NEW YORK — Last week, I received an “Anonymous” email with a letter attached to it that was said to have been prepared by a core group of former Look Effects employees. The visual effects studio, which had four locations — Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Vancouver and Germany — recently closed, and many of its employees were not given their un-paid wages, some amounting to as much as $50,000.
Understandably, the letter had a frustrated tone, with the group citing their loyalty to the company during tough times, and the lack of respect they feel wasn’t given to them in return for their work and dedication. The letter also went on to criticize the owners/executives, and their new gigs in the VFX industry.
I reached out to Look Effects for comment, and within a day, got a call back from Mark Driscoll, who was a co-founder and president in the company. He was very forthcoming regarding the studio’s struggles and missteps, and answered all of the questions I threw at him.
Here, in an exclusive interview, Driscoll responds to the anonymous letter.
Mark, you are aware of the letter. What do you think?
“I will be 100 percent transparent, as painful as it is because I ran this company for 17 years, and it’s come to a very sad, unfortunate, difficult end. But I am not going to be one of those business owners who runs away from the reality. I won’t be able to make everything right for everybody, but I can at least be forthcoming.”
What’s the status of the different locations at this point?
“We did close the company. We did not file bankruptcy. We poured everything we could into it — personally and professionally, but we just couldn’t keep it afloat. We ran out of money. We ran out of resources, ran out of good will, and were faced with the unfortunate situation of not being able to see a pathway to continue what we were doing and extend favors from employees. There just wasn’t a clear way to bring in enough work to allow the machine to continue. It was a difficult decision.”
Were any efforts made to sell the company?
“Here’s a little bit of the back story. We spent months and months working on different ways forward — searching for investors, searching for other companies to acquire us, looking for merger opportunities, looking for straight investment opportunities…. Unfortunately, we made a mistake or otherwise of pouring our life savings into company, so there wasn’t any room to pull from people’s equity in their houses or anything.”
Look Effects was obviously a talented studio. How did it lead up to this?
“I’ve spent many sleepless nights thinking how we got here, because there are a lot of people out there who are definitely angry at me and in this anonymous letter, and that’s mine to bear. I wasn’t the only one who contributed to getting us there. I had a lot of people who worked with me that didn’t live up to expectations, and still we owe those people money. There are all sorts of reason as to how you get here.”
Looking back, can you point to anything specific?
“There are a couple of key things that got us here — one was the show Noah for Paramount. It was publicly in the trades about how much they lost on it. We lost unbelievable amounts of money. And with a small company, it’s hard. That came out of 2013. We thought we could figure a way out and get the employees paid back.”
As a VFX service provider, should if matter if the film was successful or not?
“We had no stake in the film, we were just contracted to do work — good or bad. We were paid a bunch of money to do the movie, and there were a whole host of issues why we ran into trouble on that movie. Some of which were our own fault, some which were the show’s fault. We lost a lot of money on that show, and as we were charting a path forward to 2014, we had a very large show in New York that went belly up on us after, let’s say, $700,000 in payments. That was the next piece of the puzzle. That was a significant blow.”
The letter suggests that many employees stuck with you during the difficult times.
“We had lots of good will from employees, and I won’t shake the fact that we ended up with a lot of people who were upset that I wasn’t able to figure out a way to make good on the past wage obligation as quickly as I had hoped. And there are people who are arguably and fairly and accurately upset by that. And we lost a handful of people as a result of that.
“And all this happened right at beginning of the normal, cyclical summer slump. Summer is traditionally slower in our business, and we just didn’t have the capacity of work to relieve obligations. We would have needed a significant amount more work that we weren’t able to get. It became pretty clear we couldn’t continue.”
Tell us about the Mass Market/Psyop arrangement.
“What we did do though, in the course of all these conversations with investors and mergers, is, I got to know a company — Mass Market and Psyop — and I’ve been able to negotiate for some of staff to move over to Mass Market in New York and Los Angeles and Vancouver. There’s no merger or investment — and I want to be very clear with that. Some of us were able to move over and become employees at Mass Market and build for them a feature and TV brand.”
How many employees were affected?
“I was able to secure a lot of our New York employees, including our key creative director and producer. In LA, we were able to bring over a decent amount of our staff. In Vancouver, we’re bringing over a decent amount of staff, as well. Some people did not come with us. They elected not to. And that’s where we’re at.”
The letter mentions significant unpaid wages. Can you address that?
“I want to be very clear [about] the anonymous letter: Yes, Look owes its former staff and freelancers a large amount of money. I won’t try to dispute that. I think the article says $300,000 to 400,000? That’s correct. It’s between $300,000 and 400,000.
The letter says some employees are owed anywhere from $1,000 to $50,000.
“That is also true, but there are only a few people at the top of that food chain. Most people are owed thousands. There’s a good portion of people that are owed in the $10,000 to $20,000 range. That’s the truth, and I am not going to run away from it.”
Are all of the offices closed at this point, or are there things being finished up?
“Everything is closed. We’ve moved the people who decided to come along to Mass Market. Mass Market and Psyop have facilities both in Los Angeles and New York. We’ve basically taken that crew and moved them to those offices. That was a nice compensating move — to be able to move the staff over to that company. In Vancouver, they are staying put in the old office, and we are basically turning the office over to them [Mass Market]. And in Germany, we are closing.”
What about you personally?
“This has caused more strife. I’ve been hired by Mass Market to head up the feature division. So I am working with many people who came with us, and hoping to offer employment to those who couldn’t’ come with us in the beginning or chose not to. Hopefully I can attract more of them back and help rebuild the business. Mass Market and Psyop are very clear about the fact that they want to build a world-class feature offering and want to attract great talent and crew. From a talent perspective, they are a fabulous company to work for. They are well capitalized and have a deep, rich history in technology acquisition and software development. They understand it’s important to get the tools to the artists to do what they need to do, and that was something at Look that we always had a hard time with. We were self-funded.”
Were executives getting paid?
“I think the article states that we weren’t paying employees but partners were getting paid? It doesn’t resolve our obligation to the employees, but I never, ever, ever paid myself and didn’t pay employees. On paper, the owners are owed more in magnitude than any of the employees are owed. And I realize that doesn’t matter, but we always put employees in front of us. When we had to reduce payroll, it was always at the partners’ expense. Always. I know people may dispute that point.”
What is your biggest regret?
“The biggest regret that I’ve got is, a lot of these people we owe money to stuck with us when Noah was difficult. They believed in what we were trying to do. I believed in what we were trying to do and tried as hard as I could to figure out a pathway to make this great for everybody, and I wasn’t able to do that. So that’s the biggest regret. People gave a lot to the company to help us make it through, and I wasn’t able to be successful in returning the good will.”
Marc Loftus is a senior editor and director of Web content at Post Magazine
’s sister publication.