Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Brief History of Montreal

... and getting screwed in the Canadian VFX industry, or: "Tales of a veteran visual effects artist."

The following comes from TAG member Dave Rand.

On May 25, 2007 an article came out by David Cohen of Variety:

Blockbuster Films Take Toll on VFX shops.

You may have seen this quote before:

"I am not doing my job unless I put at least one VFX shop out of business on my show ..."

Little did I know in May 2007 how that would soon be affecting my life. Up until then, I'd lost about five grand in comp time when Rainmaker went belly up in Burbank in 1996 but otherwise it had been pretty smooth sailing. I just wanted to put headphones on and get cool shots. I had no interest in VFX politics.

Then came Oct 2007. I'd been in Montreal for a year working on Journey to the Center of the Earth as the fx lead. Then our paychecks stopped. This was followed by a series of promises, excuses, and delays.

Finally we were asked to just deliver and the whopper check that came from delivery would pay us for the 3 months of back pay and overtime with a bonus for waiting, the bonus promise was for those who balked. They made the mistake of putting me in front of the group to explain the finances of one of our deep pocket owners, I had been a broker at one of the top firms on Wall Street, I understand balance sheets. Surely the conglomerate of family networks, Discovery Holding's Co., worth in excess of 8 billion with 200 million in cash would honor our pay. After all it was Christmas.

We delivered just before Christmas.

I was used, we were all used.

I was owed $22,000.00

All VFX shops I know of are incorporated and therefore separate entities. Many VFX shop owners regularly borrow against contacts they bid on, taking a lump sum up front, using the Fox, Universal, Warner, or like contract as collateral. Magically the banks become the culprits at that point because they "will not release the funds!" or "they suddenly just kept the delivery check!" Like it's a surprise and not the owners fault.

You can't have their personal money, but yours is up for grabs.

You should ask if this type of borrowing has been done with your current studio contracts. This can make delivery paychecks disappear.

Discovery bankrupted the studio, after claiming the bank kept the delivery check (as described above), and it reopened under a new name two weeks later under new conspicuous ownership and doing work for the former owners. It was now called Lumiere Studios. Two years later Lumeire would screw over the same artists the same exact way, string them along with out pay and finally falter.

Does any of this sound familiar yet?

It would be two years before we saw a fraction of our money from Meteor. In the beginning, we were told by the labor department, Les Normes, not to expect more than what we could recover from the payroll insurance policy Meteor had in place. I called the insurer and that policy would cover less than 10% of the 1.3 million owed over 130 people….and the agent added it was all under investigation, I gladly told them everything I knew about the situation in return for this information.

It was then I decided with some others that we needed to take charge of our own lives. We started a multi-pronged campaign. I had plenty of help. I took on relations with the Press. I decided to use my real name from that day forward.

On every blog and every article.

It's harder to rob someone in the daylight. And the press was the main reason we got most of our money. At first all the major Hollywood publications did not think it was news worthy. (we've come a long way from that day as evidenced by a union sponsored OT lunch at Rhythm & Hues this made the Hollywood Reporter the same afternoon, and I never had to contact anyone.)

Times and awareness are changing, thanks to the artists that have come forward.

The Governor General of Canada did not think our plight was worthy of even a response to my many letters and phone calls. Surprising, as she was raised in Haiti and was an award winning director.

Les Normes told me the company was bankrupt and had no money and to basically to get over it, their payroll insurance was our only recourse. It was only because of our efforts to make this known that Discovery eventually cut a check.

I called Brendan Fraser's agent and publicists. Brendan was the star and executive producer on JCE. They decided to not even mention it to him.

So I did my own press release.

From there we began to get considerable attention, starting with the NY Post and a call from Brendan Fraser himself. (Brendan called me immediately and began taking meetings and making calls on our behalf.)

Then Playback Magazine (the Variety of Canada) made it their cover story.

The Governor General contacted me immediately, informed me she was making it a priority case with the labor dept. Les Normes contacted me the next day to let me know they were "on it" and it was now a priority case.

Finally it hit mainstream USA entertainment magazines, blogs, and went viral. You can browse through the articles on the press tab of my website

Lots of people got very embarrassed as they should, and we got to see some of our money, but most importantly it raised the consciousness of artists and hollywood that their prized asset, Visual Effects, was coming of age an willing to take a stand.

Not only did we max out the tiny payroll insurance policy, we got Discovery to pony up the rest to make the 70% settlement. Thanks to the attention and press this situation got.

To this day Les Norms has had a poor track record of recovering money from fallen VFX shops that have coerced artists to work without pay, gone belly up, and reopened under new names.

The Canadian government has recently stepped up to offer up to 3k of taxpayer cash to those who end up unpaid from bankruptcies in Quebec. Keep that in mind.

DAMFX was the next stop for me, I was still spinning from the Meteor situation and warned that they had regularly bounced and missed paychecks and always had an excuse involving the banks, the wire, the mail and would run you in circles calling your bank..buying time. In my interview that was my main concern. I went there under the promise that "what happened at Meteor would never happen at DAMNFX". I was told by Josee they had some problems in the past yes, but now they had money to last for seven months whether they got a show or not.

DAMNFX missed my first two paychecks. I was told the money was wired, check with my bank, it takes three days….check again. Sound familiar? I went home to an eviction notice and discovered that Meteor had not paid my rent for 6 months (even thought they took it out of my check) and that DAMNFX was now late paying as well.

I stopped going to work until I got my money. I eventually did, but I never returned. I'd had enough.

If you can't pay me don't spin bullshit on top and add insult to injury.

Josee's partners separated themselves from her and began talking to a new partner Mark Cote.

Josee started New Breed.

Following Meteor's lead, Mark encouraged the DAMNFX management to go bankrupt and wipe past debts like that pesky back payroll they owned the artists an re-open as RED FX to please the client they had for the film RED CLIFF. They did a midnight raid on the joint and took all the hardware and software until the bank asked for it all back. This gave them enough time to copy over the custom code, and the work done on the show.

RED FX was born and eventually was bankrupted screwing the exact same artists the exact same way. New dog, old tricks.

They reopened under FAKE studios and then this happened, basically the same crap.

Is any of this starting to show you a pattern? Because it should.

Will this just keep happening as it has for years now?

You have to realize that these occurrences happen for one main reason….it is the one thing that just about every VFX artists is lacking in the very controlled world of VFX films:


Leverage is what ultimately runs everything in our business, and all businesses. Sadly it's rarely about ethics or fair play. Almost every labor law was created because of labor unions and the exposure they gave to injustices like these. (Here's the list.)

Our government labor departments have been weak when it comes to getting lost wages. Bankruptcy laws protect owners from losing their "personal money". Only your personal money is at stake. That is what incorporation is all about, their protection and not necessarily yours.

Right now your leverage is evaporating every day you approach delivery without a paycheck. Given this history of Montreal, I hope I've enlightened you to your world.

There is absolutely no excuse for these practices to continue in that town or any town. You did not sign up to share in the risk or the reward of that business, and you certainly did not sign up to be lied to and manipulated into doing free work for projects that American studios will do quite well with while you go broke under much duress. We are not picking bananas in Guatemala, we are creating very profitable imagery. There is competition, yes, but talent is rare and that is why, not matter what country you go this job in, your often surrounded by imported talent.

Of course I'd recommend you all walk out. That's hard to do, yes. VFX artists are very passionate about their work…you can take away our paychecks but don't take away our shots! Sadly this is also why you are so easily exploited, but it's actually the only thing that will generate your pay, and all of it, and almost overnight. In every situation where my check stopped if we'd all left immediately a far different solution would have been considered. Moving the show cost more that simply paying the existing artists what they are owed. Not to mention the attention the press would give to your exploitation. Important news for the entire VFX community and your fellow artists to consider.

This is why a union can be so helpful. It takes a little time to form and may not be able to solve your immediate needs but your taking action begins to increase your leverage instantly. Signing rep cards getting the news out will certainly begin to get your employer and the client to think about a better strategy. What makes the most sense is to simply make sure you get paid.

The VFX union effort is young, contracts will not be designed to scare away any business or break any VFX shops…. but how about just drawing a line …how about taking the choice to not pay the artist, for any reason, off the table for good !

It would forever be understood that when checks stop work stops....per

I think that is very reasonable. I can not imagine anyone who would not.

Every few years the contacts are renegotiated ….we can start by pushing back with this simple and righteous effort and we can do it with the only factor understood in our business.


..and maybe the crap can start rolling back up the hill. Personally I feel I owe it to my industry AND to myself. While unions in America are in decline…they are not where talent is concerned like in entertainment and sports. These unions are growing quite nicely and so are the industries that they work with…. Disney, a union shop for 75 yrs. Not only are it's entertainment divisions thriving, it's stock at an all time high and it gets half it's revenue from ESPN ..sports...--> it's all about talent. Hard to find, easy to exploit, but with balance it's soon realized it's better to nourish rather than to exploit, because if you take care of your talent.... everyone wins.

Think about that.

You're the only one in the credit list that is not organized and none of the others above you have to deal with this shit because they got tired of it 75 years ago, and everyone thrived, talent and studios alike.

It's sad we are all bunched up at the bottom of that credit list but what's far worse is that we are all too often ending up at the bottom of the creditor's list …and in Montreal that has occurred more than anywhere else per square mile of talent… a place where the American studios are already getting more than half off, artists suffer the worst history in our business. These practices spread like cancer unless people stand up. We've seen it recently in Los Angeles with DD and Rhythm and Hues. DD was inches away from missing payroll on several occasions. R&H artists were not so lucky. Hundreds of them worked towards delivery and are now owed millions. The last offer was for 17 cents on the dollar, the lawyers will get a third of that, and it looks like it will be tied up in court for some time.

If you want to begin to do something, sign a rep card online a hard copy will be mailed to you shortly. Christian Lemay, your local rep, will meet with you personally also and hand you a card on the spot. Either way you've taken a great step.

Next, I'd encourage you to follow a path that has been the number one influence to date in getting artists paid...Tell your story to the press, put some light on the injustice. Your fellow artists are behind you. It's actually fellow artists that responsible for hiring you..HR relies on them for recommendations. I've never had trouble getting a job since I became vocal. I'm respected and you will be to.

I hope you all get paid this time round... but beware that this is nothing new to Josee or Mark Cote, or Montreal, and will most likey it will merely wash, rinse, and repeat as it has for almost ten years now.

Drop these guys below a note they are putting together your story. You can trust them. Often their calls to the owners are enough to initiate and guarantee pay checks, and stop scams. You can be on the record or off. It's up to you.

The VFX community is counting on these kinds of stories being put into the light. Only then will we get real change.


Steve Hulett said...

I would like to point out: Dave R. is very vocal when he gets shafted by an employer.

And Dave is almost never not employed.

Just saying.

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