A year ago yesterday, an estimated 400-plus supporters of the visual effects industry gathered at Hollywood and Vine as the glitterati walked the Oscar red carpet just blocks away. Get ready for Round 2. The Association of Digital Arts and Technicians has announced a VFX rally for the same corner from 1-3 PM Sunday as the Academy Awards crowd closes in on the Dolby Theatre. ADAPT says the event “supports legal action to help end the current subsidy race that is damaging the visual effects and film industries.” The group is urging protesters to wear green in support of the cause. Last year’s rally came in the wake of VFX house Rhythm & Hues filing for bankruptcy protection, two weeks before Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi — for which R&H did the effects work — picked up the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Since then, ADAPT has continued to battle for Hollywood’s VFX industry as many of its jobs head to other countries that subsidize the work. A town hall meeting in June focused on the industry’s efforts to unionize, and VFX pros picketed in November near the DreamWorks Animation campus while President Obama was visiting there.
LA-based VFX house Rhythm & Hues Studios filed for bankruptcy last year and laid off hundreds just before the film it was most associated with, Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi, won four Oscars — including for Visual Effects. Employee lawsuits and a bankruptcy auction ensued. The VFX community, meanwhile, rallied to the cause, holding demonstrations (including at the 2013 Academy Awards) and town halls to figure out how their artists can be more protected — in other words, says former R&H CG Supervisor Walt Jones in the trailer, “It jelled the entire VFX community — into being horrifically pissed off at how they were being treated.” Save for an organized protest outside DreamWorks Animation during a November visit by President Obama, there hasn’t been much movement on the organizing front of late, but maybe this trailer that just dropped will get the ball rolling again. Life After Pi was made by R&H employees who picked up cameras as the meltdown ensued and is part of a larger documentary film Hollywood Ending that’s pending, according to the film’s website. The R&H doc is being released online February 25.
The bankrupt effects house has reached a million-dollar settlement to end lawsuits filed against it by a pair of pink-slipped employees. Today’s LA Bankruptcy Court filing includes a proposed settlement of potential class action claims in which Anthony Barcelo and Thomas Capizzi each would get $10,000 as the class reps and the remaining $980,000 would be divvied up among the 238 other employees let go by Rhythm & Hues while it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on February 11. Ten days later, separate suits were filed by Barcelo (read it here) and Capizzi (read it here) claiming they were fired without proper written notice or cause. Today’s proposed settlement, of which plaintiffs’ attorneys would take a third plus court costs, addresses those and other claims. A bankruptcy judge must approve the settlement, and fired R&H staffers have the right to opt out.
Prime Focus already has a global footprint with offices in the LA, NY, Canada, the UK and India. That makes it more immune to the problems American-based VXF firms like Rhythm & Hues have had sustaining a viable business model (Prime Focus was one of four companies in the running in the R&H bankruptcy auction eventually won by another global firm, India-based Prana Studios). In March, Prime Focus announced a Chinese joint venture with Hong Kong–based private equity group AID Partners and local partner Zhejiang Jingqi Wenhua Chuanbo Co to invest $3M in a new operation that will provide 2D/3D conversion, VFX and postproduction services on the mainland and in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Its recent credits included stereo VFX, 3D conversion and archive footage colorization work on Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. Here’s today’s release out of the Shanghai International Film Festival announcing the Beijing opening:
Ray Richmond contributes to Deadline’s conference coverage.
In the wake of the mass layoffs and bankruptcy filing of the VFX house Rhythm & Hues at the same time it was winning the Oscar for the film Life of Pi, the entire future of the visual effects industry has come under scrutiny — even as Rhythm & Hues recovers under new ownership. The question of the company’s crash-and-burn while creating award-winning work led off a Produced By panel this morning entitled “The Unlocked Picture: Global Opportunities in VFX and 3D Conversion,” where the consensus was that the R&H situation was both an anomaly and a harbinger of VFX industry issues that won’t soon be going away. “It’s a tough business and changing business, and we’re right in the middle of a very tumultuous time,” said Chris DeFaria, Exec VP of digital production, animation and visual effects for Warner Bros. Pictures. While noting that Rhythm & Hues was beset by obvious cash flow problems, DeFaria maintained that the VFX business is being altered by an increasing standardization of tools and techniques and, most importantly, by more competitive financing globally. “You have an international workforce that’s mobile and capable of setting up low cost labor markets,” he noted. “There’s a big benefit in the exchange rates. These forces conspire to make it a very difficult business.”
Global Showbiz Briefs: Chello Zone Goes ‘Hardcore Pawn’; Karlovy Vary Celebrates Schatzberg; R&H Malaysia Goes It Alone
Chello Zone Bringing ‘Hardcore Pawn’ To Several Territories
International TV provider Chello Zone has acquired all nine series of the US reality TV show Hardcore Pawn for its CBS Reality network in Poland and one of its EMEA feeds. CBS Reality will air the shows in primetime across Poland, Cyprus, Hungary, Romania, the Middle East and Africa. The first will premiere in Poland in June. The reality documentary series, which centers on a Detroit pawn shop, is produced by Zodiak USA for Tru TV and distributed internationally by Zodiak Rights.
Karlovy Vary To Celebrate Jerry Schatzberg
The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival said today that Palme d’Or-winning director Jerry Schatzberg will attend the 48th edition of the festival to screen three of his earliest films. The influential American director will introduce his recently restored debut Puzzle Of A Downfall Child (1970), The Panic In Needle Park (1970) and Palme winner Scarecrow (1973). The Czech Republic fest runs June 28-July 6.
JS Communications has finally settled for a reduced break-up fee in the drawn-out Rhythm & Hues bankruptcy saga. It’s been two months since troubled VFX house R&H sold out of bankruptcy to Prana Studios-led Holdings, LLC following a roller-coaster closed-door auction. At issue was the court-approved $425K fee promised to JS Communications as stalking horse bidder if a qualified rival beat them out for the Life Of Pi company, which JS was eyeing to buy. But in a hotly contested development, JS failed to meet a deadline to submit its bid (exec David Shim told me then that his dealings with Fox and Universal left him less than optimistic about buying R&H without future work assurances). Per a court document filed this week (read it here), JS will receive a $300K break-up fee. If approved in court June 4, that should put the R&H saga to bed for the time being; multiple class action lawsuits against R&H filed by former employees have yet to be settled.
Thom Burkhart, who headed digital postproduction at Rhythm & Hues for 14 years, has joined postprod company Steele Studios as Senior Producer. He had been at the VFX house until it closed its post unit late last year, before the company filed for bankruptcy protection in February and ultimately was sold to Prana Studios. Burkhart’s move comes as some of his former R&H colleagues have filed class-action lawsuits over being let go without cause or required written notice. The cases are pending. Burkhart joins the Santa Monica-based studio that creates visual imagery for movies, TV, commercials, music videos and Web media. His credits include working on the Oscar-winning visual effects for Life Of Pi along with such hits as X-Men and films in the Fast & Furious, Lord Of The Rings and Night At The Museum franchises.
It’s been a tense month-and-a-half for troubled VFX studio Rhythm & Hues. After filing for Chapter 11 in February, bringing global scrutiny to the tough economics of the US VFX industry, a federal bankruptcy judge today approved the company’s sale to an affiliate of India-based Prana Studios, 34×118 Holdings Inc. The new buyer won a drawn out auction for the Oscar-winning Life Of Pi company late last night with a winning bid valued at about $17 million. Prime Focus and Chinese company Brave Vision, represented by China Lion President and co-founder Jiang Yanmin, were also in the running, with Brave Vision tentatively approved today as backup bidder, pending documents to be provided to the court before final sale. (Other outlets misreported China Lion as a bidding company yesterday, but it was not involved.)
2ND UPDATE, 10:30 PM: The 3D animation and effects studio based in Los Angeles and Mumbai emerged victorious tonight after an auction that stretched across two days. Its past high profile clients include Disney (TRON: Legacy, Planes), Paramount (Transformers: Dark Of The Moon), and The Weinstein Co. (Hoodwinked!), studios not involved in the recent bankruptcy saga of the Oscar-winning Rhythm & Hues. A court hearing is set for 10 AM tomorrow to finalize the sale.
UPDATE, 3:30 PM: The end of the Rhythm & Hues bankruptcy saga just got pushed back a little further. Judge Neil Bason has approved Rhythm & Hues’ request to continue its bankruptcy sale hearing Friday at 10 AM. The auction will resume today at 4 PM. Two bidders are currently battling for the company, but Rhythm & Hues lawyers will allow an unnamed bidder that previously withdrew to submit a new bid, according to statements made today in court. They may also allow Psyops to rejoin the fray bringing the potential number of bidders to four. Meanwhile, the court will decide tomorrow if stalking horse bidder JS Communications will receive its contentious break-up fee.
UPDATED: It’s coming down to the wire for bankrupt VFX house Rhythm & Hues. Today at 5 PM is the deadline Federal Court Judge Neil Bason set for interested buyers to submit qualified bids for the company ahead of a March 27 auction. I’m told at least four bidders will be entering the fray, including Prime Focus, Prana Animation, Psyop, and Rocket Science 3D, and possibly others. Korean company JS Communication this week dropped out as the court-approved stalking horse bidder, which would have guaranteed Rhythm & Hues a minimum bid at auction. That surprise hiccup sprang from recent failed talks between JS and studios Fox and Universal, which last month teamed to bail out Rhythm & Hues with a $17 million DIP loan. JS rep David Shim told Deadline the two studios were uncooperative when he asked for a non-binding handshake agreement to $60 million worth of work per year for three years to ensure Rhythm & Hues had financial lifeblood through a post-sale rebuilding phase. He also says he agreed to pay an additional $3M to cover operational costs for the company. But a source with knowledge of the talks claims Shim was asking for a binding guarantee as well as additional financial commitments, a tall order in an industry where production and release schedules for studio films are always potentially in flux.
UPDATE, 8:28 PM: Rhythm & Hues just confirmed Deadline’s report in a press release. The VFX studio says it expects a “competitive auction” on March 27, which will be decided in court on March 28. But don’t count JS Communications out yet: I’m told they’re still exploring their options and may still throw their hat into the ring. “I looked at the company and due to the nature of this business, one missing component was cooperation from the studios because the work comes from them”, JS Communications’ David Shim told Deadline, adding that he’s “still working to have a dialogue with the studios”.
PREVIOUS EXCLUSIVE, 6:57 PM: JS Communications was approved earlier this month as a stalking horse bidder in the ongoing Rhythm & Hues bankruptcy case, which would have guaranteed a minimum bid in the VFX shop’s upcoming auction. But the South Korean media company confirmed to Deadline that it failed to submit a firm purchase agreement for Rhythm & Hues’ assets by today as mandated by the court.
Ross Lincoln is a Deadline contributor.
Just over two weeks after reports that troubled VFX studio Rhythm & Hues would be establishing operations in Taiwan, the company is courting new employees for its facility in the city of Kaohsiung. The studio is seeking a variety of creative personell, including special effects engineers and 3D animation artists, according to the China Post. The U.S.-based firm was running a booth at a job fair at National Chung Hsing University in Taichung.
Unionization and the creation of a trade association topped the priorities at a visual effects biz town hall meeting Thursday in Los Angeles where hundreds of VFX professionals gathered to discuss the state of their troubled industry. Despite calls for solidarity within the global community and a general sense of accord, a tense volley of boos erupted halfway through the panel when Visual Effects Society rep Mike Chambers took the mic and mentioned the organization’s call for larger California subsidies made in an open letter last month. In the letter the VES had announced plans to hold a VFX Congress, which has yet to materialize. “What are you going to do?” shouted one audience member to Chambers, who had no answer for his group.
The exchange highlighted the most crippling challenge currently facing VFX workers: With no organized body other than the strictly honorary VES, artists have no leverage as the current system continues to squeeze their employers for slim profit margins. Among the industry wide issues identified by keynote speaker Scott Squires: A flawed studio-VFX house business model, too much competition, and job-migrating subsidies. Panelists and audience members also decried the strains on health and home life endured by individual VFX artists at the bottom of the VFX food chain. Unpaid overtime, long work weeks and a lack of healthcare benefits are common for visual artists, who comprise one of the last remaining sectors in Hollywood that is not yet unionized.
UPDATE, 5:25PM: A federal bankruptcy court today approved JS Communications’ stalking horse bid for the financially troubled Rhythm & Hues. With the South Korean media company now firmly in place to bid on the company, the auction process out of Chapter 11 will begin. If no other bidders put their name in the hat, the VFX house will belong to JS Communications by the end of the month. However, court documents show that several other parties have expressed interest in Rhythm & Hues but JS is the only one to have their name made pubic. The court also ordered Friday that JS would receive a $425,000 break-up fee if another bidder buys R&H. That’s $250,000 less than the $675,000 the company wanted. Additionally the court said that the utilities cannot be turned off at R&H’s HQ and the company can pay pre-bankruptcy wages due to execs Prashant Buyyala, Keith Goldfarb and John Hughes if it chooses.
PREVIOUSLY, 10:26 AM: JS Communications Co wants a judge today to give it stalking horse status in bids for the assets of bankrupt VFX house Rhythm & Hues. In a letter of intent dated Thursday and signed by Managing Partner David Shim, the South Korean media company says it wants to acquire the Oscar winning company by the end of the month. “We are prepared to proceed with our due diligence and negotiate a Definitive Agreement as soon as possible,” says JS Communications’ letter. However, the Korean company insists it will only proceed with its bid if it is officially given the stalking horse status in Bankruptcy court Friday. Stalking horse bidders serve to spur other potential buyers to stake out more competitive positions in a court mandated auction process. The El Segundo-based effects studio, which won an Oscar last month for Life Of Pi after laying off 250 workers and seeking bankruptcy protection tapped investment firm Houlihan Lokey Capitol Houlihan Lokey in February to manage a sale. “Several interested parties,” according to a document
Bankrupt VFX house Rhythm & Hues must find a buyer by mid-March if it is going to recover out of Chapter 11, the company said in a court filing this week (read it here). The El Segundo-based effects studio, which won an Oscar last month for Life Of Pi after laying off 250 workers and seeking bankruptcy protection, tapped Houlihan Lokey two weeks ago to help with a sale as it continued to operate in the short term. Out of 80 entities contacted by the firm, at least 16 have signed nondisclosure agreements and commenced due diligence ahead of a sale hearing proposed for March 19. But according to court documents, the $17 million DIP loan from Universal and Fox and additional $4.9 million from Legendary allocated toward projects for each respective studio will run out by mid-month. If a buyer is not found by then, Rhythm & Hues says it will be unable
Two weeks after its U.S. parent filed for Chapter 11 reorganization, a new Rhythm & Hues facility is on course to open in Taiwan, according to Rhythm & Hues Studios Taiwan Co. manager Mike Yang. The exec told Taiwan’s Central News Agency that the new outpost will open in Kaohsiung by the end of March. A 2,640-square-meter facility is in the final stage of construction and is expected to provide space to over 200 local and foreign artists and instructors over the next five years. “Actually, all the studios, including in Los Angeles and at four other locations, are operating,” Yang said, adding that more than 10 parties have expressed interest in a merger or an acquisition of the group. Yang also told the news agency that R&H is looking to expand its business in Canada and Southeast Asia. “I’m sure we can get through the difficulties, as we are still one of the tops in this industry,” he said. On Sunday, Taiwan-born Ang Lee won the Best Director Academy Award for Life Of Pi, on which Rhythm & Hues collaborated.
In an open letter issued Tuesday, the Visual Effects Society (VES) officially joined the growing crisis accelerated in recent weeks by the bankruptcy filing of Oscar-nominated VFX studio Rhythm & Hues. The missive calls for Governor Jerry Brown to expand post-production tax incentives in California and announces a VFX Congress to be held in the coming weeks to give artists a means of focusing their collective messages and goals into a united, focused strategy. “There’s a lot of energy and upset and desire on part of artists to say the industry is going through huge changes, and we all want to get together and get recognition at a much higher level”, Roth explained to Deadline. “But once you get there, what do you do with it?”
The VES is an honorary society of VFX professionals that counts just under 3,000 members in 30 countries. However, the industry lacks a VFX trade organization or union. Roth tells Deadline the VFX Congress is still being organized but will take place within the next few weeks. The VES aims to tap feedback from all stakeholders in the VFX industry including studios and facilities, although it is still to be determined who exactly will be allowed to participate in the Congress meeting. Read Roth’s open letter:
UPDATE, 9:50 PM: After winning the Oscar for Best Director, Ang Lee addressed the financial woes that struck his Life Of Pi VFX collaborators at Rhythm & Hues. “It’s bad news that visual effects are too expensive and I’m aware of Rhythm & Hues’ (situation)”, he said, noting that VFX artists are “more than just technicians”.
PREVIOUSLY, 9:13 PM: The Jaws theme struck less than a minute into VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer’s Life Of Pi Oscar acceptance speech. The ominous play-off tune played for a full 20 seconds as Westenhofer thanked director Ang Lee and began addressing the crisis plaguing the VFX industry. Poor Westenhofer was just starting to acknowledge the recently bankrupted Rhythm & Hues VFX studio, whose employees staged a protest at Hollywood and Vine earlier in the day that gathered over 400 marchers. “Sadly, Rhythm & Hues is suffering severe financial difficulties right now”, he managed to spit out before becoming the first winner of the 85th Academy Awards interrupted by play-off music. (Meanwhile, Best Documentary Oscar winner Malik Bendjelloul got the Jaws hook, too.)