Investigative Post: Buffalo Billion-funded visual effects program falls short of expectations

Jul 13, 2016

When it comes to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion initiative, SolarCity isn’t the only project experiencing problems. State officials had high hopes for a much smaller initiative—a visual effects training program at Daemen College, in partnership with a company promising to create new jobs in the fledgling industry in Buffalo.

When the initiative was announced in 2013, the focus was on jobs. Daemen College would create a certificate program in visual effects in partnership with a new company and the program’s graduates would go straight to work there.

Interns, students and employees working at Empire Visual Effects when it started in 2013.
Credit Ashley Hirtzel

The partnership was granted $4.5 million in Buffalo Billion funding, used to buy editing software, cameras, computers and other technology. The company, Empire Visual Effects, committed to creating 150 new jobs. Daemen President Gary Olson said it would help build a workforce development pipeline between Daemen, community colleges, and the new visual effects post-production industry that is taking root in Western New York.

But few of those jobs have materialized so far. Out of more than 50 people who completed Daemen’s certificate program, only six currently have full-time jobs at Empire Visual Effects. That has left many graduates of the program feeling misled, like Sonja Slother, who completed the program in 2014.

“You set yourself up for learning all this stuff and all these big expectations and it was for nothing,” said Slother.

An experienced graphic designer, Slother loved the classes. She and the other students learned how to create the kinds of visual effects you see in so many movies and TV shows, like changing the background of certain scenes or editing out the safety wires used during stunts.

Slother started working for the company several months after graduation, but the steady work she and others expected wasn’t there. The governor had promised “good-paying, high tech jobs.” Instead, Slother worked freelance for $12 an hour—sometimes up to 30 hours a week, and sometimes not at all.

“You would just stay by the phone and wait until the next job came in,” said Slother.

Eventually, the work became less and less frequent. She didn’t make enough working at Empire to pay back the $5,250 she had paid Daemen in tuition.

“We have two teenage sons that are in high school, so $5,000 is a lot of money just to throw away,” said Slother.

Looking back, Slother said the way the program was presented was misleading. At one point, a page about the certificate on Daemen’s website said “successful completion of this certificate will translate immediately into a job opportunity with Empire Visual Effects.” That page was later changed and no longer says anything about jobs.

Credit Ashley Hirtzel

Laura Sommer, a professor and department head at Daemen who is in charge of the program, said the college never said it could guarantee anyone a job—only job opportunities.

“That opportunity is absolutely there. We didn’t say that it was going to transfer immediately into a job or characterize what that job would be,” said Sommer. “When we’re setting up this infrastructure for this new industry, sometimes there are fits and starts.”

One reason graduates like Slother struggled to get work is that Empire itself hasn’t been growing as fast as anticipated. The company committed to creating 150 jobs by 2019, but currently has just 12 full-time employees. That’s down from 25 in early 2014.

“Certainly we wish there were more at the moment but we’re pushing forward,” said Ben Porcari, Empire’s managing partner.

Porcari said it is still feasible that the company could reach its 150-job goal. Justin Keil, one of the company’s full time employees, said he worked hard to earn his position, working freelance and honing his skills.

“A lot of it was how much you wanted it, because a lot of it was learned on the job,” said Keil.

Keil balanced working at Empire with another job at a landscaping company for about six months before he was offered a full time position.

“It was a little bit insane, but I think it was worth it, too,” said Keil.

Empire managing partner Ben Porcari says it is still feasible the company could reach its 150-job goal.Credit Ashley HirtzelEdit | Remove

When the state funding was announced, officials said the program would encourage other visual effects companies to move to Western New York, helped by Cuomo’s expansion of a tax credit for post-production work done upstate.  

In 2013, Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy said the program would be a magnet for drawing post-production companies and jobs to Buffalo and Western New York. But so far, that hasn’t happened, leaving graduates of Daemen’s program who can’t get enough work at Empire with few other options to work in the industry here in Buffalo.

“It was just very disappointing to have the hype of, 'This is going to bring a great industry to Western New York and it’s going to open up new doors for everybody,' and that’s pretty much where it stopped,” said Stephen Shackelford, who started working part-time at Empire while he was still taking classes at Daemen. He said the work was steady at first but dried up soon after he graduated.

“That’s kind of where it all led to, which is not a whole lot,” said Shackelford.

Now, Shackelford works in a restaurant in Niagara Falls.

“There wasn’t an adequate return for the time and money and just effort put into the program,” he said.

Daemen suspended the program last year to retool the curriculum and relocate facilities from the Tri-Main building in North Buffalo to the college’s Amherst campus. Classes will resume in the fall.