It's the suspenseful thriller that has had people on the edge of their seats for over a week now: The Bankruptcy of Digital Domain. CEO John Textor's resignation on September 6, followed shortly by the company's bankruptcy announcement, was so sudden that newly-hired DDMG employees awoke to the shocking news that their jobs had vanished overnight. Employees aren't the only ones still reeling from the announcement: financial backers such as NFL great Dan Marino have reportedly been hit with losses in the millions.
In 2010, West Palm Beach, Florida deeded $10 million in land so Digital Domain could bring an animation institute to their city – despite the company not meeting any of the initial qualifications for said project. Needless to say, the project tanked along with the company. Investors demanded that Digital Domain show proof that they could stay afloat for another 12 months – presumably to buy time in the hope of recouping some of the losses incurred. Even as recently as last Tuesday, when Digital Domain's public shares closed at 55 cents, there was speculation of a possible sale of the company, which was received with anxiety and shock by any who put money into organization (for the initial impact of this announcement, you should read Kristy Barkan's breaking story from last week).
So where did things turn south, and what exactly happened that led Digital Domain to file for bankruptcy?
Digital Domain was founded in 1993 by James Cameron, Scott Ross and Stan Winston. The company would go on to provide special effects for dozens of blockbuster movies, including Titanic, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Transformers, The Avengers, and even the upcoming adaptation of Ender's Game. By all rights, what Digital Domain delivered were groundbreaking visual effects the likes of which had never been experienced by audiences, and the Box Office numbers reflected that.
The problem, according to speculators, was that Digital Domain tried to expand too quickly, and made some poor decisions in a very short period of time. Keep in mind that Digital Domain has only been a public company for 10 months, and in that window, they managed to say “yes” to a number of things which ended up bleeding the company dry. Digital Domain agreed to help run studios in China as well as Abu Dhabi. They also agreed to financially back films, rather than just provide their expertise in special effects. Thirdly, Digital Domain decided to open an animation studio, as well as a college for visual effects and animation (which is where the property from West Palm Beach comes into play).
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Primary VFX vendor Digital Domain
Over the summer, Digital Domain took out emergency loans that primarily went to cover their payroll, and a few of their financial losses due to overextending their reach. By the time September rolled around, the company had over $14 million in debt, with another $50.7 million in losses by the end of Q2 2012. Digital Domain then made the decision to file for Chapter 11 in Delaware and place the company up for sale. New York firm Outten & Golden is currently suing Digital Domain on behalf of their employees, but they are by no means the only ones out for their fair pound of flesh from the company. The city of West Palm Beach, high profile investors such as Dan Marino, and many others are lining up in Delaware before Digital Domain closes its doors for good.
This certainly didn't sit well with investors, who demanded that Digital Domain provide a plan to keep the company afloat for the next year so that backers could make back some of the money they poured into this metaphorical Titanic. Since the initial Chapter 11 filing, court rulings and in-house decisions have pushed the official sale of Digital Domain back to September 21st. This gives the company more time to weigh offers from such as Searchlight Partners LP, among others.
The cautionary tale of Digital Domain's financial downfall is by no means complete. The company has not been sold, and more factors contributing to the company's crisis are being uncovered each day. However, Digital Domain should serve as a warning to newly public companies that they should not try to leverage niche expertise against decisions that could jeopardize operations, nor should a company make agreements simply because they can.
We will endeavor to bring you more updates regarding Digital Domain as they come to light.
Benjamin Button image copyright © Warner Bros. Pictures
Correction Note: This article initially listed the sale date of DDMG as "sometime in October," which has been updated to reflect the scheduled auction date of 9/21/2012. Apologies for any confusion.