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"This is a war on the middle class"

Prominent VO artist Jennifer Hale says SAG-AFTRA strike is against "giant corporations" rather than "new and smaller developers"

The prominent voice actor Jennifer Hale has emphasised that SAG-AFTRA's strike is targeted at the biggest companies and largest productions, describing the industry's standoff over improved pay and working conditions as, "a war on the middle class."

SAG-AFTRA confirmed the strike last Friday, and a picket line is due to form outside EA's Playa Vista offices today. Over the weekend, Hale, who has Mass Effect and Bioshock among many credits, spoke to NPR about SAG-AFTRA's motives and, more importantly, its targets.

"We're only striking against somewhere around a half a dozen companies," she said. "We've worked very hard to craft an interim agreement that any developer can sign on. It has very friendly terms. It actually has friendlier terms than the existing contract to new and smaller game makers." Hale said that SAG-AFTRA's members are "kind of excited" about those parts of the contract that apply to "new and smaller" developers, "because it allows us to go out and court a whole bunch of new business. These half a dozen giant corporations will have to do what they have to do."

"It's not about a lack of respect for these people... The problem we have is that their position doesn't fit in with this industry"

Scott Witlin

The improved terms that SAG-AFTRA seeks is for the games that can, "go on to make hundreds of millions of dollars, and more." For these, voice actors receive a rate of $825 for a four-hour session, with only a "tiny fraction" - Hale included - who, "have the privilege of negotiating for a little more."

Crispin Freeman, who was a part of the SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee, told NPR that the demand for residual payments would only be triggered by, "a very small number of games" - specifically those that sell more than 2 million units. "This is an important aspect of what it means to be a freelance performer, who has to go from job-to-job - who isn't regularly employed every single day working on projects," Freeman said.

The legal firm representing those companies has made the point that any strike would prove harmful to SAG-AFTRA's members, opening the door for non-union talent to take their work. The voice actor Jay Britton called out one example to this problem on Twitter:

However, Hale insisted that this is a "relatively minor" concern, explaining that there is "a lot of solidarity" within the acting community that has nothing to do with union membership. "Because they recognise that what's at stake is their own ability to buy a home in the future, put their kids through school," Hale said. "This is a war on the middle class."

"We've worked very hard to craft an interim agreement that any developer can sign on...It actually has friendlier terms than the existing contract to new and smaller game makers"

Jennifer Hale

Residual pay is not the only issue - others include vocal stress, the presence of stunt coordinators during motion-capture sessions, and greater transparency around the nature of individual roles - but it does seem to be a sticking point for both sides of the negotiating table. Scott Witlin, a lawyer representing the "half a dozen giant corporations" Hale mentioned, framed SAG-AFTRA's pay demands as out of proportion to the actual contribution of voice actors in the context of how games are made.

According to Witlin, voice talent "represent less than one tenth of 1% of the work that goes into making a video game... Even though they are the top craftsmen in their field, if we pay them under a vastly different system than the people who do the 99.9% of the work, that is going to create far more problems for the video game companies.

"It's not about a lack of respect for these people. My committee loves these people and appreciates the work that they do. They're incredibly talented. The problem we have is that their position doesn't fit in with this industry. It may fit in with other industries but it doesn't work for the video game industry because of the nature of the production and the way these companies are organised."

SAG-AFTRA's members and supporters have been very busy posting on Twitter. You can read more here.

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Latest comments (5)

Hugo Trepanier Game Designer, Behaviour InteractiveA year ago
...voice actors receive a rate of $825 for a four-hour session...
Does that give you the right to complain when you make more in 4 hours than the average (USA) worker makes in a whole week? This is not a good way to obtain the general public's favorable opinion.

There are a lot of reasonable demands at stake, such as the presence of stunt coordinators, full disclosure, better working conditions and such, and I fully support that. However the bit about money seems unjustified (at least with the information presented in this article).
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Ron Dippold Software/Firmware Engineer A year ago
Solidarity's going to be tough when almost nobody else putting in 60-80 hours a week on a game for months and years for the big guys gets any residuals for it. Some performance bonuses if you're really lucky.... Well, you can argue, then maybe they should - which is why EA et al are going to fight this tooth and nail.
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Chris Payne Managing Director & Founder, Quantum Soup StudiosA year ago
Does that give you the right to complain when you make more in 4 hours than the average (USA) worker makes in a whole week?
The average US worker generally has more confidence that they will have employment for the entire week...and the next...and the next. This is why all contract work is more expensive than salaried. Also that's the rate that AAA voice actors are paid, and they are at the top of their field, definitely not average.

Personally, I'm in favour of residuals/royalties/profit sharing. I can see why companies would want a nice clean buyout to simplify the accounting and maximise profits, but it's clearly fairer to apportion profits according to contribution. We'd still have another debate over the relative worth of VO compared to code or art, but at least the disparity would be smaller.

Trouble is, it's not in a company's interest to be fair. Which is why some trades have unions to apply pressure. I'd like to think that devs will be inspired to fight their own corner too, rather than insisting that everyone should endure the same treatment that we've put up with for decades. Of course, now I run my own company I risk becoming part of the problem...
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Paul Jace Merchandiser A year ago
According to Witlin, voice talent "represent less than one tenth of 1% of the work that goes into making a video game... Even though they are the top craftsmen in their field, if we pay them under a vastly different system than the people who do the 99.9% of the work, that is going to create far more problems for the video game companies.
I think a good analogy to this is the Black Eye Peas. While most people know who the Black Eye Peas are as a group, most people only know Will.I.Am and Fergie by name. Meaning, they generally don't buy Black Eye Peas cd's because of the other two guys. That's not meant to be disrespectful to the other two, it's just the way it is.

Similarly, most(none that I know) people don't buy video games for the voice actors, the programmers or the tons of other talented people that make the games. They typically buy it for A(we'll call this Will.I.Am) The popular franchise(Halo, COD, etc) or B(this will be Fergie) it's a big exclusive for their system of choice. There's several other reasons of course, such as price and rather their friends are going to buy it or not. But sadly the voice actors, regardless of how talented they are, really are not why people typically buy video games. And the big video game companies know this which is why they probably won't approve the "residue payment" clause no matter what.

Jennifer Hale and Keith David are my two favorite voice actors easily, but I have never purchased a game because they were in it. Luckily Keith David is usually a part of most Halo games so he'll be in there but that goes back to reason A. And like I said earlier, this is in no way meant to disrespect voice actors. I'm just trying to frame it in the context of where the video game companies are coming from. They want Will.I.Am and Fergie, not the other two guys. But this is why we have unions in the first place. However, that particular clause for residues just seems like it's a losing battle. But I wish both parties luck on a mutual beneficial ending.
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Same problem that most companies have, too much money is funneled to the top, and too little is left to go to the people who actually make and create the product.
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