Back from Edinburgh

My destination directly after my little London trip was to the capital city of Scotland, Edinburgh.  I fell in love with the place last year when cPanel were hosting a one day conference.  I extended the stay for 4 days, but it wasn’t enough to explore the city.  This time I had 9 days, and let me tell you, I saw (and drank) a lot.

The next few posts will recount my Scottish adventures, but let me just say that during my time in Edinburgh I was a tad annoyed at Disney/Marvel’s presence in shooting Avengers: Infinity War in the city which meant that tours (or anything) involving the Royal Mile was interrupted throughout that time.  And on my way home that also meant Waverley train station.

I suspect in order to qualify for the British film tax credit (read: free taxpayer money) which requires productions to pass a British cultural test (how the other Marvel films passed I just don’t know), I like to think the Avengers were fighting giant space haggises. Given how terrible Marvel has shoehorned British locations to get their tax credits, I reckon for the next Marvel film it’ll probably be shot in Blackpool where Captain America wears a knotted handkerchief, Thor judges a knobbly knee competition, and the Hulk becomes a ballroom dancing champion…

Flashbacks to my time in VFX came flooding back to me.. Hope Marvel’s Avengers enjoyed a nice cup of coffee while saving the universe from mutant space haggises.
Marvel was in town for over THREE weeks…
.. which meant that the section they closed involved a LOT of steps or significant detours up and down hills to get around them..

I’ll be talking more about various movies in the coming posts – particularly Skyfall, Harry Potter (I went to Hogwarts – but not the version I worked on), Downton Abbey and Angel’s Share (a Ken Loach film).

The curse of the digital tiger!

When Life of Pi won the best visual effects Oscar back in 2013, it was a bittersweet victory.  Shortly after the win, the industry saw the collapse of the VFX studio, Rhythm and Hues.  Lots of people lost their jobs.

The following 30 minute documentary explains what happened, and why.

I was checking Twitter yesterday and came across the following tweets:

followed by:

.. which is incredibly disturbing if true. The tweets come from the VFX chapter of BECTU (which is the media & entertainment union here in the UK). I have no reason to disbelieve them as a result.  More information can be found here.

MPC have been fighting unionisation over the past couple of years, but it is nevertheless one of the few companies where employees are members of a union (via BECTU). The VFX sector is one area of the film industry where unionisation has been extremely difficult. Given the costs of VFX which is a highly labour intensive industry, many VFX companies operate to extremely small profit margins. Unionisation is highly unattractive to these companies, and to their clients.

I’ve been talking to a few VFX companies over the past couple of years and my view is that the picture remains bleak, with limited technical resources and staffing costs being a big concern. The smaller boutique companies have had to combine resources to be able to survive (Cinesite & Image Engine springs to mind). For those going alone, you’ll find one member of staff doing one or more jobs. Even the bigger companies have merged (Double Negative with India’s Prime Focus), or bought out (Framestore with China’s Cultural Investment Holdings Co.). And VFX continues to produce significant losses – whether through expansion/R&D (Digital Domain (now owned by a Hong Kong firm) losses double at $64 million) or other means.

Meanwhile, the big corporations that run the film studios continue to get free taxpayer money through the use of film credits for filming or utilising resources in a particular country. Both Britain and Canada are currently the winners in the tax credits game – the US, not so much. It seems the US is not able or willing to financially support its own industry for whatever reason. Just bizarre.

I love film & TV, but bloody hell, the whole industry is a mess. Heavily reliant on state handouts, if this continues we’ll likely to see massive redundancies across the creative industries as film companies go bust. What cost to the UK taxpayer to keep our film industry alive and well?

I am very disappointed with my former employers if the redundancies/replacing with less experienced workers issue is true. It’s bad for the client, bad for the taxpayer, and more so – super bad for those who are being replaced – who took the company an Oscar and BAFTA victory.

It seems to me that any VFX company that provides a CG tiger (Life of Pi & The Jungle Book) and wins a major award is likely to let people go afterwards – for whatever reason. The Walking Dead recently featured a CG tiger – let’s hope it doesn’t win award. If it does, pray for the VFX people on that show. Perhaps the bad luck has to be balanced out by creating two CG magpies? Or better yet – sort out the tax credits issues which is leading the industry to this sorry state, and start making these companies profitable again.

All this has lead to another documentary being made, “Hollywood’s Greatest Trick” in which artists tell of their experience within the VFX industry.

Flim Flam Film Spam

I am convinced somebody out there is putting themselves out there as a spammer-for-hire for a number of UK film distributors.  It’s all exceptionally dodgy because the spammer is utilising a number of domains (far too many) and super cheap web hosting outside the UK where dedicated servers are super cheap – the bandwidth doubly so.

There appears to be absolutely no logic to the spammers mailing list of spamees – it feels completely random.  You’d think they’d use a list of known investors with money to burn, but this feels like it’s targeting individuals, promising them many riches and rewards for investing in the UK film industry.

The latest spam originates from a Spanish server.  The Spanish web host/ISP doesn’t offer an abuse@ email address (which they should under the relevant published RFCs), plus the unsubscription URL is invalid – it doesn’t resolve.

I’ve been in contact with the distribution company mentioned in the spam, asking them if they’re aware of the email (it could be they not, and the whole spam thing is a massive scam – in which case, the distribution company had better be informed so they can take action against the spammers themselves).  I doubt I’ll hear back, but it’s better to let them know than not.

If you do want to invest in British film – ignore random spam.  Look towards the BFI whom I’m sure can advise accordingly.  And remember – there have been a number of high profile court cases filed by the HMRC about tax schemes regarding alleged tax avoidance.  So it’s vital to get the correct advice.

Stay safe.

Game of Tax Credits

I think that if we’re discussing making US corporations pay all their taxes, we (and Canada and Australia) need to rethink how we support our respective film and TV industries. The following has been taken from the end credits of Game of Thrones season six.

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This article from Empire Magazine probably best explains WHY tax credits exist.  But I don’t believe it’s sustainable.  The film & TV industries – especially in the States – have become far too reliant on these schemes – it’s like a crutch: they’re being propped up by taxpayer money to offset risk.  When you’re a government trying to reduce a substantial deficit in the annual budget – this sort of thing just ain’t going to help anybody but corporate fatcats and NOT up and coming independent filmmakers.  When another country comes up with better terms (think of a pound shop, then think of another one offering all items for 99p), all those jobs are now suddenly at risk unless that offer can be matched or improved.  Wonderful!

Plus we can’t be seen to say to one industry, “oh – you owe us more corporation tax: pay up”, then give away something like $240 million in tax revenue to a US multinational in another (industry).  I don’t think that’s fair.  And what’s even more unfair is when Hollywood constantly moans at us Brits about not giving them enough tax credits.  We can’t let them them threaten our economy and our industries.  Which is why this article that quotes BECTU wanting previous, looser UK tax credit terms to stay in full force rather surprised me.

The deplacement factor in tax credits is yet another concern.  If I were still working in the film industry today, I could quite easily move to Canada to work (and come back to the UK if things don’t ultimately work out).  This is a lot harder if I were still married, and even more difficult if I had kids.  And what happens if the finance minister of the relevant Canadian province decided that they can no longer afford to absorb Hollywood’s tax bill (which is roughly some $500 million a year) and everybody shuts up shop – what happens then?

We definitely need to encourage new and upcoming filmmakers, and tax credits seem, initially, to be a good way of doing this.  But then again, the UK government shouldn’t be taking all the risk for US (or even UK) corporations.. As Matthew Vaughn, the highly successful film producer and director (who has financed many of his films himself) has suggested, how about providing the money as a bond/loan that’s ultimately repayable?

As for HBO, one hopes they enjoy the free money from the UK taxpayer – many of those taxpayers that probably don’t subscribe to Sky Atlantic.  Perhaps HBO could offer the taxpayer some White Walker toenail clippings by way of thanks?