The Return of the Studio System?

It’s Oscar week and one of the big winners was Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi”. Sadly Rhythm and Hues, the company responsible for the film’s (now Oscar winning) spectacular visual effects, has filed for bankruptcy. Much has been written about the reasons for the struggles of the visual effects industry by far more knowledgable sources than myself, so I urge you to check out the hashtags #vfx or #vfxprotest on Twitter to find out more about it.

Reading about the protests this week, and the challenges that face the VFX industry over the past couple of days, a thought occurred to me; One of the complaints is that a VFX company can’t stand up for itself because they only have 5/6 clients; the major studios, and lots of competition, so if they are branded as troublemakers, the studio could easily take their business somewhere else… It got me wondering why the studios don’t simply set up their own in-house visual effects unit (or acquire a company like Rhythm and Hues). It’s not like there’s a lack of films to work on, and their success financially is so closely tied to spectacle that they can’t risk being left in a position where a company becomes unable to deliver, causing more cost and maybe a missed release date, which all impacts the profit line.

Disney, through their acquisition of Lucasfilm, also now owns ILM, one of, if not the very best visual effects companies in the world. I have no idea about the inner workings of Disney or ILM, but it seems to me that Disney could decide that they only want their own films to have access to ILM’s facilities and more importantly talent, just like the studio system used to be. In this case, it would be great news if you’re part of Disney, but terrible for everyone else.

So is that where we’re heading? Back to a model where the studios really do produce their own films top-to-bottom, and distribute them? I’m not so sure. I think as long as there’s someone willing to work on a film for next to no money, it will continue to be independent VFX houses, but maybe not in America, because how are you going to compete with a company in India or China with a massive inexpensive workforce? You can argue the quality of the effects will drop, but I’m not sure I have the confidence in the general public that they’ll care enough to boycott movies with slightly dodgy effects.

I hope that even though the public may not care enough to vote with their feet, filmmakers and cinephiles can’t unlearn what they have learned. They want their visual effects to be perfect, so maybe there will always be a place for high-quality VFX work, whether under the control of a studio or an independent VFX house.

One final point; The Fellowship of the Ring has 540 visual effects shots, the first Hobbit film has 2,176 (according to Wikipedia); maybe instead of quadrupling the number of VFX shots, the filmmakers should have concentrated a little more on story… And perhaps that’s the biggest lesson.