Does LucasFilm Division Have Hidden Financial Troubles?
I guess you don't get rich by giving money away. That, anyway, is my conclusion after a little research into the personal and corporate finances of George Lucas, scion of the film industry. Forbes magazine regularly assesses his personal wealth at $1 billion plus, but one of his companies appears to be suffering unacknowledged financial hardship.
Last May George's company LucasFilm moved to a new $350 million headquarters building at the Presidio, allowing them to "be more efficient and leverage assets, technology people and innovations that come from every corner of the company", as he apparently said at the time.
According to industry analysts the difficulty until then had been that the separate divisions of the Lucas empire were located at disparate locations in Marin County. According to LucasFilm's President, Micheline Chau, "Marin has been really tough on us, we ran our businesses as silos". Since July the effects and animation division, Industrial Light and Magic, has joined the other LucasFilm divisions at the new headquarters.
The advantage of this move is that LucasFilm can now use the same assets they created for a film to produce the spinoff game and other ancillary products. This can be big business - it's reckoned that even running as separate silos the 2003 turnover at LucasFilm ran to $1.2 billion, which certainly lends a new meaning to the word "tough". Estimates are all we have, of course, because private companies like LucasFilm don't have to publish accounts or have their books scrutinized.
It's a good job that the company appears to be doing well overall. Yesterday's Python Software Foundation members' meeting reminded me that two years ago we were asked to vote to admit Industrial Light and Magic as a sponsor member of the Foundation (sponsor members pay annual dues, currently $2,000, to help fund the Foundation's growth). Their membership was approved by 42 votes to 1, mine being the sole dissenting voice. This was not a serious attempt to block ILM's membership but primarily because I felt that a company like ILM could have been doing much more to support the Foundation.
I have heard (from staffers I have met at conferences) that the company employs in excess of seven hundred Python programmers. Here's what Tommy Burnette, ILM's Senior Technical Director, is on record as saying "Python plays a key role in our production pipeline. Without it a project the size of Star Wars: Episode II would have been very difficult to pull off. From our crowd rendering to batch processing to compositing, Python binds all things together." Philip Peterson, a Principal Engineer for R&D adds "Python is everywhere at ILM. It's used to extend the capabilities of our applications, as well as providing the glue between them. Every CG image we create has involved Python somewhere in the process".
This is clearly an organization that makes extensive use of Python, and one imagines it would profit by it (as the PSF hopes all users profit by their use of Python). Sadly this appears not to be the case. When you look at the PSF members roster, you may wonder why you see ILM listed at the bottom of the page as an emeritus member rather than a sponsor member.
This is where my incisive intelligence tells me the company must have been through bad financial troubles. Shortly after the membership voted to accept ILM as a member a PSF director received a 'phone call from our contact there explaining that they could not find $2,000 in their budget to pay their membership dues. Since by that time they had been elected to membership our only choice under the existing constitution was to convert their membership to the non-paying non-voting emeritus status normally reserved for retired and inactive individual members.
I'm not one to bear a grudge, and I hope that ILM's financial position has improved since then to the point where they can not only afford the fees to become a sponsor member, but also provide Platinum level sponsorship for PyCon like Google, ITA Software and EWT have done this year. I have a suspicion that if they looked really hard they might find that they had good reason to help the Foundation that Guido van Rossum created to administer the intellectual property that he and the other Python developers have created. We need more supporters with the experience and clout of Industrial Light and Magic, and I think we should welcome them into the fold.
These ponderings also raise a larger question: since FLOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software) is produced and distributed essentially at no cost, what (if any) obligation do its users have to support the development process? Clearly there's nothing that can be done directly to force any return on development efforts, and most open source contributors I know would rather be wrting code (or even documentation!) than spending time policing payback. Many open source users contribute effectively to open source projects by having staff work as developers, so their work is incorporated into the intellectual property of the project. Others prefer to donate to supporting foundations and similar bodies.
If you think about the larger context of open source, though, there's a sea change afoot. In today's world the proprietary model dominates most of the software market, but open source is gaining ground. Large companies have responded to the change in various different ways. There's almost a paradox about open source development in a capitalist economy: if everyone uses open source software without taking steps to ensure that a project keeps going, it will falter and die. You might also argue that this is also quite Darwinian: if a project is sufficiently important to a sufficiently wealthy section of the user universe, it will prosper and grow.
I don't think anyone has a clear idea of where this is all going. It will be interesting to see what eventually transpires.
[Steve Holden is a member of the Python Software Foundation Board]