There's been considerable flap in the days since the Oscars about how folks from effects house Rhythm & Hues, which won awards for its work in this year's Oscars while at the same time filing for bankruptcy. You don't need to be a Hollywood Reporter reader to parse that as being outrageous.
The good news is that the imbalance of power between effects houses and the movie studios is finally getting some notice. In a piece titled "The visual effects community sees red in the wake of Oscar protest and on-air snub", Drew McWeeny at HitFix discussed the issue in detail, and pointed out something that I had known casually but which seemed all the more crucial: there's barely a single movie of any stature, certainly not any "tentpole" release, that doesn't involve major sweat'n'blood from one or more effects houses.
The reasons they're going broke are manifold. Various houses are pitted against each other to lowball themselves into delivering the most work for the least money. The artists at the firms in question work like dogs (it's actually reminiscent of the worst aspects of the animation industry in Japan, where the average career lasts less than two years), deliver against impossible deadlines, and the very idea of backend profit-sharing deals is laughed off.
What bugs me most about all this is, again, how most every movie of substance made today is an "effects picture". It's not that I have anything against special effects, especially not when they're well-done and an artful, integral part of the story being told. It's that we're losing interest in telling a story any other way, or at least forgetting that other kinds of movies, those not dependent on effects for their lifeblood, are worth putting money into. (That is, if such things haven't been shunted off to TV by now.) The end result is not only a dependency on the effects houses that is unhealthy for the studios, but a cycle of exploitation that is unhealthy for the effects firms as well.
Much talk has been made about unionizing the effects houses, but there are far too many people willing to work with the studios at any cost to make a strike or a general work stoppage untenable. What I think would be even more powerful is to have the studios stop colluding so closely with exhibitors — namely, to end the practice of booking a movie's release date the minute the ink is dry on the contracts. This sets up impossible deadlines for everyone concerned, not just the effects people.
It's another reminder of how the real customers for the movies aren't us ticket-buyers, but the exhibitors who actually cough up for the rentals in the first place ... and how most of the pressures that shape what we get to see, and why, are entirely invisible.
There need to be ways for everyone to be treated less like cattle. Studio Ghibli started doing this with their own people, ensuring that they get a proper share of time off, and the end result is that they deliver masterpieces made by a staff that isn't worked to death.