Video game publishers and actors' unions disagree on whether actors should get residual payments like they do for movies, commercials and TV.
To date, publishers have treated actors as contractors, paid on a daily or hourly basis. But in the 10 years since the first contract was signed, the video game industry has grown to $25 billion in annual sales. More and more games these days are tied to characters in movies.
Still, actors' unions do not have the same clout with game publishers as they do in film or TV. And the technology industry does not have a history of unionized labor force.
The unions' joint contract with video game publishers expired last year and the second extension expired in April. During negotiations, the unions threatened to strike but were met with indifference by video game publishers.
The American Federation of Television and Radio Actors agreed on a new contract that does not contain residuals, but union officials said they are committed to getting them in the future. The Screen Actors Guild's executive board rejected that deal and is sending it to the union's nearly 2,000 members for a vote. Ballots are due back by the end of July.
The unions have been pushing for a performance-based model similar to the music industry, where actors involved in a successful game would receive additional payments when sales hit 400,000 units.
Residual payments are standard practice in the entertainment industry, according to Rebecca Rhine, spokeswoman for AFTRA. But the video game publishers say their world is different: "The gamer is at the center," said Bob Finlayson, spokesman for the industry's negotiating group.
Actors' unions point out that the best-selling games, such as "Halo 2" by Microsoft Corp., and "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" by Rockstar Games, used professional actors and brought in more than $250 million each in revenues last year.
Activision Inc. expended a lot of effort and an undisclosed amount of money to get Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall and others to lend their likenesses and voices to the much anticipated "The Godfather: The Game." Electronic Arts Inc. secured Sean Connery to voice-over the James Bond game, "From Russia with Love." "GTA: San Andreas," featured Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Penn, James Woods, Peter Fonda and Ice-T in its voice cast.
Clearly, the participation of big stars contributes to a game's draw. But it's not just the big-name stars the guilds are talking about. Most games now use work-a-day actors for voice and motion-capture a person acting out character movements for use in a digital rendering of a character.
Because characters are deeper, story lines more complex and graphics more lifelike, actors are playing a more important role in creating characters for the games, noted Tamara Rothenberg, senior recruiting manager for Mary-Margaret.com, a video game staffing firm.
Because most games are made without marquee names, video game publishers say they can easily seek out non-union talent.
Consumers thirst for more elaborate and spectacular games and that means more spectacular costs, notes James Korris, creative director for the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California.
And just as movie directors use body-doubles for certain scenes, game developers can use "sound-alike actors" because the snippets of voice are small enough in many games that most players might not notice.
Video game publishers also want to avoid parsing out credits and then revenues to every individual that touches a game.
Voice-over talent is one of the few areas where the Hollywood paradigm crosses over into video games. But "if you start down that slippery slope of giving some kind of performance-based payment as a blanket, a strong argument can be made for giving the same to designers and animators and everyone else with a heavy creative influence in the creation of a game," Rothenberg said.
Industry experts are watching the issue closely.
While SAG's board is against the contract, there wasn't enough support for a strike when the issue came to a vote in May. Voice actors who work in video games support the deal, as do SAG's own negotiators. And with AFTRA's acceptance of video game makers' terms, SAG members may feel pressured to go along or risk losing the work altogether.
In the meantime, video game publishers can keep residuals off the table. But the issue is not likely to go away. As games continue to appear more movie-like, said Christopher Swain, co-director of the EA Game Innovation Lab at USC, actors are only going to become more important players.
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