College students will work simply for experience. And getting their name in the credits of a blockbuster might be enough for some college students in Florida to not only create dazzling special effects, but do it for free.
Digital Domain, the special effects company founded by "Avatar" director James Cameron, has set up a partnership with Florida State University that would allow students in its creative arts program to work out of Digital Domain's South Florida studio, providing not only necessary college credit, but also much-needed experience and possibly a big boost into a solid Hollywood career.
But like many internship programs, this would would be free labor with one catch -- students will have to pay a tuition fee of $28,000 to participate.
The entire idea has professional special effects artists speaking out on the practice.
"It's a reactive and myopic plan to a future that should contain far better solutions for everyone's bottom line: the studio's, the shop's and the artist's," Dave Rand reportedly said, according to the Los Angeles Times. Rand has worked on a number of projects in the visual effects department over the years, including "The Matrix Reloaded," "The Chronicles of Riddick" and even "Transformers: Dark of the Moon." The last film is significant because much of the work on the Transformers franchise has come from Digital Domain.
Digital Domain's John Textor said 30 percent of its Florida workforce will actually be students working for free, and shelling out nearly $30,000 to participate.
It's "not only going to be free with student labor," Textor said, "it's going to be labor that's actually paying us for the privilege of working on our films."
That will not only generate revenue for the studio, but also allow it to continue working on blockbuster movies like in both the Tron and Transformers franchises, at costs that would even further boost its bottom line. The studio has already announced it will have key roles in upcoming films like "Ender's Game" and "The Legend of Tembo."
Free labor could actually help pull Digital Domain up. Although it had a profit of $8.5 million in the fourth quarter last year, compared to a $20 million loss the year before, Digital Domain actually lost $140.7 million in 2011 compared to a $42.5 million loss the year before. That's not exactly good news to write home about, especially since Digital Domain's total revenue in 2011 was $98.6 million, compared to $105.2 million the year before.
That includes about $3 million each year picked up by local and state government agencies, especially in Florida where local officials in Port St. Lucie provided tax incentives and other funding to help lure Digital Domain to the area and open a studio there.
The company insists in its public filings with the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission that the losses have more to do with taking the company public late last year, than actual expenses being incurred by the studio because of its usual special effects operation.
Shares for Digital Domain opened at $5.61 on April 4, but have gone as high as $8.60 per share over the last year.
But even if Digital Domain is simply trying to run a business, pushing off 30 percent of its work to free labor could cost experienced special effects artists work and money, creating more issues in what is already a highly competitive industry.
Textor, however, defends the practice. And his corporate bosses are happy because he's received a $16 million compensation package this year from Digital Domain, despite producing lower revenue.
"If this is taking advantage of kids, I wish somebody would have taken advantage of me when I was in school," he told the Times. "For $28,000 a year, you get an FSU degree and get to work at one of the leading visual effects companies in the world."
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