You may have noticed this past week that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti declared a state of local "emergency" due to Hollywood's production exodus out of California amid a flood of tax breaks from New York to New Zealand.
It seems that film studios like to save money — who knew? — and have trouble resisting the 30% savings incentives offered seemingly everywhere but here. If you're making a $200-million movie and can shave $50 million to $60 million off of your budget by moving it to Michigan, it's a pretty powerful lure.
The domestic visual FX business has taken a particular hit in this equation, evidenced by the February bankruptcy of the company Rhythm & Hues less than a year after it won an Oscar for "Life of Pi." The prevailing wisdom is that global outsourcing has rendered the effects industry virtually unsustainable in California.
Yet despite this grim outlook, a pair of VFX production houses right here in Burbank happen to be thriving — bucking the trend by doing it leaner, meaner, smarter and, well, better.
A little more than a year ago, Shant Jordan formed the effects boutique Synaptic VFX along with brother Shahen Jordan and partner Ken Gust. All three had deep experience in different areas of the business. Shant specialized in 3D art and compositing, Shahen in matte painting and concept art, and Gust in post-production and finishing.
"That versatility allows us to do everything in one building," Shant explains. "We're very lean. There's no redundancy."
Shant admits that it's been "a little bit of a rough road" making a go of it financially but that Synaptic is over the hump. It has steady work on the new ABC series "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." from producer Joss Whedon, a TV spinoff of the Avengers films premiering Sept. 24.
The company has generated business from studios paying full fare by establishing a comfort level that may be lacking with unknowns in Vancouver or Albuquerque, Shant believes.
"It's taken us nearly a year to create that. But part of the reason we've been successful is that we're social guys. Most VFX artists are computer geeks. We are too, but we're also cool."
Synaptic is about to staff up to about 25 employees and is doing well enough that it's poised to open a second branch in New Orleans, a hub of the celebrated 30% tax discount. But that doesn't mean the company will be abandoning Burbank any time soon, Shant assures.
"Oh, no way," he says. "It's our home base. It's where the greatest and most talent lives."
That local pool of professionals has been a key in fellow Burbank operation FuseFX's ability to stay competitive since its founding two years ago. Its clients have included FX's "American Horror Story," CBS's "Criminal Minds" and Fox's "Glee," and the company just doubled its footprint by purchasing the building next door, adding 3,000 square feet to make for 7,000 total. And it has a staff of about 40.
How has Fuse managed to do it? Founder David Altenau maintains that its clients are largely willing to forego the tax rebates for the opportunity to work with local supervisors and artists.
"It eliminates the delays and compromises that go along with a creative process done thousands of miles away," he says."There's no substitute for a face-to-face meeting with the people creating the imagery."
The basic driver at FuseFX is resisting the temptation to treat visual effects like a commodity. And to some degree, you get what you pay for, though Altenau finds his company's prices are competitive even without the incentives. It's about being something of a one-stop shop that offers all of the necessary services in a single location, also cutting down on the miscommunication that can arise when dealing with a different culture elsewhere.
It's certainly hard to argue with the success that both Synaptic and Fuse are enjoying here at home, demonstrating that the lowest bidder isn't necessarily the finest creative option. The lesson: You can't really put a price tag on a geek you can talk to.