The Reality of the SAG-AFTRA Voice Actors Strike

There’s more than money at stake.

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The video game voice actors in the SAG-AFTRA union are on strike, trying to secure a set of revised terms and conditions for their new contracts, after their old agreement expired. This matters because it impacts the production of high-profile AAA titles that you’re more than likely looking forward to seeing release. What’s at stake is more than the salaries and wages these voice artists make – it’s about putting a renewed focus on their personal well-being and health in their long-term careers. It’s also a battle of definition – are video games technology or are they entertainment? The eleven big video game companies that are the targets of the strike are having a difficult time understanding the position the union is in, with regards to the specific demands being made. With the industry raking in over $20 billion a year and climbing, the executives see no reason to modernize and update the contract involved here.

In this video you’ll see (or hear) a few of the VAs that are involved in this protest.

The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), is a labor union that merged the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (two separate union groups that were made in the 1930s), together as of March 2012. An overall timeline of that period is available on the union’s website. But video games had come into play since the 1990s, when characters were limited to making noises and grunts, and the odds of getting full dialogue was less likely than today. The first SAG-AFTRA Interactive Contract was written in 1994 and fairly limited in scope. The record shows that AFTRA had brokered a deal with Electronic Arts in February of that year. Fast forward to 2015 and 2016, and the video game industry is all grown up with total revenues hit $23.5 billion according to Fortune.

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The current strike situation didn’t come as a surprise, as the group voted to set things in motion back in February 2015 after the previous Interactive Media Agreement that video game voice actors were working under expired at the end of 2014. To get a sense of some of these initial proposals that video game producers responded with to SAG-AFTRA, you can read that here. At the time this document became public, the union stated that the usage of non-professionals, along with reduced reuse fees and integration costs was “completely without precedent in the entertainment industry and we believe they are reckless and ill-advised.”

Another meeting took place during the summer, and by October 2015 a strike authorization vote was passed by an overwhelming majority of SAG-AFTRA members. A post from Wil Wheaton’s website on September 23rd of that year helped shed some light on how ugly the negotiations had gotten in the past months. The employers at video game companies had rejected the proposals to reduce vocally stressful sessions, and allegedly wanted control over franchise agreements with agents if they didn’t send out actors to enlist in specific auditions.

Our employers want to be able to fine you $2,500 if you show up late or are not “attentive to the services for which [you] have been engaged.” This means you could be fined for almost anything: checking an incoming text, posting to your Twitter feed, even zoning out for a second. If a producer feels you are being “inattentive,” they want the option to fine you $2,500.

The online hashtag #performancematters was created in order to spread public awareness of the cause. Jim Sterling did a video on it too.

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The negotiation efforts between the SAG-AFTRA union and group of video game companies would be entrenched for the following year.

On October 20th 2016, there was news of a last-ditch agreement effort by video game companies. A federal moderator had to be called in to try and ease the situation, but it was to no avail. According to Deadline, talks between the two groups had broken down over the terminology used in payment agreements. Bumping up the wage from $825 to $950 was defined by the video game company negotiation representative as “additional compensation,” but the Union called it a “residuals buyout” instead. The distinct differentiation had implications that would bring the payment model used throughout the video game industry into question. The line of thinking is – if voice actors got residuals, then the rest of the development team should get them too. That 9 percent wage hike came under the condition that SAG-AFTRA ratified the offer by December of this year as part of a “Comprehensive Revised and Enhanced Final Package Proposal,” but union leaders left the mediation and ultimately refused that proposition.

When the clock struck midnight on October 21st, a formal strike began. As outlined on SAG-AFTRA’s webpage, the following companies are under a work boycott: Activision Publishing, Inc., Blindlight LLC, Corps of Discovery Films, Disney Character Voices Inc., Electronic Arts Productions Inc., Formosa Interactive LLC, Insomniac Games Inc., Interactive Associates Inc.,  Take 2 Interactive Software, VoiceWorks Productions Inc., WB Games Inc. This applies specifically to production work that began after Feb. 17, 2015.

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Scott J. Witlin is the lead lawyer that’s representing the video game company side of the conflict.  They took the empathetic approach of claiming that a strike would damage the labor union themselves, and give their non-union competitors an advantage while this happens. They gave a lengthy statement of their side of the matter to the press.

The existing contract between Video Game Companies and SAG-AFTRA pays all performers more than $100 an hour plus benefits and most performers many times that. The Companies’ current proposals on the negotiation table includes wage increases for most performers and additional avenues for compensation that could yield many hundreds of dollars more in payments for limited integration and ratification bonuses. Although the Companies have had only one report of workplace injury due to vocal stress, the Companies have continued to look to ways to reduce the burdens on performers in this area through the more flexible work scheduling and other innovative work arrangements.

On Monday, protestors showed up at Electronic Arts offices in Playa Vista, California. SAG-AFTRA put out a statement that addressed the offer that video game companies put forward.

Their attempt to characterize their offer to make “additional compensation” payments at the time of session as equivalent to our “contingent compensation” proposal is disingenuous and misleading. These employers know full well that our issue is the creation of secondary payments that allow our members to share in the success of the most successful games. The employers’ offer purposely does not do that.

The gridlock is between one side that wants to primarily throw money at the problem, and another that wants to ensure stability and security for their careers.To explore what that means, we need to explore each of the terms of the goal agreement that SAG-AFTRA is looking for.

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Their demands are:

Vocal Stress: limiting intense recording sessions to two hours at a time. this is meant to address the well-being of the VA after doing sessions that require they scream their lungs out, and push their voices to their limits. These concerns are outlined in a letter published by SAG-AFTRA in May 2016, they wrote to California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA). The summary of their findings, after exploring the issue with vocal cord health experts was that the potential medical problems “include vocal nodules, cysts, polyps and, in some cases, cord hemorrhaging.” By allowing the VA to take a break every few hours, it helps prevent these effects from cropping up.

I asked Jamie McGonnigal (a VA with dozens of 4Kids and Funimation credits to his name) to explain the situation in straightforward terms.

“Musicians have instruments. If their guitar breaks a string, they can replace it. If their tuba encounters a horrible accident, they can get a new one. When we damage our vocal cords, it is very frequently permanent and our careers can be over. You can compare it to an athlete who breaks a leg or has a spinal cord injury. It would be one thing if we were doing a book-on-tape and reading Jane Austen. That’s simply not the case in most video games. Most games involve fighting, screaming, dying, shouting, etc.. Those aren’t sounds our vocal cords are designed to make regularly. Currently, voice actors in the union have to do this for 4 hours at a time. Training helps with that, so that we’re making those sounds in a “healthful” fashion – but nothing about it is actually “healthy”, it’s all causing damage to our instrument. Limiting the number of hours for extremely stressful sessions in a day is vital to us being able to recover, heal, and have the ability to record again the next day.”

Stunt Coordinator on Performance Capture Volume: If you want to get a sense of how far “vocally stressful” work can go, Performance Capture in itself demonstrates the extent of that. Voice acting work has evolved beyond what’s just in the booth. The advancements in technology have allowed for body movements to be recorded in addition to vocals. Look at Behind the Scenes videos for The Last of Us, or inFAMOUS Second Son, and Bioshock Infinite. All the running and jumping the characters do in video games today more often than not has its roots in a production set, with real people acting it out. Seemingly mundane things like facial movements and expressions are also at play as well – taking someone’s real face and digitizing it for a character in a virtual world. In cases like Beyond: Two Souls, the amount of deeply active motion capture work that was involved over an extended period of recording time makes it a necessity to minimize the risks involved to the actors. If you consider things like Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed movie which had a stunt guy performing a LEAP OF FAITH IN REAL LIFE, you can see the possibilities for stunts these days is limitless.

Transparency: in an age of media where we can tell any kind of story imaginable, VAs want more specifications as to the context of their gig. SAG-AFTRA requests that the title of the project and the role being hired for be made known to the actor before signing a contract deal. The way that VA work is arranged currently involves a layer of obscurity from the developers, despite the fact that the actors sign NDAs that prohibit them from sharing details about the projects they get involved in.

To get a better idea of the process, I talked with Jennifer Hale (a voice actress known for her Mass Effect FemShep, as well as World of Warcraft, Halo 5, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor… go and look at her IDMB and you’ll see the hundreds of productions she’s involved in) what it’s like to book a voice acting job in today’s industry.

Their agent tells them when a potential job offer comes up, and sides (practice material) is studied while auditions are set-up. Voice actors drive to and from auditions in order to try and land the part. But they’re doing it for free, in a cycle that could typically take anywhere from 8-20 attempts before getting a result. When they finally book a gig, that’s when they actually get script details. But voice directors only provide them with a quick and general framework, leading to them jumping around the script as necessary while recording the VA’s part. If it was an animation and film job, the overall script would be linear throughout its pages. But with how video game narratives are set-up, they use inches of thickness instead of pages to define the length of it. Something as intricate and expansive as a video game title makes it harder to get a sense of the big picture from the script alone. Transparency makes a big difference. Not just to guarantee an actor is doing something they’re politically or religiously comfortable with, but in terms of understanding the amount of work that’s demanded of them throughout the project. Video game development pipelines face other complications too, and VAs might be put on hold while matters are sorted. This can create scheduling conflicts and other issues for the VA if not handled carefully.

NPR did an article that puts the Transparency issue into practice.

Another major complaint from the actors is the secrecy of the industry. “I can’t imagine if there’s any other acting job in the world, where you don’t know what show you’re in, when you’re hired,” says voice actor Keythe Farley, who chairs the SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee.

“And yet that happens every day in the video game world,” Farley told reporters during a press conference Friday. “I was a main character in Fallout 4, a character by the name of Kellogg, and I never knew, that I was working on Fallout 4 throughout the year and a half that I did vocal recording for that game. You show up, there’s a stack of scripts on a music stand with your lines only.”

Secondary Compensation: this point is the one everyone is focusing on primarily. The last Interactive Media Agreement has a rate of $825 for a four hour session of work. The common misconception people make is assuming these sessions are full-time and on a regular basis. They’re not.  What it boils down to is VAs asking for their fair share of the reward for a successful video game title.  For every two million copies sold, or two million subscribers to an online-only game (capping that mark at eight million), they want to be paid for that. The amount they’re asking for is union-scale, which means $800 per bonus increment. Robert Bowling, former Infinity Ward Creative Strategist, wrote a medium article talking about this. He highlights how fair compensation as outlined by the VAs should be recognized for all the developers on a team as well.

I talked to actress Corina Boettger (who had supporting roles in movies such as Akeelah and the Bee, and appearances in television shows like My Name is Earl and Glee), about why this compensation change matters. Her resume includes video game voice acting work as well – she can be heard in Megadimension Neptunia VII, and she’s had a first-hand experience of the full gambit of what acting is like.

“We will make $800 in one day but we might have to make that $800 last for months. Most of us go week, months, sometimes even years without booking a project.That’s the reason the bonus payment is important. Being an actor is not cheap. I spend $500 a month on classes so I can compete with everyone else. Every 2 years I spend 1,000 on new headshots. Every few years I spend anywhere from 2,000-6,000 on a new demo reel so I don’t seem stale to casting. Right now I am getting one video game a year, that doesn’t cover those costs at all not to mention my living expenses. Now anyone could say ‘just get another job’ but I love what I do. I have been a professional actor since I was 8 years old doing theatre in Seattle. This is what I live for. But anyone, no matter what the job, deserves to make enough money to survive.”

It’s about the quality of life for the VA both on the job and between jobs. If you wanted to hear the reasoning behind these points, voice actor Steve Blum talks about it in detail here. The industry is more demanding of what they want out of a voice actor’s skill set, and SAG-AFTRA wants to make sure a job goes smoothly. The part that Jennifer Hale was looking forward to the most ( at the end of my phone conversation with her) was a new contract agreement proposal that SAG-AFTRA is putting forward in the near future.

In Regards to LA Weekly

My attention to this matter occurred when Dennis Romero of LA Weekly wrote about it recently. In his article, originally titled “Voice Actors Make Crazy Money, but They’re on Strike for More,” he made an attempt at discussing the SAG-AFTRA situation at hand.

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There are a few mistakes that were made by Dennis. In the opening section of the piece, Romero uses median values to describe the cost of living in Los Angeles. But when it comes to annual wages he uses the average value instead. The reason why this is misleading is due to the fact that statistical outliers exist when calculating an average. Whereas if Dennis used medians in that case, we’d get a more accurate depiction as to the state of affairs. The reality is the average member of the Screen Actors Guild makes $52,000 a year, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

Is that sustainable? Far from it.

You need to earn at least $33 an hour — $68,640 a year — to be able to afford the average apartment in Los Angeles County, according to Matt Schwartz, president and chief executive of the California Housing Partnership, which advocates for affordable housing.

Dennis Romero made mention of workplace diversity at the end of his LAWeekly piece. He’s the first person to do so, as this had never been a talking point with the protests beforehand. Reason being – a union is meant to protect the workers of an industry, and isn’t in charge of the hiring practices there-in. 

As stated on their website:

SAG-AFTRA EEO & Diversity Department monitors discriminatory employment practices, including sexual harassment, and works to increase opportunities for its diverse pool of members.  In addition to enforcing and strengthening non-discrimination provisions in collective bargaining agreements, the Department provides support, counsel and strategic advice to members, administrative and technical assistance to support policies, programs and initiatives aimed at diversifying the entertainment and news media, and is a vocal advocate challenging discrimination in the industry.

Documentation from 2005 further backs up this part of the Screen Actors Guild diversity policy.

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When Aimee Carrero (voice actor for Elena of Avalor on the Disney channel) informed Mr. Romero about her yearly wages being $20,000 for 20 episodes worth of work, he discarded her testimony entirely. “That what you make? In L.A? You should seriously consider another line of work,” Dennis tweeted. He continued by saying “I’ve been doing this 25 years. And I made more than you in college,” in his follow-up remark.

This “discourse” from Romero invoked the ire of the voice acting community. I got in touch with one of the folks who attempted to talk to Dennis. Sean Kenin is a video game voice actor who had roles in Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption, but in recent years he voiced part for Family Guy and Robot Chicken.

When it came to the argument Mr. Romero was trying to make, Kenin explained the bottom line.

He’s accusing the Union of a lack of diversity. But the union represents  actors HIRED by producers for gigs. So if there’s a lack of diversity,  it comes from production, casting, etc. Interesting that he has such a  problem with VO in particular because there is actually a LOT more  opportunity for people of color in a field like VO. An animated or video  game character doesn’t necessarily read as “Black”, “White”, “Latino”,  “Asian” or anything else. As a result, minority actors have the opportunity to play leads in ways  that they would otherwise be typed out. So I actually think picking this  fight specifically is flawed on 2 counts. Honestly, we get this a LOT as voice actors. People like to dismiss the  job as easy, or just talking, but there is far more to it than that. I  could characterize Mr. Romero’s job as “just typing” in the same way.  But clearly, he has skills that have brought him to journalism and  that’s great. When your whole argument hinges on trying to make someone  else feel small or belittling them personally it only shows how weak  your own argument is. We attempted to engage him on the merits of his  data. Median Vs. Average. Latinos in the Union vs Latino CEOs of gaming  companies. etc. Under that scrutiny, he name called and then blocked us.  I have not blocked him. I welcome debate with him.

This dispute won’t go away on it’s own, for sure. The AFL-CIO (big federation of unions in the United States) published a statement in support of the strike.

The AFL-CIO stands in solidarity with the SAG-AFTRA voice-over and motion-capture performers who are on strike after failed negotiations with eleven video game employers. Performers deserve a modern contract that offers the protections necessary to work in today’s video game industry.

No one wants a strike. But, for nearly two years video game employers have been unwilling to meet basic demands necessary to bring this collective bargaining agreement up to the standards of other mature industry contracts. We urge video game employers to negotiate in good faith and work with SAG-AFTRA to bargain a fair agreement.

Their words depict the reality of the matter. The need for a new interactive media contract was inevitable, as the previous (and out-of-date) one had expired. We’re faced with a choice as to how the future pans out. GameRaven explains what the voice actor strike means for the general practices of the Gaming Industry. But the bottom is changes can be made while still staying within a game developer’s means. The debate is nailing down what those changes are exactly.  A middle-ground that satisfies both parties fairly and justly can go a long way in ensuring that talented voice actors out there have a decent road paved for them.

In the end, #PerformanceMatters.

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