Three years ago, Marvel Studios brought the release date of Avengers: Infinity War up by a week. Fans celebrated at the prospect of getting to see the movie sooner, but those working on its visual effects felt their hearts sink.
In a damning story published by io9 (only the latest in a string of similar stories from Vulture, The Guardian, Defector, and as told in this viral Reddit thread), sources throughout Hollywood’s VFX industry sound off on how ruthless the blockbuster business has become. io9’s sourcing includes VFX artists who’ve worked on some of the biggest movies ever made.
Broadly speaking, the systemic problems boil down to almost all of the power being weighted towards studios, who request complicated and expensive edits over VFX at a rate faster than the work can be done.
There is no one solution, other than for the visual effects industry to unionize and to magically compel greedy studios that they don’t have to release a dozen superhero movies and shows every financial quarter. (They do because promising new, must-see content every three months seems to be an integral part of Disney’s strategy for ensuring exponential subscriber growth for Disney+.)
io9’s story illuminates the question of why these movies have to be so big in the first place. With Warner Bros. Discovery’s recent cancelation of the almost $90 million Batgirl on the basis it was too expensive for HBO Max but not big enough to justify a theatrical release, there ought to be a deep, philosophical cultural reevaluation of what constitutes a “big” movie. Because, once upon a time, big movies weren’t so big, and the world kept turning.
First, a closer look at the problem: As one VFX pro describes it to io9, it’s a “race to the bottom” as VFX studios — hired on a freelance basis by bigger studios, like Marvel — underbid potential clients to win the contract of a major movie. Local tax incentives, which all depend on where the work is being done (io9 has a few paragraphs spotlighting the UK) can further drive down the price, even if the price paid won’t actually cover the work.
The resulting effects include a VFX studio operating at thin profit margins, if any profit is made at all, and VFX artists bearing the brunt of it all. In addition to being overworked and underpaid, VFX artists describe intense micromanaging; they call it getting “pixel-f*cked.”
Marvel’s army of producers and executives often make decisions beyond the directors, leaving clients to operate with a muddled vision of the movie. As a result, it’s not uncommon for minute edits on VFX to be requested extremely close to a film’s release. (io9 describes the VFX for the 2016 movie Doctor Strange being unfinished for its premiere in places outside the U.S.)
io9’s story includes anecdotes from VFX pros that paint a picture of a horrifically unstable and unwell industry. Sources recall “fist fights,” long hours without seeing family, employees reaching a “cracking point,” and the prevalence of “cry rooms.”
“Almost every studio has some sort of cry room where people will just go into and cry for ten minutes and then they come back out and do their job,” a source tells io9.
io9 predominantly names Marvel, due to the popularity and sheer amount of projects that are in development at any given time from the studio. It isn’t the only studio exploiting VFX workers, but a source at io9 describes the contrast of fans buzzing for Marvel’s Phase 5 slate with the reality of making it come to life. “You see all these timelines for films and just think… It won’t ever stop. The workload becomes agonizing at times… We’re all just sick and tired of superheroes.”
There are a variety of reasons why studios like Marvel feel the need for their movies to look and feel big. It should be said that complex VFX work isn’t always about superhero powers and big action set pieces; a lot of Marvel’s VFX work is simply making Atlanta look like New York City. But, as the business and artistic dynamics in Hollywood movies have evolved, it has altered what drives people to pay to see movies theaters — or, alternatively, to stay at home and stream on their tablets.
Blockbusters have always been a spectacle at heart. The 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz was famously a complex movie with elaborate costumes, production design, choreography, and its innovative use of Technicolor. 20 years later, Ben-Hur had giant set-pieces necessitating 10,000 extras and 2,500 horses. Both films racked up critical acclaim and commercial success (albeit Wizard of Oz took time), proving that spectacle and artistic reverence aren’t mutually exclusive. Even before superheroes, Hollywood knew the appeal of “big” movies.
But not all big movies need to be, you know, big. It’s only a mostly correct assumption that audiences will pay for an escapist piece that necessitates impossible physics and all kinds of colors and sound. But once upon a time, audiences didn’t flock to just those movies.
Original, mid-budget movies were once the heart of Hollywood studios’ calendars. They used to rule theaters; Ghost and Pretty Woman, for example, were the highest grossing movies of 1990. While this would change just five years later — 1995’s highest grossers were a superhero movie, Batman Forever, and complex drama Apollo 13, based on the NASA mission — there is still now interest in mid-budget movies, many of which have found a home on streaming services and Video On Demand.
Recent hits like Everything Everywhere All at Once, Where the Crawdads Sing, and Nope — all of which have varying degrees of VFX work but are deliberate in vision and execution — have performed well in theaters, despite factors like economic inflation and industry dominance of IP.
Superhero movies can learn a thing or two from what’s still making money in theaters. While the default setting for Marvel and DC is to go capital-B big, the leading studios should know when to tune the story, too. Not every movie needs to end with maximum impact. As fatigue over the genre is starting to settle in, there’s more demand than ever for a new — and perhaps older — kind of movie.