On the magic behind major blockbusters

The goal of Freakonomics — a series of books and more recently a weekly podcast — was to "explore the hidden side of everything". Basically a program after a magician's heart.

In their most recent episode, they took a detailed look at the visual effects industry — the people responsible for the magical imagery behind everything from Jurassic Park to Star Wars: Episode VIII.

It turns out, quite contrary to the intuition of most people, that the industry is struggling financially. How it got that way is a complicated tale of fierce competition, and tax incentives. Basically the way this essential work is outsourced means that they don't get to profit from the tremendous success of the films involved.

Having worked on countless live events, and been involved in the bidding process for them. One common problem that keeps coming up in these discussions is that clients are unwilling to pay for work which is — for them — invisible. As a point of comparison, a sixty-minute magic show might also include thirty minutes of preparation, forty-five minutes of driving each way, an additional hour (or more) of waiting between setting up.  

Now what happens if instead you want to consider a thirty-minute magic show? Half the time should be half the cost... fifty percent off... provided you ignore the rest of the time. The thirty minutes they shorten the show represents less than fifteen percent of the time commitment. This also doesn't include the time that it took to plan the even in the first place; the lengthy exchange of emails, signing agreements, or even the deeper back end work of putting together a website and branding your services.

It's a major blindspot. Other people's time is literally out of sight, out of mind. The (implicit) message is that any work done outside of a very narrow focus is expected to be done for free. Which is worse when you want to be a professional showman, you work hard to push all of your hard work into the shadows. You don't want the audience to see the set-up, listen to the sound check, fiddle with lighting. It's a major challenge to get people to properly evaluate the value of invisible things.