Digital Domain: John Textor's Student Labor Plantation

Categories: Broward News
Slaves, at least, got room and board. On John Textor's digital plantation, the labor was going to pay the boss for the privilege of making him rich.

For all the weeping and wailing over the demise of Digital Domain, the govt-subsidized "film school" that crashed and burned in West Palm Beach and Port St. Lucie last week, and amid all the self-justifying jaw-flapping of the public officials who were complicit, the sleaziest aspect of con man Textor's scuzzy scam has gone completely unremarked locally: the exploitation of student labor for private profit.

It's been all over the internet since last spring, causing an explosion of rage in the film industry, but no one in SoFL seems to have noticed (or maybe they just don't think it's important) that in a speech to investors last November, Textor bragged about how his animation school, Digital Domain Institute, was going to provide grist for the mill of the company's studio.
John Textor.jpg

Textor told the audience:

"...what's interesting is the relationship between the digital studio and the college. Not only is this a first in a number of ways that we've talked about, but 30 percent of the workforce at our digital studio down in Florida, is not only going to be free, with student labor, it's going to be labor that's actually paying us for the privilege of working on our films."

With the blithe indifference and moral myopia of the consummate con man, Textor went on to boast how he'd fooled the feds, too:

"Now this was the controversial element of this and the first discussions with the Department of Education, 'cause it sounds like you're taking advantage of the students. But we were able to persuade even the academic community, if we don't do something to dramatically reduce costs in our industry, not only ours but many other industries in this country, then we're going to lose these industries ... we're going to lose these jobs. And our industry was going very quickly to India and China."

Great! Let American workers not be left behind in the global race to the bottom. By all means, let us reduce costs, and what's costlier than human labor? Even if it may be illegal.

(Not that anyone should give a good goddamn, right? For the bargain-basement tuition of $28K a year, these kids were going to learn a trade -- in a glamorous industry with first-rate pay and endless employment opportunities. As if.)

OK. Fire Ant can understand how that sort of slimy pitch would appeal to investors like the good, Society Page folks at Palm Beach Capital, who sunk ten or so million into Textor's scheme. When they're not making the rounds on the Island, those people create jobs suck the blood out of working folks.

But for state and local public officials to turn a blind eye to Textor's plans to grow fat off the sweat of young people, to kick in millions in public moolah to help him do it... Where's a people's tribunal when you need one?

Everyone involved in this snake-oil orgy claims to have done due diligence. The WPB Community Redevelopment Agency said it checked on Textor and his company inside and out, including the use of a private dick and a "New York attorney specializing in the entertainment industry." Somebody should sue somebody for malpractice.

Really, though, they just didn't want to know.

The public will be out quite a few millions before all the Digital Domain dust has settled. But it almost seems worth it not to have government fund the exploitation of starry-eyed youngsters by a charlatan like Textor.

Fire Ant is an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes fatal bite. He covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact

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ANY industry (as film production and VFX post specifically) that is subsidized by up to 75% by foreign governments is going to have a very tough time domestically.  Some work stays here, but well run studios, with well paying creative career jobs all over Socal have been closing lately because if a studio takes its work to Vancouver, we're not talking Indonesia, the Canadian government pays you back some 60% or more of what you spend on labor - and labor is cheaper there overall to boot.


Businesses like DD and the others are reacting to over regulation and business adverse situations in the US and the US government allows foreign governments to subsidize the work.  If Germany paid for 75% of the cost of each car they sent to the US, we'd see things like this happening in the auto industry, or any industry.


The state of California is not interested in either competing with their own incentives or charging a tariff to prevent others from doing it.


Blame business, but never your government, right? 


Students would never help out very much. tbh, it would slow things down at anything other than the donkey-work. It is a highly skilled industry, and however ever much they try to deny it, the CEO's have to share some of the profits if they want to get the product delivered. Really, there is no point doing this work if you are earning bar-staff wages - working in a bar would actually be more enjoyable! Really, thestudents would learn that it is not a 'fun' job, takes alot of dedication, motivation and skill. If you can't demand at least a liveable wage, there is no point doing it!


The bigger issue is out of control company power and increasingly draconian government legislation attack on the living standards of ordinary people in favour of the 'Textors' of this world.

However, this was a listed company registered in Delaware. Textor was unable to make sole decisions, many were responsible for the situation, many sitting behind desks in L.A. and delaware. When the judge lets the bankruptcy fire sale to a vulture-casino fund all go through rush-rush and hush-hush, with none of the bidders or the company facing any scrutiny, we will then have a legal green light and template provided for future, ever larger and larger IPO and short-selling scandals. Even larger assaults on tax payers, even larger rape of workers. You know that they had to reach certain employment targets? To present growth figures and projections for IPO. And to meet state assistance partnerships. There you have it! Enticing and employing industry talent into a business plan, present that as evidence to investors and state enterprise councils and there you have a formula for printing money! Because of course, you can just cast off those staff who were central to your plan of raising finance, with no consequence. And walk away from your investors and state officials. Perhaps that can become the defacto business model in the USA going forward? Until 20 years from now, when you wake up wondering why the US then begins to ressemble somalia or the Congo.


Thanks, Fire Ant, good story.  The worst part is that this practice, that students pay tuition while interning without pay in sought-after industries, is widespread.  Universities make money to replace what they're losing from Republican legislatures, and companies who pretend to be a lot more respectable than Digital Domain can use free student labor to keep from hiring most of those same students after they graduate.  Students are forced into subsidizing the company to avoid hiring them.  This happens in all kinds of fields and industries.

fire.ant topcommenter

You suggest we respond to foreign nations' subsidies of VFX by subsidizing domestic companies' exploitation of student labor?


 Please.  I was clear in what I said - and that wasn't implied either.

fire.ant topcommenter

 @heyricksander When you say DD is "reacting to over regulation and business adverse situations in the US" it certainly sounds like an excuse for Textor's conduct.

If you say otherwise, fine.

There's no excusing Textor's predatory practices.

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