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Voice actors union voting on strike action

SAG-AFTRA at "a crossroads" following stalled negotiations with game companies

The union representing game voice actors is proposing a strike to break a stalemate in negotiations with the industry's biggest employers, and the cause isn't short of high-profile support.

SAG-AFTRA has been trying to re-negotiate the Interactive Media Agreement, the terms of which were originally set in the mid-Nineties, and which dictates both the treatment and payment of voice actors working in the games industry.

"We decided to take the high road and approach negotiations reasonably"

The aim is to, "bring this long-standing agreement into the 21st Century," but progress has been slow. The first meeting - with companies including EA, Activision, Disney and Warner Bros. - took place on February 2 this year, but the, "polite and spirited back and forth," yielded no hard results. A second meeting, on June 23, also hit a wall.

The vote on whether to strike opened on September 16. It will close on October 4, but there is no shortage of support on Twitter.

SAG-AFTRA has four key demands - summarised here - relating to several areas of the profession. It wants stunt co-ordinators to be present at sessions that include motion and performance capture, and greater transparency on the role being offered and what the job will actually involve. It is also asking for "stunt pay" for "vocally stressful" roles, similar to the compensation screen actors receive for physically taxing roles.

"These proposals are completely without precedent in the entertainment industry and we believe they are reckless and ill-advised"

A sticking point may be its demands around residual payments for completed work. These royalty payments are standard practice in other forms of acting, but SAG-AFTRA contends that, "they've historically been extremely difficult to achieve in this contract... It is simply the idea that, if a video game is wildly successful, actors should share in its financial success." The proposal is that "a reasonable performance bonus" be paid when a game reaches 2 million copies (physical and digital) sold, then further bonuses at increments of 2 million up to a cap of 8 million copies.

"We looked at the 100 top-selling games of the past two years and found that of the games with sales numbers that would trigger a secondary payment under this proposal - the "blockbusters" - the penetration of union performers is nearly 100 percent," the organisation said. "That's why we positioned our 'ask' at 2 million copies - it's where most games start to turn a profit, and it's where all the union talent is found."

One of the potential issues is that SAG-AFTRA makes no distinction between game types, suggesting that bonuses for work on, say, a free-to-play PC game also be awarded under the same structure. As anyone working on such a project would know, 2 million downloads does not represent the same level of success as 2 million units sold at retail

"If we stand together, we can achieve our goals. Unity is our greatest strength"

SAG-AFTRA also addressed the demands issued by the game companies - the complete version can be found here - which it described as, "completely without precedent in the entertainment industry," and, "reckless and ill-advised."

The organisation has taken particular exception to the proposal of a $2,500 fine for being, "[inattentive] to the services for which [you] have been engaged," and a fine of between $50,000 and $100,000 related to agents declining to send their clients to certain auditions. The game companies also wish to exclude motion and performance capture work from the contract, so that they can use their own employees as substitutes.

"That's the package we have proposed. It's not loaded with any crazy demands. We decided to take the high road and approach negotiations reasonably, with principled requests based on contractual precedent and performer input, and then stick to our guns.

Thanks VG247.

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Latest comments (18)

Rafa Ferrer Localisation Manager, Red Comet Media3 years ago
As a voice acting service provider and director for Spanish, and although I don't agree with a couple points (F2P game installs and retail sales should indeed be distinguished when measuring success), what I find of the utmost importance for our work, and it has nothing to do with rates or rights but with the final quality of the localised game, is the transparency issue. From the 4 key demands linked in the article:
Our proposal is that we need to know more about the projects that we’re working on. We propose that the actual title of the project should be made available [...] You wouldn’t work on a TV show, commercial or film without knowing what part you’re playing and how it fits into the story, yet we are asked over and over again to do just that in interactive media. [...] We deserve to clearly know what we’re getting into before we commit to a role in a game.
Most directors and actors come from advertising/movies/TV and don't have a gaming background that allows them to detect context, so they usually don't have a clue as to where a line of dialogue may end up in a game, especially when we get them in no particular order (I'm talking about structured dialogues, not wild lines that trigger upon cursor clicks). An example that made it to the specialised games press in Spain: The well-known voice talent who dubbed Scott Shelby in Heavy Rain still doesn't know if he was playing the good, the bad or the ugly. Yet, he managed to make a wonderful job, but this is not always the case when you don't know much about the character you're voicing and the story you're telling.
So please, please, devs and publishers who read this - context is key when performing, please make an effort to provide as much as you can. Quality skyrockets when we do have it, especially in smaller projects where studios care a lot for the final result.

Sorry for the rant, it's not every day that I get an excuse to bring up this topic on GamesIndustry.biz :)
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Start paying programmers, artists, designers royalties in our industry... then I will worry about the external voice talent.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development3 years ago
@Jason: Here, here.

Creatives in other industries would blanch and pass out if they saw what we have to put up with as a matter of course. This kind of "news" really pisses me off tbh, mostly down to jealousy.
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Show all comments (18)
...And this is why game developers need a union! Good for the voice actors; I hope they get the contract terms they want.
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Chris Reeves 2D Artist, 4J Studios3 years ago
Best of luck to the voice actors, they're in a much better position to collectively bargain than most young game developers because they're not as easily replaced.

I don't think envy of and disdain towards people in other sectors of our industry making the best of their situation helps anything at all. The constant supply of fresh labour means any new starter developer is in a very precarious employment position. If people want the benefits associated with collective bargaining, those with the experience and the negotiating sway need to step up and stand up for the little guys and us new guys need to join in.

Given the naturally adversarial nature of union organisation against employers, I'd suggest following comments by CEOs be taken with mountains of salt.
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Richard Browne Head of External Projects, Digital Extremes3 years ago
It simply won't happen. SAG/AFTRA performers are in a huge minority of all voiceover work, and while performance matters it doesn't sell video games. Just means all vo will be done non- union amd no one will notice.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Richard Browne on 24th September 2015 5:25am

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Something tells me a couple people would notice if Jennifer Hale was replaced as the voice of Shepard in Mass Effect. She's recieved a lot of praise for her VO work(as she should!) and the fans are very fond of her. Replacing her with a non-union actor would be a PR disaster!
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 3 years ago
Start paying programmers, artists, designers royalties in our industry... then I will worry about the external voice talent.
Creatives in other industries would blanch and pass out if they saw what we have to put up with as a matter of course. This kind of "news" really pisses me off tbh, mostly down to jealousy.
Why can we not start small, as a means of improving this industry? If union VO talent make inroads into the games-industry, then who knows where it'll lead? Maybe if more people gave a damn about working conditions of VO, they'd also give a damn about royalties for programming staff, bonuses that aren't tied to Metacritic, and working conditions during crunch? Maybe having Hollywood talent in the industry would raise the bar across the board? Maybe, instead of pulling other people down we should pull our industry up?
It is also asking for "stunt pay" for "vocally stressful" roles, similar to the compensation screen actors receive for physically taxing roles.
Considering the contortions Mark Hamill puts his voice through for the Joker, I think this is fair.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 24th September 2015 2:42pm

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Rafa Ferrer Localisation Manager, Red Comet Media3 years ago
@Jason
Start paying programmers, artists, designers royalties in our industry... then I will worry about the external voice talent.
Go make it happen, then, instead of despising other professionals in our industry for not waiting in line in your order of preference, especially the ones that can teach you a thing or two about standing their ground for decades in radio, movies and TV. Why not thank them for setting precedents for you to use?

EDIT: Dang! Morville and his usual, much more diplomatic fashion beat me both in speed and elegance... *waves fist in anger* :-)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Rafa Ferrer on 24th September 2015 11:48am

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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 3 years ago
EDIT: Dang! Morville and his usual, much more diplomatic fashion beat me both in speed and elegance... *waves fist in anger* :-)
Sorrrrrrrrryyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy. :p
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Keldon Alleyne Strategic Keyboard Basher, Avasopht Development3 years ago
and while performance matters it doesn't sell video games
It is the understanding of why this is untrue that made Metal Gear such a successful franchise.
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Richard Browne Head of External Projects, Digital Extremes3 years ago
Jessica - I think you under appreciate that non-union actors can be equally good if well directed, not to mention that many SAG/AFTRA actors will work non-union on exemptions. Would Mass Effect be a noticeably worse game with a different performance? No.

Keidon what on Earth are you talking about? You think Metal Gear would be unsuccessful without David Hayter? Give me a break.
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I have no doubt that non-union actors are just as talented as those who are part of a union, but my point stands that Jennifer Hale is a very well-known actor whose performance over three previous games has cemented her in the minds of many fans as the definitive (female)Shepard. Replacing her in the next Mass Effect instalment with a cheaper non-union actor, no matter how talented and brilliant they are, would upset a lot of fans and look rather bad for EA/Bioware. If the next Avengers movie replaced Robert Downey Jr with any other actor simply because the production company would rather pay someone else less, there would be outrage amongst fans of the series.

Your suggesting that creative talent is simply interchangeable if one happens to be inconveniently demanding better working conditions and pay is an insult to all of us who work in this industry and feel that we each make unique contributions to the projects we work on, no matter how small. Given that I have been in a similar situation as Hale and her peers are now, except that I was on my own with no union to back me up, I have nothing but sympathy for their position.
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Nick McCrea Gentleman, Pocket Starship3 years ago
To be fair, Richard doesn't seem to be suggesting precisely what you say he's suggesting, rather he's pointing out the realities of the rather weak bargaining position they have. I'd totally agree with him on that, and that's not casting aspersions on people's talent.

The reality is, I think, that voice talent in games is not remotely a driver of commercial success in anything like the same way as, to use your example, RDJ is to Marvel / Disney. That's not to say it's unappreciated, or that it doesn't have a following. But I think it's probably fair to say that in most cases, *particular* voice talent doesn't change the commercial arc of a given game by very much. And given that there's plenty of non-union talent, I would rate their chances of success as rather low.

Note that this is not a position either for or against unionisation of the industry, merely a reflection on the likelihood of success of this particular action.
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Keldon Alleyne Strategic Keyboard Basher, Avasopht Development3 years ago
Keidon what on Earth are you talking about? You think Metal Gear would be unsuccessful without David Hayter? Give me a break.
No, not David Hayter but the understanding of performance.

It's the difference between the thinking that says, "Tom Cruise, yeah he's a top actor, he can sell tickets, let's go," and the perceptive director who on the other hand would say, "well actually what we need is a character with a warm and resonant vocal tone to compliment Kidman' s cold and syncopated rhythm in this movie to build the right type of tension."

Watch how Ang Lee gave a single instruction to Kate Winslet that seemed counter productive, "pretend there is a wall at this particular point that you are not allowed to cross." It's this level of insight creatives have on emotion, expression and aesthetic that the uninitiated just cannot perceive. Some people can only perceive metrics.
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Richard Browne Head of External Projects, Digital Extremes3 years ago
Jessica I totally agree, Keldon likewise - but what you are talking about is CHANGE not talent or appeal. Clearly people didn't like the change from Hayter to Sutherland but even then its hard to argue its effected sales at all let alone markedly. You change a lead actor in a movie series or TV series its jarring, games are no different. But voiceover talent in no way drives revenues in the vast majority of work ; therefore there's no basis to offer residuals.

There are exceptions to this. You get star talent and use them as that they should get a royalty ; it happens, those deals are cut on a case by case basis.
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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend3 years ago
I wasn't going to comment on this article because it will be a biased opinion (due to my position), but I will add my thoughts on it before it falls down the site list regardless.

I don't think voice actors, artists, coders, designers or anyone else in the development cycle should receive royalties of any form. It is totally unworkable and should not be entertained in any way by any companies IMO. This may sound a little harsh, but there are good reasons why the industry (and many others) don't pay royalties to individuals who work on projects (there are always exceptions to the rule of course). I won't go into it because some of the reasons have been mentioned.

Saying that though; I firmly believe in treating and paying your staff well (this means normal 8 hour days, paid overtime, leave, medical care etc), and if the game makes a good profit in the first 6 months, I would expect to give generous one time bonuses to all staff who worked on the project. The other equally good way is to give your employees shares after a set time working for a company which kind of work a little bit like royalties, but not specifically tied to one product. If they help build a company up then I believe they should share in the rewards when it does well.

Traditional royalties are not the right way to go IMO, there are far better ways we can reward staff and not endanger the company in the process.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Darren Adams on 24th September 2015 10:12pm

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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 3 years ago
@Jessica

Since Shephard is dead, and confirmed to not be in Mass Effect 4. I doubt Hale will affect sales in the slightest.

Did you even play the game?

i find it disappointing that the GTA4 revolt hasn't even been mentioned. Michael Hollick was essentially blacklisted for shaming Rockstar that he took less than SAG minimum for a single movie lead for what amounted to about three movies of work, and had he gotten residuals he would have pocketed $10-15 million on the first week's take alone had it been a feature film. Lord of the Rings was non-Union, and they made 3-5x what he did, and that's before they did get royalties for the Merch, and before New Line was later shamed into kicking back $7 million each to the fellowship.

One thing to remember is that Hollywood is infamous that "no movie ever makes money". The Harry Potter supporting children had to sue to get their Order of the Phoenix money (because it didn't make money scraping a billion dollar box office). Residules keep actors with a roof over their head between jobs, and ALL people who work on a movie should fairly share in its success. That $50 my friends get when their movie shows on TV buys groceries. Everyone in these transient businesses deserves that kind of opportunity to keep the lights on.

I suggest everyone watch "That Guy Who Was in that thing", and it's new companion "that gal". It's a great look at successful actors and their real lives and experiences. The people you see all over tv and movies all the time by and large aren't rich. It's shocking how many of them live in apartments despite being a regular on a multi season hit tv series.

Everyone deserves fair union representation, and nothing in the SAG demands are unreasonable. Sadly, I really wonder if thr game companies, and more importantly their customers care in sufficiently large numbers to move the needle. SAG should offer to conduit their way to AAA talent, I felt Kevin Spacey really upped the ante in COD last year, and this is exactly the kind of thing that opens doors for performance capture artists as well. Andy Serkis has lost out on 3-4 Oscar nominations because the powers that be don't see it as "real acting". Would they be saying that when their peers are doing it in a n epic game?

Best of luck to all seeking union representation, regardless of your discipline

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jeff Kleist on 28th September 2015 8:05pm

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