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Prominent Voice Actor Says Publishers Unwilling To Negotiate Proposed Fee, Condition Changes

by Mike Futter on Sep 23, 2015 at 01:42 PM

Yesterday, a number of well-known voice actors began sharing their decisions to vote in favor of a strike called by the SAG-AFTRA union. Given the high-profile nature of voice work in the gaming industry, this issue has become important for those in creative roles, as well as for customers.

There is currently a media blackout to which both the union and publisher representatives have agreed. Today, I had the opportunity to speak with a prominent voice actor that shared another perspective on the negotiations.

Because of the blackout and his union status (which we verified), we are honoring his request for anonymity. All we can tell you is: You are likely familiar with his work across mediums.

We need to be clear that we've reached out to the publishers named by the union as part of the collective bargaining process (WB, Disney, Activision, and EA). WB told us that it doesn't plan to comment. Activision and Disney reached out to acknowledge our request, but haven't yet responded. EA has not yet responded. We also reached out to a number of publishers not named, but clearly have a stake in this issue.

We also do not put this forward as the comprehensive overview of the ongoing contract dispute. We likely won't have enough detail until the media blackout is lifted. This is an attempt to offer another perspective to help readers understand this issue, especially as we highlighted statements from a developer earlier today.

During our conversation with our source, I got a quick history of recent events that led to SAG-AFTRA proposing a strike to its membership. As we reported yesterday, the groups met a number of times. Most recently, the parties agreed to an open negotiation, in which SAG members could attend.

“There was zero chance for something to be lost in translation or person-to-person, because the meeting that happened most recently was an open negotiation,” our source says. “There were 55 card-carrying interactive actors, people who have worked a long time, sitting in on the negotiation. We watched the producers and their lawyer and the SAG negotiating committee and their counsel present proposals, and we watched them say right back, ‘We don’t want to listen to any of that.’”

According to our union source, the publishers were unwilling to listen to SAG-AFTRA’s proposal at all. “[The union] sat down and put out their proposal and the producers and employers said, ‘We’re not prepared to entertain or listen to any proposals you have, and furthermore, we’d only like to entertain these three proposals that we have.’”

Much of the conversation since we reported on the potential strike yesterday has been about a proposal for back-end payments (also called residuals). “It’s a pretty hot topic. Performance bonus, which is what we put forth in our proposal, is only part of what we asked for,” the actor says. “Performance bonus, secondary compensation, residuals, whatever you want to call it, the opinion varies vastly across the union. There are a lot of people for it and a lot of people very strongly against it. There are a lot of us, myself included, when the performance bonus came up, knew they weren’t going to do that. I don’t think the industry is prepared for that. But if the majority of the union has a curiosity about it and wants to push for it and have that dialogue, that’s what the union has to ask. We might not get it, but that’s fine.”

Our source told me multiple times that this is not a one-issue conversation. He assured me that the back-end payments are not the core of what the union wants to discuss. “No one is striking over just residuals alone. We just want the chance to go back to the table and talk in a way that opens up the dialogue,” he says. “It makes me sick that you have to go the lengths of calling for a strike authorization for someone to go, ‘Ok. We realize you’re serious and unified. Now we can have a conversation about what we can both walk away with and be happy about.’”

The other issues at play are of equal or greater importance to some SAG-AFTRA members, including our source. Issues of vocal safety (the source of voice actors’ livelihoods) and stunt coordinators on set are serious concerns for many members of the union, according to our source.

“[The union] wanted to address vocal stress for very long VO sessions. They wanted to address the matter of stunt coordinators being involved,” he says. “Not all actors are comfortable with a hard wooden sword being swung at your head. Not even the small issues, let alone the large ones were able to be discussed. After a year, we said, ‘What’s our recourse if we can’t even sit down at the table and talk?’ It was determined that calling for a strike authorization was the only way to show a) we are serious, b) we are unified, and c) we really wanted to have a conversation.“

SAG-AFTRA points to a number of issues in play on the publisher side that are of concern. These include fines and potential loss of union charter for noncompliance. Our source believes that these might be part of the publisher proposal as bargaining chips.

“Basically, any reason you’re distracted, whether by phone, by book, or by bug running across the floor, whatever they would determine as ‘not invested’ could result in a fine,” he says. ”One of the other proposals is if an agency doesn’t send actors to audition for smaller contracts or one-hour sessions, they could lose their SAG charter and be fined $50,000 - $100,000. That’s certainly got the agents’ attention. What we think those are, are publishers proposing things they think are reasonable, but are equally extravagant in nature to our extravagant proposal of a performance bonus.”

In collective bargaining, it’s not uncommon for both sides to have requests that stretch what the other party might consider reasonable. These exist, in part, as items that can be removed from the table as a show of good faith.

Despite the current tension between the union and developers, evidenced today by statements made by Far Cry 4 director Alex Hutchinson, our source says that actors empathize.

“In seeing those comments today, it worried me that the developers might not know how much sympathy the actors have for the developers’ process,” he says. “We’ve worked on so many games and been to so many offices and made friends with so many different departments within those offices. We realize how many developers spend their every waking hour at the office, sleep at the office, have a child during the process of the game. We know and empathize with everything that was said. We think they deserve everything they want and more. If the developers don’t get a bonus before the actors do, then the system might be broken, but we also think they should have the ability to ask for it an organized way. They have every right to do that.”

Our source told me that because of his friendships with developers at studios he’s worked with, he hopes that they can eventually get past the hard feelings evidenced today by Hutchinson’s comments. For that to happen though, the publishers would need to entertain a conversation with the union. “It was nothing more than them saying, ‘We’re calling your bluff. We don’t think that you guys are organized enough or have enough solidarity,’” he says.

With a strike vote underway, we’re watching how this situation unfolds with anticipation as the October 5 deadline draws near. According to our source, a job stoppage isn’t the best result. “Nobody wants that. We don’t want that,” he says. “We just want to be able to talk.”