are saying. How much worse can things get before we all move on to other things?

They can get worse. Look at the non-unionized VFX industry.

Too many of my VFX co-workers have no health insurance. I remember one uninsured kid struggling to breathe for 15 minutes on a street corner because he couldn't afford his $300/month Advair. Another uninsured VFX artist died at 55 because of liver failure. I don't know if insurance would have saved him or not, but insurance might have helped him catch and treat the problem earlier. Another uninsured American VFX artist lost his eyesight when his kidney failure went untreated for a long period of time (long story).

Some VFX artists have health insurance, but it's often inadequate coverage. I knew a VFX artist with a heart condition who spent two years tracking down a surgeon who would accept his wife's health insurance plan. The insurance paid 75% of the costs of the $400,000 procedure, leaving him with $100,000 in medical bills. Another VFX artist lost a wife to cancer. Her treatment cost $1.5 million, and his insurance did not cover all of that, either.

Then there's all the VFX artists who have nothing saved for retirement. Either they focus solely on their art and don't think about retirement, or they emptied out their retirement accounts to survive long periods of unemployment. I've met artists in their late 40's and early 50's who live paycheck to paycheck, with nothing set aside for retirement. Few VFX shops offer 401(k) benefits. Most VFX artists will have to live solely on Social Security checks in their dotage.

There's no paid sick days, so any time someone gets sick they drag themselves into work and infect the rest of the studio. There's no paid vacation days and no severance pay. It's 10-hour days standard + one unpaid lunch hour, but I've seen compositors pulling 14-hour days and seven-day weeks for long stretches. I've seen VFX artists work over 24 hours without sleep just to make deadline.

The work is less steady than the animation industry. We're hired for however long the project lasts. It could last anywhere for one hour to one day to one year. Whenever the client checks stop coming into the studio, I've had unpaid "vacations" that lasted one or two months.

I honestly don't know where or if I will be working after my current project wraps at the end of this year. In the past 10 years I've worked at over 10 studios and over 20 projects, with unemployment that lasted anywhere from one weekend to 18 months.

Given all that, I see the unionized animation industry as a serious quality-of-life upgrade to the VFX industry. The "2-4 month contract" that Dave Rand mentioned sure sounds more stable than the gigs I've got now. Plus, those 839 jobs come with three pensions and health insurance that offers decent coverage.

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