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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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Matthew Handrahan

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Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.

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