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SciFriday: Digital Domain Needs A Different Approach

Charging students to generate free labor could hurt rather than help

As much as I love writing for Airlock Alpha, I’ve never made it a secret over the years that my ultimate dream would be the chance to develop abilities to create great fictional stories that at the very least my mom and people I bribe could enjoy.

If I were to ever follow through with that, you know that what I like to call my “wit” would be included in there, sometimes based on stupid thoughts I generate at stupid times.

One of the things I would love to someday put in a story is a small town parade so big, that there is no one left in the town to watch it. This might stem a bit on my dislike for parades, or simply my confusion on why people think they are so spectacular (especially with how long they drag on), but also because I love little ironic bits like that.

But after thinking about what special effects house Digital Domain is looking to do here in my state, Florida, I have to wonder if the parade that no one is left to watch might be analogous to what could happen to the great artists we depend on bringing many aspects of film and television to life.

Find people interested in becoming special effects artists, charge them $28,000 for the chance to learn, and then have them work for free (for college credit) on big-budget, high-profile movies. That means not only will seasoned artist teams get bumped out (of both experience and earning a living), but that Digital Domain has stumbled across the greatest business model of all time: Make your job experience so amazing that workers pay you for a chance to do it.

Let’s explore this a bit. According to its filings with the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission, Digital Domain plans to have 250 students in this program by the end of 2015. They have to have at least 200, or they have to start paying back grants given to them by localities in Florida like West Palm Beach. A year later, that number has to grow to 1,000, or they have to pay back more money to local government.

Can you imagine that? Some 1,000 students, all paying $28,000 each. That right there is a revenue stream of $28 million (although not all of that will go to Digital Domain — some will obviously go to the company’s educational partner, Florida State University).

Their classes will consist of — doing work. Work that studios tend to pay out millions of dollars for to professional artists. It’s a win-win-win-win-win for Digital Domain because not only are they making money, but they aren’t having to spend it on those annoying budget items, you know, like payroll.

Digital Domain was founded by Hollywood heavyweights James Cameron and the late Stan Winston, and is expected to be primarily involved in the “Avatar” sequels, among other projects. The budget for the first “Avatar” was $240 million — a good piece of that spent on special effects. Cameron has since said he would like the sequels to be made for half the budget. When he said that, many of us thought he meant that technology itself would get cheaper. We never thought he meant the labor would get cheaper. Like where labor pays you to do the labor, instead of the other way around.

But maybe I shouldn’t knock Digital Domain on this. I mean, the University of South Florida is just down the road from me. I bet I can talk them into creating some type of educational program with its journalism school where students can pay me $28,000 for the right to come and work for me … for free. I can pick up 10 writers, generate an instant revenue of $280,000, and have no payroll expense.

Is it that bad of a thing? I’m a journalist with 20 years experience, including an additional 14 years doing this very site. I have some skills and wisdom I could share with these students, and provide them with real-life experience they would never get in a classroom.

Of course, the business model is so extraordinary — workers pay you for the honor of working for you — that I’m sure my good friend Keith McDuffee over at CliqueClack will want to copy my model. And then Darren Sumner over at GateWorld would want to do the same. And then dammit, TrekMovie is getting reports from the set of “Star Trek 2” from writers who are paying Anthony Pascale for the chance to do work for him. And I’m sure Daniel from The TV Addict will find a Canadian version of this business plan to implement there.

All of us will become super-rich (hell, even if I had to give half of my $280,000 to USF, I’m still sitting pretty), and will have writers so enthusiastic to learn, they are willing to pay us for the privilege.

But what happens when these writers are done paying us, and they want to now embark on the real world of journalism, you know, where they might get paid? It’s that parade again — so many people are paying for the privilege to write, that no one is left to pay those who do the writing. The paying jobs that do exist are few and far between, and because the demand for those jobs are well beyond supply, the pay for those jobs will be peanuts compared to what they used to be.

Is that what we want for our special effects artist community? If it works for Digital Domain, then why not Zoic Studios? Or Industrial Light & Magic? Or Pixar?

Give students a chance to earn real experience learning the arts of special effects, but don’t go so overboard that it could actually threaten the very industry it’s designed to supplement.

Even if Digital Domain does realize this, there is not much they can do. If they don’t implement this program, they could lose millions of dollars in grants and incentives offered to them by Florida communities. But really, we’re talking several million dollars here, from a company that generates many times that in annual revenue. Support the community, don’t destroy it.

If there is a cost to save the village, then pay that cost. The village is always more important, and our village of special effects artists should never be ignored.

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Could they be a Rut-ro! Shaggy
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