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Voice actors, video game makers reach agreement to end strike

Boycott has been running for 11 months

SAG-AFTRA Press Conference held at SAG-AFTRA on April 16, 2015 in Los Angeles, California Tommaso Boddi/WireImage/Getty Images
Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Video game voice actors represented by Hollywood’s biggest acting union have reached a deal to end an 11-month boycott against game companies, paving the way for the actors to return to gaming roles with an agreement that makes progress on the benefits they sought.

The Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) reached a “tentative agreement” on early Saturday morning with the 11 video game companies that it had been striking against, SAG-AFTRA announced today. Affected publishers include industry heavyweights like Activision, Electronic Arts, Take-Two Interactive and Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. SAG-AFTRA’s strike also involves third-party companies such as Blindlight and VoiceWorks Productions, which provide voice acting and other services for game developers.

SAG-AFTRA and the video game companies began negotiations in February 2015, following the expiration of the union’s most recent video game acting contract at the end of 2014. The boycott began Oct. 21, 2016, and this past April it became the longest strike in the history of the Screen Actors Guild, which was founded in 1933.

One of the key sticking points in the negotiations was the issue of secondary compensation, also known as residuals or bonuses. Voice actors had been seeking royalty payments for performances in multimillion-selling games — a share of the profits from particularly successful titles — with the payouts rising as a game’s sales increased.

Unlike actors for media such as film or television, voice actors do not typically receive residuals on video games. For instance, voice actor Michael Hollick said that he was paid $100,000 for about 15 months of work to voice Grand Theft Auto 4 protagonist Niko Bellic, and received no royalties; publisher Rockstar Games has sold more than 25 million copies of the game.

The tentative agreement does include a structure for secondary compensation, but the bonus payments are tied to the number of recording sessions an actor works for a game, not sales. Here’s the language from the news release:

The bonus payment, which is due no later than the release date of the game, is based on the number of sessions worked on each game, beginning with a $75 payment on the first session and totaling $2,100 after 10 sessions worked.

“This is an important advance in this critical industry space,” said Gabrielle Carteris, president of SAG-AFTRA. “We secured a number of gains including for the first time, a secondary payment structure which was one of the members’ key concerns.”

The bonus payments are “significantly larger now than what we had 11 months ago,” said Keythe Farley, chair of the SAG-AFTRA committee that handled the negotiations.

As for vocal stress, another key issue in the negotiations, the deal contains “an employer commitment to continue working with SAG-AFTRA on the issue.” Video game voice acting can put a tremendous strain on performers’ vocal cords, with actors asked to record battle cries, death scenes and other taxing lines.

One of the biggest victories for the actors in the tentative agreement comes in the area of transparency. The gaming industry’s emphasis on secrecy — which is not necessarily unreasonable, considering how many times voice actors have leaked the existence of unannounced titles — often puts voice actors in unfavorable positions because they aren’t given enough information before signing on to a project. SAG-AFTRA cited stories of actors being asked to voice sex scenes or dialogue with racial slurs, without agreeing to the material beforehand.

The union had hoped that game makers would agree to disclose the actual name of a project and the specific role they were hiring for, before an actor signed a contract. The tentative agreement does not go that far — it only mandates that a game’s codename be given ahead of time — but it greatly increases transparency overall.

“The new transparency provisions will enhance the bargaining power of our members’ representatives by requiring the companies to disclose the code name of project, its genre, whether the game is based on previously published intellectual property and whether the performer is reprising a prior role,” said Ray Rodriguez, SAG-AFTRA’s chief contract officer and the new contract’s lead negotiator. “Members are also protected by the disclosure of whether they will be required to use unusual terminology, profanity or racial slurs, whether there will be content of a sexual or violent nature and whether stunts will be required.”

SAG-AFTRA also noted the agreement does not include a number of provisions that game makers had sought, such as one under which actors could’ve been fined for being late to, or distracted during, recording sessions. The deal also doesn’t allow gaming companies to use their permanent staff in lieu of union voice actors for “covered work outside of the collective bargaining agreement.”

The agreement isn’t a done deal just yet. SAG-AFTRA’s national board still has to review the contract at its next meeting, which will take place in October.

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