Well, it happened last week.
Earlier this year, I made an observation about the then-upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania in the lead-up to its release, not realizing at the time that it would be the absolute worst Marvel Cinematic Universe feature film I have yet seen:
“Why does the CGI of older Marvel movies like the first Iron Man look so much better and more tactile than the PS4-level cutscenes we’ve been subjected to since Endgame? It all comes down to time, money, and labor. I’m hoping it’s not news to anyone reading this article that visual effects artists in Hollywood these days are increasingly overworked, underpaid, and given impossible and constantly-changing edicts from indecisive studio executives who see CGI as a crutch instead of a tool (just look at what happens when you have producers who actually respect and clearly communicate with their vfx teams). But let’s be clear: it’s getting worse. And we are seeing the consequences of these unacceptable working conditions in real-time, with Disney movies in particular being the worst offenders.”
To be absolutely positively unambiguous about this, I have not budged from this sentiment. From Marvel to the “Wizarding World” to Star Wars, the biggest movie franchises managed by the most powerful studios in the United States have become defined by shoddy-looking visual effects over the last ten years. I actually suspect Hollywood, deep down, knows this, which is why less CGI-dependent, more practical effects in smaller movies like Ex Machina and First Man and 1917 have all won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects while just over a third of the dozens of feature films from Marvel Studios have even been nominated and none have won.
And it’s not the VFX artists, compositors, technicians, and animators who are at fault for this. They are, in fact, among the hardest-working professionals in the entertainment industry today. The fault lies with incompetent, callous producers with poor communication and planning skills laying down brutal demands under impossible deadlines and a lazy assumption that everything can be “fixed in post.”
So, after years of progressively impossible conditions for outrageously low pay, visual effects professionals have voted overwhelmingly to apply for official union recognition at the National Labor Relations Board. They want to join the ~168,000 workers represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE. The fact that the visual effects houses most often subcontracted by Marvel banded together as a supermajority in applying is a sign of how dire the situation has become for them specifically; a similar push for vfx workers to unionize their profession failed a decade ago, and again a decade prior to that. 80+ hour workweeks. Consolidation among megastudios to give them more power at the bargaining table (“If you won’t fulfill all of these requests for this price, we’ll just move on to the next understaffed nonunion vfx house!”). Demands that constantly change last-minute. Frankly, I am amazed they took such abuse for this long.
What a coincidence that this successful union drive is also happening at the same time that SAG-AFTRA and the WGA is still striking for better – or honestly, just livable – pay and job security. Meanwhile, David Zaslav, who has made almost half-a-billion dollars in compensation over the last five years while screenwriters’ average real compensation has declined by 14% in that same time period, has the audacity to gloat over how Warner Bros Discovery’s pissing match with the very creative professionals who do the actual work that provide the company its market competitiveness helped them move around some line items on a quarterly budget sheet to reduce expenditures. His compensation package wasn’t touched, of course. But don’t worry, Bob Iger is very much committed to earning his $27 million total compensation this year by “focusing on quality over quantity” in Disney’s output just three months before Secret Invasion debuted with an entirely A.I.-generated title credits sequence. Not sure how you’re going to do that by offering abysmal pay to the actors, writers, and visual effects craftspeople who should conceivably be the first individuals you make more of an investment in to keep to that promise, but hey, you do you, Bob. You’ve already proven that you’re a master at corporate succession planning.
As IATSE International President Matthew D. Loeb so astutely observed about these strikes and labor organizing efforts in the entertainment industry right now: “That doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Entertainment workers everywhere are sticking up for each other’s rights, that’s what our movement is all about.”
This unionization effort is long overdue. Like unions in every other industry have, this level of solidarity will make Hollywood and, honestly, all of Los Angeles County, a better place to live and work, and will be almost guaranteed to result in better mainstream movies in the future.
Godspeed to the hopefully soon-to-be newest members of the IATSE.