The VFX and post production scene in Los Angeles has had a bit of a bumpy time
over the past few years, at least as far as feature films are concerned. More favourable tax subsidies in cities like London and Vancouver meant that many Hollywood-produced movies have ended up leaving California.
But that doom and gloom hasn’t spread to the commercial sector, where a booming ad agency ecosystem, a tight knit community and a restless sense of creativity means that things are actually pretty positive.
“VFX, post and editorial in commercials – and all of short form really – are alive and well in Los Angeles and let’s hope that continues,” says Tiffani Manabat, VP and EP at Digital Domain.
The smaller scale of the projects in the commercial sphere and the importance of close collaborative relationships means that the advertising and branded content side of the industry has thrived.
“There are going to be challenges in every industry. The businesses of commercials and film are incomparable. We have a very hands-on approach to what we do here, in contrast to the scale of film,” says Rani Melendez, MD at the Mill LA
His colleague, Phil Crowe, who is ECD at The Mill LA agrees that these long-held and deeply rooted relationships have helped nurture the commercial scene. “We focus on the small things and make sure clients and staff are taken care of. Our priority has always been those personal relationships versus scale and volume. As big as The Mill has grown as a global company, we see ourselves as many small groups looking after small groups of clients. There are a lot of one-on-one relationships here, built up after many years of trust. It’s all about the people and the intimacy,” he says.
The difficulties facing the talent that works in the movie side of the sector has had a surprising upside for the commercial departments too, explains James Razzall, who is MD at Framestore LA
. “The amazing tax incentives in Canada have obviously drawn a lot of the big film VFX work out of state. I feel like we’ve picked up some great talent who didn’t want to relocate and still wanted to work on quality stuff.”
That’s something that Rob Hodgson, VFX Creative Director at MPC LA
has also noticed. “With much of the feature film work going out of the states and abroad, we have a young and vibrant talent pool in the LA area looking for creative opportunities. The crossover of talent from long-form TV to features to commercials to VR to music videos brings fresh eyes and ideas,” he says.
Challenges and Competition
That’s not to say that the commercial post and VFX houses in the city don’t face their own challenges. The in-house agency work that’s gobbled up work in advertising hubs around the world has been no gentler on Los Angeles. What’s more, while the ad industry in LA is lively and growing, there isn’t the same volume of work as, say, New York.
According to Joe DiSanto at Therapy Studios
, it makes the LA market tough to find a foothold in. “It’s harder than you’d think for companies that do well in NY to come to LA and easily integrate into the scene. More LA companies have successfully opened offices in NY than the other way around, as far as I can tell. There is just more commercial work in NY,” he says.
“LA is a challenging market to break into. Interestingly, I feel like the companies that have come over from London have made a bigger splash here in LA. I could theorize that’s because people in LA are the kind that respond well to things like accents. But hey, I find accents exciting as much as the next guy.”
Indeed, there must be something attracting post, VFX and editorial companies from out of town. Recent migrants include the likes Electric Theatre Collective, the cool kids from London, and Australia’s Alt.vfx.
Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon
Despite the challenges and competition, the industry in LA has a close knit, community spirit. Not bad for a city that’s so spread out.
“It’s been my experience that the Post and VFX community is incredibly tight knit,” reflects Tiffani Manabat. “We all have similar woes. We’re chasing the same clients and fighting to keep the same talent. Also, after 23 years in business, I feel like everyone has a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon connection with Digital Domain and I find that comforting because there are no strangers.”
While Tiffani plumps for Kevin Bacon, James Razzall has a different Hollywood analogy for the community. “It's no secret that two of our main competitors both had similar starts to us in London. We have a friendly rivalry and mutual respect for each other. Here at Framestore we have a great space for hosting industry events and we would always extend the invitation to our peers at rival companies. At the end of the day, our side of the industry is pretty small and there is a lot that we can all learn from each other. Plus being in the game for 30 years means there has been a lot of inter-company fraternization. It's a bit like Westside Story but with computers!”
That being said, the geography of the city can make industry socialising a little trickier, says Phil. “If you look at other cities where The Mill is located such as London, New York and Chicago, they’re all hubs. You can walk out the door and you’re immediately bombarded with inspiration and networking opportunities. Here in LA, due to the nature of the spread of the city and our reliance on cars, we’ve worked hard to create that same culture within our studio.”
One gets the sense that, despite challenges - many of which are experienced by post houses all over the world - the industry in LA is uniquely placed to take advantage of certain trends and opportunities in the advertising, marketing and entertainment worlds. When it comes to branded entertainment, and with Hollywood at their doorstep, the LA post and VFX companies have access to the talent, expertise and facilities.
“It’s a very exciting time,” says Rani at the Mill. “There’s so much positivity around the future growth of entertainment, especially as more opportunities open up to work directly with brands across the board. This growth expands the diversification, creative content and craft that we have honoured and nurtured from day one.”
That in turn is evolving how companies like Digital Domain think about their work. “It’s changing every conversation and every pitch. We are asking ourselves deeper questions before, during and after every call and every meeting. We’re questioning if it’s interesting to us, if the visuals are engaging and do they support the story, we’re asking if we’d click off after :10. It’s fascinating because for a moment, we floated a little too far away from some of these questions. But to produce a successful piece, all hands that touch it need to take a beat and ask. To me, this is a guiding principle.”
The world of VR and other kinds of immersive experiences is also an exciting area of growth. “It’s a really exciting time with our studio and brand clients now wanting to expand their traditional film and advertising deliverables into new digital content and immersive experiences as well,” says Tim Dillon, Head of VR and Immersive Content at MPC US.
And all of these new kinds of platforms, properties and opportunities are giving the forward-facing post and VFX companies a chance to control their destinies, says James Razzall. “The shape of our business is constantly changing but we made a concerted plan to move away from just being a 'for hire' vendor a number of years ago. That has taken many paths, but to give you an idea, we are currently working on some apps, a theme park ride, a number of AR projects, a number of big online and room-scale VR projects alongside our premium commercial visual effects work. Our directors and designers are also getting a lot of action. The future certainly looks very bright over here.”
Part of this move has been driven by shrinking budgets in more traditional areas, but the projects that it has yielded have proven to be pretty exciting.
“It’s noteworthy to mention how the shift in the commercial arena to lower budget work and in-house agencies has driven traditional commercial companies to try and get into other areas. Now you see a lot of production and post companies have some sort of content producing division, and Therapy was ahead of the game on that as well,” says Joe DiSanto. “Since we launched Therapy Content in 2007, it’s been a successful venture getting to do our own productions, like HBO’s Sonic Highways. It’s also driven our post-production business to be more diverse in terms of working on more feature, documentary and TV work in addition to commercials. We’ve found a great balance being able to work across various mediums and styles – and LA is the place where you can do that.”
Might the Movies Come Back?
So what of the future? While the commercial sector is diversifying there may be a glimmer of hope on the horizon that some of that major movie work might return. Eric Garcetti, the Mayor of Los Angeles, has promised that a new, much bigger tax rebate will be put in place in 2020
to help the local post and VFX houses compete and to the city to retain the movies that are produced in Hollywood.
James at Framestore is upbeat about the prospects. “It would be fantastic for Los Angeles if we could bring a lot of the film work back here. There is certainly a desire from our creatives to sink their teeth into more of those shows but currently the sums just don't add up,” he says. “I am assuming that it wouldn't fly for the commercial work, although some branded content might get a break.”
Tiffani at Digital Domain is hopeful, but measured about the impact of this proposal. “Production leaving LA is bad for everyone and it’s been part of our conversations for years. And it’s such a relief that a higher-level politician like Garcetti is addressing the issue – especially considering the huge revenue losses over the years,” she says.
“That said, if tax credit expansion is granted, it would still take quite a while to turn things around. What happens to our ad agencies and our clients directly affects the VFX community, and I don’t mean in a matter of months, I mean the following week. We used to be the centre of the action and we need to get back to that.”
There's a lot to get excited about when it comes to commercial post, VFX and editorial in Los Angeles. The city's unique position at the intersection of advertising, tech and - of course - entertainment makes it a natural home for different forms of branded entertainment and content for new tech platforms like virtual reality. What'a more, LA's ad agencies are going through their own revolution, for many of the same reasons, so the whole ecosystem is feeling much healthier for commercial post than it is for features. Tiffani sums it up perfectly when asked what exactly it is that LA offers when it comes to VFX and post that no other city in the world can: "Options. Period."