Open Letter To James Cameron: Fairness For Visual Effects Artists

To James Cameron,

I’m addressing this letter to you because you and your films
have been such an inspiration to so many who either watch or work in the movies.
I’m asking for your help in addressing a problem that few in your audience have
probably ever given a thought to — the unfair treatment and working conditions
of visual effects artists around the world.

Visual effects films were dominant commercial forces in
2009. Films like AvatarDistrict 9 and Star Trek all
succeeded because they brought together visual effects with great writing,
acting, directing and other cinematic elements. There are other films for which
the visual effects seem to be the primary audience motivator. Without any
slight, the reality is that people did not go to see recent commercially
successful films like G.I. Joe or the Transformers movies for the
script, music or the acting. They went in droves to see the spectacular visual
effects – the “thrill ride”.

For all of these films that rely heavily on visual effects, the
studios and theater owners made hundreds of millions of dollars. The writers, composers
and actors all will receive well-deserved residual payments for decades to
come. But the visual effects artists don’t receive royalties and residuals. And as
one visual effects artist told me, “even in the credits, we’re listed
after craft services.”

Like most people who work in the film, television and video
game industries, visual effects artists love their jobs. They enjoy both the
work itself and the ability to work on a daily basis with so many smart, creative
and talented people. However, visual effects houses can be the best, most fun
and high-tech sweatshops on earth. Visual effects artists typically work with
no contract, no paid vacation, no benefits, and often no paid overtime. And
because of the nature of the work health problems such as obesity, tendinitis
and carpal tunnel syndrome are common.

The thing needed is recognition of the problem and the value
of these artists. When I say “value”, I’m not using that term
abstractly -I mean the bottom line, practical dollars and cents value of visual
effects to the film, television and video game industries. Just take a look at
a list of the world’s top
grossing films of all time
– of the top 30 films, every single one of them
is a visual effects driven or animated film.  Visual effects have meant
multi-billion dollar business for the studios.

Unlike every other craft in the film industry, there is no
union for visual effects artists. This seems to be a matter of timing as much
as anything. Modern visual effects techniques are only a few decades old, and
the digital side of the visual effects arts really only has about 20 years of
history as a popular filmmaking tool. The other filmmaking disciplines such as
acting, directing and music composition date back to the very beginnings of the
film industry.

This newness has left digital visual effects artists with
absolutely no collective bargaining power whatsoever. In this age of weakened
unions, many of these artists are understandably leery of the idea of unionization.
Additionally, visual effects artist currently work under constant threat from
producers of having their work sent off to India or China. (The irony of
sending creative work to a country like China that routinely censors
communications — including
the announcement of this year’s Oscar® nominations
— doesn’t seem to
bother these bottom-line seeking producers.)

Perhaps some sort of “Union 2.0” structure is needed; a
more flexible, modern institution that takes the realities of today’s
production environment into account , while still giving these artists some of
the same basic protections and benefits that other crafts currently receive.
But whatever the solution, it’s important people become aware of the problem.

Mr. Cameron, you are in a unique position this Academy Awards®
season. Your film Avatar has been nominated for nine Oscars®. Odds are high
that at some point, you’ll be up on stage accepting a well desrved award. Just
as you took time recently to speak
out on behalf of NASA
, I’m asking you to consider taking a moment to speak
out on behalf of visual effects artists and how they are being treated unfairly.

Even a small statement by you will cause industry and press attention
to focus on this issue. The Visual Effects Society is awarding you a
well-deserved lifetime achievement award later this month. There’s no question
that your groundbreaking films such as Titanic, Terminator 2, and
now Avatar have all fused visual effects and storytelling into movies
that have succeeded both commercially and artistically.

For the sake of all the artists who have both worked for you
and been inspired by your work, please allow whatever victories you have on Oscar®
night to be beginning of meaningful discussion in Hollywood about fairness for the
thousands of artists who create visual effects.

25 Comments

  1. As someone who worked on one of 2009’s blockbusters, I can’t disagree more with your post. There’s no secret to what the VFX industry is like. I’ve routinely worked 110 hour weeks for 40 hours pay, haven’t taken an honest-to-God vacation since getting into the industry, and live in constant fear of getting laid off. And you know what? I choose, every single day, to continue that lifestyle. Just because I enjoy what I do, or because it’s a relatively rare talent to have, doesn’t mean I’m entitled to anything. I don’t have the right to get exactly what I want out of a job, I chose this career.

    The visual effects industry is very much merit-based. I know mediocre artists who are making $1600 a week, and I know fantastic artists who are making $5000+ a week. I don’t know any bad working artists making gobs of money, or incredibly talented working artists who are starving. The reason why visual effects artists continue to work, despite what you claim to be horrible conditions, is because we have the opportunity to make more money doing this than in any other avenue in our lives. Our college educated friends are plugging away as accountants making $55,000 a year, and we’re tripling that in a bad year.

    In short, nobody owes me anything, and if the industry picks up and moves to China tomorrow, then oh well. Good for them. I’m not entitled to this line of work, and I’m not entitled to it being awesome. If it’s not what I want, or I feel cheated, then I have the freedom to walk.

    Reply
  2. Keep working those hours for free, brother man. We’ll talk to you in ten years and see how your, health, retirement and “career” in VFX is looking for you.

    Reply
  3. Some of what you say is true inasmuch as VFX artists often have little choice when it comes to the amount of hours they work. But the fact is that most artists get paid a fair wage and, as “lead artist” points out, no one is obligated to do this for a living–it is a privilege for many people to be able to work in an industry that allows them to make beautiful imagery day in and day out. Although the hours are long, most of the artists i have worked with get paid overtime and many actually ARE represented by a union that ensures terrific benefits including health insurance for them and their families, paid vacations, and a pension that is funded by the employer. If you look, by comparison, at the people who work in the non-artistic/non-technical jobs (producers, coordinators, recruiters, etc.) you’ll find that they are the ones who are expected to work even longer hours with far fewer benefits and, generally, lower pay than the artists.

    Perhaps what you are talking about is true of those who work at the smaller VFX places or for those who work on a purely freelance basis, but many of the larger FX houses actually treat their artists quite well. And for those who feel otherwise, as “lead artist” points out, they may feel free to work in any of the extremely boring and mind-numbing industries that pay less and slowly kill the soul (ever work for an insurance company, home health care agency, telemarketing firm, bank, retail store, etc.?).

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  4. Thanks for writing this.
    May I suggest to direct this directly to the VES as well?! I believe it is them who should step up to the challenge to nurture the artists they supposedly represent.

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  5. Honestly, those carrying the flag for we are happy to be unrewarded, unsung and discarded, are either hoping to work on a big film, inexperienced, naive or worse pretending to be someone they are not. Lee is right we do it cause we love it and are grateful for the opportunity but we are truly getting the shaft. Our work fills the seats and we deserve at least the bare necessities of health insurance and some financial security. Anyone stating otherwise is clinging to a future possibility that is evaporating rapidly. If you haven’t experienced it yet you will. Lee’s call is justified and on target. Over the decade and a half I have seen nothing less the our contributions being less and less appreciated. Just because we are not digging ditches doesn’t mean our contributions are to be overlooked and they generally are and it is getting much worse. Our value is grossly unsung. If you desire to compare the billions racked in by one feature and the artist responsible for enabling that to the delivery driver that helps dominions pizza make millions thru out a year well your perspective in general appears skewed. This craft is a skill and a hard earned one, comparing it to other fields does not absolve its value or the artists worth.

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  6. Agree with the ” Veteran”, I think that’s what the capitalism all about, exploiting the labor force n enrich the rich. “lead artist” says easy to tripple the 55K a year ? thats so untrue ! if u have constant work at a company like a nice big studio, yeah, but other than that, it’s more like been pushed around among studios n constantly getting laid off, a decent pay from projects to projects.. it sux.. Unionize !!

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  7. I used to be very dedicated and work without overtime and give my nights and weekends without hesitation because that is what I felt this job deserved and this is what I got myself into and this is what I wanted to do. And I loved it. I made as much money as some doctors and lawyers out there did. I worked at small shops and big shops working on small and big budget movies.

    Fast forward 10 years later, I have a wife and am looking to start a family. My priorities have switched a bit and now I need to make choices between my family and this industry. There needs to be a balance. And VFX companies don’t want to hear that. At one particular company, I worked for half a year straight at 80+hr weeks until finally I was sent to another city for what was supposed to be a month. It turned into nearly 2 when I said I need to leave to go back to my family. The executive producer said, ‘there will be consequences.’ When I came back to work, I was fired.

    There is no security, even when you are dedicated.

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  8. Yeah and the big houses are dissolving bene’s too. All the large studios in L.A. are all having to cut benefits or raise insurance costs. London does not pay OT and 90% of the film is there because of a tax break. In time all the big studios will treat everyone like a freelancer and the irony is our work is their dough.

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  9. I have 12+ years in the industry on big films at major studios. I agree with this post, and its absolutely true that the lack of an overarching union has relegated most TDs to the ghetto of the film industry. Its also true that the climate and lifestyle of the VFX industry has always catered to your average 27-ish your old male. That is what keeps the industry flowing, and these are the guys that don’t see the problem. You mean I get to work on Stat Trek, surfing the net, living in a one bedroom studio apt in LA, coming in at 10am and leaving at midnight with 2 hours lunch breaks, 2 hours drinking binges, OT chinese food, and no health insurance while driving my Audi A3 or Volkswagen GTI. Hell yeah, im in, they say. But the truth is, when you start getting close to 40, have a wife, maybe a kid, the lack of security and insurance, merciless hours, the travel, and the general overpaid adolescent lifestyle of it all starts to get to you. Free OT dinners from Baja Fresh and not being able to plan a 2 week vacation 6 months from now at some point takes its toll; even with your 55 inch Samsung flat screen, PS3, and blue ray collection waitingat home. Bottom line is, the other film disciplines have all grown up and CG hasn’t. Too bad it probably wont get the chance because in 10 years all the work will be overseas anyway.

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  10. HA HA HA

    1 day on set with jim = 100 days in a comfy CG cubicle. that guy is known for almost human rights violations in his earlier days.

    get over yourself. you are all uneducated, blue collar workers making a white collar salary and now you want the white collar life. go to harvard if you want a comfy office and vacation time.

    the reason you don’t get paid gobs is because your company pays you – not the studio. and the people running most fx shops are just older versions of you – unfit to be an assistant manager at a hotel let alone a tech giant like google or apple that can turn real profits. even digital domain had to falsify their documents to get VC money and brad call sued the shit out of them and won. so stop complaining and just go play your call of duty with your roommates and be happy.

    as for the older folks..bagging grocery’s at whole foods is more respectable than working in CG after age 35. you want your children knowing you work with people half your age who think that michael bay films are cool and california rolls are exotic? get out while you can.

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  11. unionize & others will control you too.

    answer: make your own movie. take your own risks, reap your own rewards.

    & if you fail, work for someone who has succeeded. capitalism. pure & simple.

    Reply
  12. The biggest problem is that after all these years of VFX being used in virtually every Hollywood film is that it is still treated as an outside post-production process by many producers. It’s high time it be integrated into the art department of studios as an integral part of the creation, preproduction and general workflow from start to finish. A VFX supervisor should be there to support the vision of the director in a similar way as a production designer. I worked on several films that used this model and it was a far less stressful and happier process. We’ve had 100 years of visual effects and we’re still considered as “those guys that come in and do the FX.”

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  13. So smart criticising his fellow workers and doesn’t even know how to spell veteran properly.
    I’ve known a few 10 year “vetarans” in the CG industry that were good talking out of their arses, but today I’ve seen the best of them all.

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  14. Thanks for writing this. I have to say, some of the comments on here are pretty sad. Its strange to hear people place such little value on their own labor. Your labor is a finite commodity and you only have so much to give over the course of your life. Don’t give it away for free to huge corporations that are raking in massive profits. Know your rights and stand up for yourself. There’s nothing wrong with loving working in vfx and wanting to have some job security and decent working conditions. I agree with Frank that it would be great if the VES would get involved in some level on these issues. The VES awards are coming up this month and I hope a few people choose to take time to mention the labor issues and the desperate state of “the business”.

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  15. Amen Matt Amen.
    Just cause you like your job doesn’t mean that your work should be undervalued. The vfx platform is the most lucrative platform in film for the big studios. Many of us were along for the ride of inventing this craft and it’s value determines ours. If vfx is the pot of gold then the artist’s responsible do deserve their contributions being compensated fairly and every employee in a free society has the right to determine and negotiation that value. There is no reason why vfx houses and artists should sit idly by while studios rack in money and refuse spread the wealth. Absolutely none.

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  16. the world is changing my dears. the ideology of ‘entitlement’ is bringing down this country, and is dragging the economy along with it. Did you know that before the restructuring, that 89% of the profit from every car sold by the big three was going to health care and pensions? Poured down a bottomless well so drug companies so old guys can still get it up while eating their super deluxe nachos without heartburn. When will you all learn – no one deserves anything, EVER. Everything is a gift. You would hope that the people you work for would reward you fairly, but if they don’t, you leave – it is that simple. People who don’t do their job well shouldn’t be rewarded the same as those that work hard and try their best – that’s the inequality of your sacred unions. Legacy doesn’t mean anything – quality of work is paramount. People need to get off their lazy American butts and realize WE are responsible for jobs being sent to China or India. Why do big companies outsource? Because American consumers won’t pay for quality products. Everybody wants everything cheap and now, and we are reaping the ‘benefits’ of that.

    So, you all keep bitching and crying to your mommy about how your ‘under appreciated’ and I’m going to get to work.

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  17. Kristen Miller

    Most of the TDs work harder then anyone I know. Those who argue against unions never direct their rants about hard work and responsibility upward, only downward. Without heading too far into politics, I’m sure you believe the current economy is due to lazy lower and middle class people not paying mortgages, and in know way is the fault of the banking industry dealing in high risk activities and capitalizing on record profits that sacrificed long term security for short term windfalls. Unions form when industries systematically take advantage of their workforce. Unions exist in every other segment of movie production. Why? Because those segments all had a history of being taken for granted and had to fight collectively for a fair work environment and fair compensation. The exact same principles apply to the FX industry. Work is heading over seas because large corporations can reap larger profits, its as simple as that. The shops in the FX industry that do happen to be unionized, Dreamworks, Walt Disney Feature Anim, and more recently, ImageMoversDigital provide a greater standard of living for their employees. Coincidence? I suppose you were in favor of the turn of the century practices of employees children to work in manufacturing. Modern children are so lazy it makes me sick, they should get their butts to work mining that coal and welding those bumpers. Large corporations could really turn profits then!

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  18. Kristen Miller,

    In regards to your statements, in particular on entitlement and unions. There are a couple of points to consider.

    1. nothing in Lee’s letter or the following comments are about entitlement or whinning.
    2. It has been abundantly clarified everyone is grateful to be a part of this industry. However as you pointed out times are changing. These changes have opened the floor to a valid and necessary discussion.
    3. Unions: This is a large and convoluted topic and within your ideology there is some validity. However there is a larger picture. If we do some deeper research of their origin in this country we see a lot more contribution and value.
    4. Unions (organized labor) in the U.S. formed shortly after the Great Depression (gd). This development along with government policy created for the first time in the U.S. a middle class. There was not a middle class predating this event. Previously there was only 2 classes the top 1% and the lower class. There was complete income inequality and very few equal rights.
    Unions formed out of everyday working people that were being exploited (not unlike china or other countries we today deem unethical towards working people). These workers organized, voted on their common direction and today referred to as unions still determine the unions directions by vote for the most part. Democracy.
    This organization (union) formed the middle class, other things had a part, but by and large organized labor had the larger effect.
    Soon capitalism became more valuable and plausible. Out of this came our current standard of living, spoils, and way of life. Not only that but the rising class created demand and consumption on unprecedented levels, or possibly “entitlement”. Consumption and demand created industry and development only thru the purchasing power of a middle class. It created our world today and it is unquestionable to me at least it was only possible thru the middle class standard, consumption and ability to rise to a level of recognizable value.
    Had this not developed we would in fact be a third world nation, with a populace majority that would still remain voiceless.
    5. So, would you agree MegaStudios have the right to determine the value or what they are willing to pay for a vfx shot?
    If so are you saying that the vfx studio doesn’t have the right in determining said shots value?
    If that is the case is this a free market or society?
    If you agree that vfx studios should have a say in their products value, then please explain why shouldn’t the artist that is responsible for said products conception and completion have a say in their product (efforts, contribution) value. It seems and I hate when people thru terms like this around, but communist to say you have a job we provided and you gave up your voice by accepting the money so take what we determine you are worth, this is a “gift”.
    This discussion isn’t merely about the artist it is also about the vfx studios being undermined, under valued and exploited. Their contributions as well as are becoming exceedingly lucrative and I don’t understand why all parties should have to cut costs at a time when our value is rising the MegaStudios to unprecedented levels of profit, even by their own admission.
    Please other then the logic that we shouldn’t discuss this cause it is a “gift” we receive for our hard earned abilities and talents that the entity at the top has blessed us by capitalizing and profiting on them, should we not discuss a standard for our value?
    It makes no sense to me why we should except forfeiting our right to determine our value. Especially when it appears artists and vfx houses are being told we have too.
    When were my rights as a businessmen stripped from me? And when were my peers and industries right stripped as well.

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  19. In the past we were paid and treated well but currently the vfx houses that awarded us those standards are being compromised and in turn we are too.
    That is the issue. It is the current movement, being devalued, not a cry of inequality, though industry standard wise there is some inequality involved, yes
    But Vfx houses that took great care of how they treated and respected their artists are being compromised. This in turn is lowering the value of the artist at a time when vfx is the hw gold mine.
    The concern is in the current standard it is the future standard being set by the major studios. It’s not what you are receiving today rather what is being setup to take from you tomorrow. Vfx houses shouldn’t have to struggle as they prove to be the most valuable resource.
    I honestly have benefitted from vfx houses good will and was graciously rewarded as an artists and I have personally witnessed a forced dissolving of their ability to provide incentives in the name of appreciation, in shame and yes I have seen shame on their faces. These houses being compromised want to do right by artists by their chosen standard, but are compromised by the strangle hold the major studios have on them.
    It is obscene that their contributions still leave them unable to retain their dignity and the staff they find most valuable.
    The artists fight , coincides with them at least from my perspective at this point. The major studios providing the access to the work do so cause they are dependent on its value and profitability and presently are exploiting it.
    I have been a valued and respected artist and even with heavy pressure from artist management to retain me, was still let go to bring in cheaper labor only to be called back to salvage the debacle, a scenario my peers, my superiors and artist management all attempted to thwart.
    This all played out within a very respectable top brow company where I was valued respected and highly regarded as a loss among peers management and superiors alike. Merely to meet an unrealistic price in to enable the vfx studio to survive a false crisis set up by the majors.
    Yes you have heard it before and you think I am exaggerating and that is fine. But the point isn’t whoa is me, the point is even with all the efforts and all the respect and all the accomplishment the outcome came down to the vfx studio being unable to retain the ability to proceed with what they deemed a successful venture at least within retaining artists they perceived at the time valuable and even though once they could bring them back after the compromise the trend remains, and the trend, though it may fail, implies a direction for all us and a direction we need to have a part in determining. Because this trend, if it catches, will catch up to you too.
    Point being it isn’t the vfx house that is to blame it is the imaginary concept that the price is to high for vfx.
    It is exploitation that not only cheats the artist but the vfx studio. It is due to the lack of voice and power that a talented and productive work force within a solid proven studio is missing.
    The concept of unionizing (organized labor) also empowers the vfx studio. It empowers them to say this is the standard of the talent pool and we have to meet that. We also being a unionized house have to retain this work force and need to raise our rate to $x to be available to you in the near future.
    One of the biggest problems is studios have to under bid to the point of paying for the labor to complete any given project. This as well leaves them begging and powerless.
    An artist standard provides a vfx a standard as well.
    This is all good for us we are valuable.

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  20. Maybe I don’t understand the problem … or maybe I do.

    As an engineer for the past 30 years, I’ve worked as an salaried employee, an hourly contractor, a fixed price project consultant and ran my own small business. In my early years as a salaried worker the companies expected long work hours when there was a crisis. Eventually I realized that some of those companies made sure there was always a crisis.

    I began to feel abused so what did I do? Did I join a union? Did I organize the other engineers and demand better working hours? No. I just found another job … or created one … and it usually paid better.

    Nobody can abuse me without my cooperation. So that’s the part I just don’t understand. If you’re being abused, quit. Want to help your fellow abused workers, quit. If the company doesn’t change it’s ways then it will be unable to hire good people.

    In fact that happen in a company I had to leave. It got such a bad reputation they couldn’t hire anyone local. They had to bring people in from other states, who often left after the minimum time to avoid paying back the moving allowance.

    The problem I have with organizing and unions is they want to tell you what’s right and what’s wrong. I think I should be able to decide that for myself. I do agree that a guild might be useful. The guild could keep a list of the companies that are okay to work for and those that fall short.

    As far as the work going out of the USA, I’m in favor of free markets. Some years ago I worked for Motorola. They outsourced my job to a company in India. It took me eight months to train my replacements.

    Some in the company said it was unpatriotic for Motorola to send the work out of the country. I ask if it was unpatriotic for an Indian citizen to buy Motorola products?

    I think Us movies bring in a lot of revenue from foreign markets. Why shouldn’t they be eligible to work on those same movies? (Not that anyone here said that they shouldn’t. I’m just anticipating based on what I’ve heard in other venues.)

    You could always start your own studio and show the world how to treat those workers. Lead by example. Many of the costs have come down. There are new ways to distribute media. (Light a candle instead of cursing the dark.)

    Yes, I realize this would be very hard … and I admit it’s unlikely that I have what it takes to do it. But if you do, give me a call. If you treat me right I’d work for you

    Peace,

    Rob:-]

    “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Gandhi

    Reply
  21. I have been waiting to hear someone say this for a long time – so have the vast majority of my colleges. I also heard your great interview on fxpodcast

    http://media.fxguide.com/fxpodcast/fxg-100211-letter_to_JC.mp3

    I would love to donate to somekind of awareness campaign for this subject and especially liked the oscar idea.

    Thanks so much !

    Reply
  22. The problem is bigger then you appear to understand Rob.
    But I will keep it short, the directors enjoy their guild
    The writers enjoy their guild
    The actors enjoy theirs
    the Gaffers etc
    oh and lets not for get the Producers enjoy their guild as well.
    I see no reason why we shouldn’t enjoy the benefits of a guild as well.

    Reply
  23. I admire the way you Americans debate. You respect each other´s opinions, shed light to issues that have hidden corners and allow in this way for educated, well-thought decisions. It is was makes your Nation a great one. I´m a young aspiring artist from Argentina trying to get into the VFX industry. Thanks to everyone for their heart-felt and educated opinions, I found these converging ideas very useful, and can only wish we treat this, or any other subject, the way you guys do, in Argentina. Congrats.

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  24. So whats stopping Vfx Guys from forming a Union or an Association,Group etc start ONE

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  25. What Lead Artist fails to mention is that it’s often not about talent, it’s about how far you can get your nose up the ass of Leads, producers and HR people. Companies are making more and more unusual hiring choices often hiring lesser skilled animators over more skilled ones for obscure political reasons.
    God forbid you should speak out against the globalists and their illegal middle-eastern wars in company newsgroups, there are many sycophantic, sociopathic, globalist sympathisers in control of these companies

    Reply

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