California VFX workers want their government to use tariffs to make non-US firms like the Oscar-winner for Gravity, Framestore, less competitive in the eyes of Hollywood studios.

Framestore’s much-deserved win of the VFX Oscar for its work on Gravity was marred by protests outside the Academy Awards by workers in the Californian VFX industry. For the second year in a row, over 500 protesters have stood as near to the Dolby Theater in Hollywood as they could to draw attention to VFX firms on film studios' doorsteps that have been beaten to major feature film contracts by overseas companies, plus falling pay and conditions.

The protesters haven’t just picked the Oscars because its a high-profile event with a VFX prize. Both this and last year’s expected (and eventual) winners had links to the protesters' concerns. This year’s shoe-in winner for the VFX Oscar, Gravity, was driven by VFX by London-based Framestore. Last year’s winner Life of Pi featured effects by a Hollywood-based VFX firm Rhythm and Hues that was filing for bankruptcy protection when it won the award.

Much of the protesters anger is directed at the tax breaks offered to film companies from governments if they commission VFX from firms based in the Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK – which means for feature film work, the Soho-based likes of Cinesite, Double Negative, Framestore, MPC or Prime Focus. California’s best-known VFX house ILM is currently setting up a VFX facility in London to work on forthcoming Star Wars movies, and would likely qualify for the tax breaks.

The protest was organised by animator and VFX Soldier blogger Daniel Lay, who told the BBC that the focus of the protest was to draw attention to attempts by Lay and others to get US government agencies to step in and help protect US firms against ‘subsidies’ for outsourcing VFX work to non-US companies.

As detailed in a shrieking post on Silcon Valley tech blog Pando Daily, Lay has asked a Washington-based law firm Picard, Kentz and Row to explore whether the frames, characters and other assets created by VFX firms count as ‘digital goods’ that deserve the same level of protection from foreign subsidies as physical goods. If so, this could lead to import tariffs being placed upon them, making London and other major VFX hubs less competitive than they are currently.

"You essentially have a trade war occurring and one of the ways to remedy this is a duty system which would level the playing field quite quickly,” Lay told the BBC.

However, despite the hyperbolic headline of Pando’s post, there is currently no indication that any part of the US government is thinking of imposing tariffs on VFX work.

For us based in the UK, it’s a tricky subject to cover even-handedly. While we feel for what’s happening to VFX workers and their families in California as their industry’s decline has lead to less work and lower pay – it’s lead to more work and better pay for those in the UK. Any improvement for Californian workers caused by tariffs will be at the detriment of those in the London (and other non-US firms).

As I wrote last year, the only way the situation is going to get better is if the surprisingly recession-proof film studios are going to pay more for VFX work. The real reason government subsidies exist in the UK is that the studios won’t pay what it actually costs to create Oscar-winning VFX.

Perhaps rather than having different territories fighting over who can deliver the cheapest talent or the biggest subsidies, they should come together to demand to be paid what they’re worth – because what they’re worth makes films like Gravity possible at all.