Cinesite Europe, my former London employer and (until recently) one of the big hitters in visual effects in Soho, have just made some massive layoffs. They are now losing not just the freelancers and the specialist folks whose talents can be hired and fired, but the key people who run the departments and know how the systems work. These are the staff who are hard to re-hire, difficult to do without.
I worked on a number of productions there, including Underdog, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, Marmaduke, Bedtime Stories and the last three Harry Potter films. Until the beginning of last year Cinesite was owned by Kodak, which gave it a unique kind of corporate protection. Big company money, small company feel. With just a couple of hundred employees, you could get to know everyone, or almost everyone. But with a large US corporate protector, there was always money to do things properly. The company even paid for "cheeky beers" on friday nights, when everyone could relax and unwind.
When Kodak went bust in January 2012, killed off by its failure to make the shift from film to digital media, Cinesite got sold to the private equity company Endless. We reported the sale back in May 2012. Now, almost a year on, it seems as if Endless has not cracked the basic problem that Kodak faced - how to turn a profit in the increasingly competitive world of visual effects, with razor-thin margins and tough overseas competition.
Unconfirmed reports suggest that the immediate cause of the layoffs was the general vfx business slowdown coupled with a huge rent increase in the Cinesite Soho premises. Around 30 key staff, including heads of department, were laid off last friday.
I wish them all the best - hoping (like everyone else who used to work there) that they manage to climb back into profitability. So here's to hoping that this is just a cyclical downturn, and nothing more ominous.
(Editor's note: For more on the recent trials of the visual effects business, read about why we're going green, read FLIP's review of Life of Pi, and read about the wonderful VFX studio that was Rhythm and Hues. You can also find our September 2012 piece on the sad end of Digital Domain.)