Reinventing the CG Wheel Part 1: The Problem of the CEO

CEO Approval R&H

CEO Approval Imageworks

In this series of posts, we’ll take a look at some of the reasons I’ve come to believe that re-inventing the wheel is one of the few ways we can really get this vehicle across the variety of terrain we’ve come to encounter. In the spirit of this blog, it’s important to stress the author of this post is not the lone source of these ideas. It was through many many conversations between thoughtful, intelligent friends and colleagues that these opinions were formed.

The path to the animation cooperative began, for me, by considering the one problem that can not be addressed with even the strongest workers union, the most united trade organization, the most competitive tax incentive, the best legislation, regulation, CVDs, or truckload of good intentions. It’s the problem at the heart of the broken business model, stagnating wages, excessive underpaid/unpaid overtime, decreasing working conditions, shady business practices, uninspired projects, and a diminished overall emphasis on standards of living. This is the problem of the CEO. 

ON GOOD INTENTIONS
I recall sitting in various VFX discussion groups following the massive town-hall we had after the first Oscar’s protest and listening to several different groups of individuals quite seriously discussing how they were going to start or join some new company that had this brilliant new plan that was going to fix everything. I listened with an eagerness that slowly turned to disappointment as each one of these plans led back to the same problem:  In nearly every case the success or failure of this new endeavor relied entirely on the integrity and strength of ideas, leadership, and altruism of a single individual or a small group of owners (with the “right” idea) who would, like every other company, dictate the conditions of employment to their employees. 

Granted, some of these people would tell you they had every intention of allowing their artists to have control of certain terms, but in the end every idea that I heard for a “new” business required artists to put our faith squarely in the decisions, ideals and good intentions of the company’s owners.

THE VICE OF INDIVIDUAL EXCELLENCE
And herein lies the fundamental problem with the way we think about the future: the ingrained belief that it just takes the right, brilliant, good-intentioned individual with the right ideas to stand up to the pressures of this industry and strike just the right balance between the well-being of the artists and the well-being of the company.

Whether you have a company like Imageworks where only an abysmal 26% approve of CEO Bob Osher, or a company like R&H where 97% approved of founder John Hughes (and by all accounts adored the man), everyone must still place their hope in the decency and intellect of an individual who will be faced with decisions in which they will be forced to chose between the profitability, success or failure of the company, and the well-being of their employees. The visual effects industry can make it very difficult to focus on both.

THE PROBLEM OF OWNERSHIP & MOTIVATION
Before I go on, I should take a minute to clarify “The problem of the CEO” is a simplification of the terminology that may imply a CEO, a “Founder”, a President, board of directors, etc. The more accurate way to phrase this might be “The problem of ownership” and/or “the problem of motivation.” Whether the owners are some combination of an executive board, a sea of faceless shareholders, a parent corporation, or the leader/owner are one in the same: the only thing we can really have faith in is the fact that in the end the chief decision makers will almost always act in favor of the owners, their primary objective, and the preservation of the impersonal entity we call “the company”.

AN ALTERNATE REALITY: ON GROUP INTENTIONS
Now imagine for a minute that you happen to work at a company in which you and every one of your 300+ colleagues have a legitimate stake in the company’s success and an equal vote on the company’s direction. There are no external shareholders. You have access to all financial information.

Now, take the decisions of every CEO (be they sympathetic or purely psychopathic) that have adversely impacted the lives of artists, and ask yourself this question: If the workers were the owners (and therefore the decision makers), would the same decision have been made?

Faced with the goal of improving their position in the industry, would the artists of Digital Domain collectively have voted to open a for-profit school in Florida where students essentially paid for their own jobs? Would the artists of Imageworks have voted to relocate the company and their jobs to Vancouver?** Would the artists at R&H have voted to expand primarily to cheap-labor markets like India and Taiwan to remain competitive? Would artists in London or New Zealand vote for underpaid overtime? Would artists in BC vote for a 5% addition instead of paid vacation, holidays and sick days? Would artists everywhere vote for perpetual business decisions that ensured only the most narrow profits (if any)? Would they decline to think outside the box and explore other ways in which they could apply their skills (from, say,  original content to exploring new technology and markets) to make their company profitable?

My instinct (and my experience in talking with others and listening to their ideas) says that were artists to be empowered to elect their leadership, to vote on what projects the they will or will not pursue, and to collectively solve problems and decide on the direction of the company: the solutions to the issues that have resulted in the state of our industry would be much more diverse and favorable to the workers. Much more so than the ones we’ve seen when one person (or a tiny group by comparison to the company at large) who thinks only of the business is empowered to dictate all of those terms and the creative people who actually do the work are simply required to abide.

A FUTURE GENERATION OF COMPANIES
Again, the bottom line here is this: the chief decision makers will always act in favor of the owners, their primary objective, and the preservation of the entity we call “the company”.

So imagine if in the next generation of companies the owners are the workers are the chief decision makers (that means you); if their primary objective is to create, to inspire, to entertain, to provide for their families and to have a decent standard of living; and if the company is not an impersonal entity, but rather a body made up entirely of equally participating members. Do you think our industry and our general sense of happiness, stability, and overall standards of living would be reduced or improved?

THE BIG QUESTION
This brings me to the fundamental question at the heart of this article. If we need a workers union to protect us from the decisions of our CEO who acts to preserve the impersonal company; If we need a trade-union for CEO’s to protect their company against other CEOs who are concerned only with profits and shareholders; if we need legislation, tax incentives, or CVDs to protect us from governors who act only in the interest of their region and the CEOs of the industry they try to attract without regard for the humans already employed by the industry; then isn’t it time we reconsider the entire model of ownership and leadership as it applies to our industry?

If the problem is that the workers are being trampled on by a powerful few who don’t share their interests or objectives and there a thousand of us for every one of them; then why exactly do we think we need to keep these people around?

NEXT UP:
PART 2: THE CEO MUST GO
NO CEO


*CEO approval graphs from glassdoor.com

**I’d like to preempt any distress from my colleagues abroad by saying that I am sensitive to your concerns. This is not in any way trying to pick a pro-America, pro-California fight. If you’re one of the artists who lives and works in Vancouver or India or China by choice and for love of the country, ask yourself a similar question: what would be the outcome of a vote among your peers to move all of your own jobs 1,200 miles away? The point is not to blame any artist, but rather to ask everyone to consider the decisions of CEOs were they to require a vote from the artists.

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