The video-game industry’s voice has grown hoarse.
Production has been disrupted by a strike by SAG-Aftra voice actors that began on Oct. 21, after nearly two years of negotiations failed to produce a contract amenable to the union. While a number of issues remain to be decided – including payment rates – it’s evident that video-game talent feel their work should be recognized and rewarded in a manner closer to that of film and TV actors.
“It’s a battle of the new economics of how media is consumed and paid for,” said David Smith, an associate professor of economics at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management. “There could be a huge payout involved.”
The strike has ground voice-recording sessions to a halt for 173 games produced by nine different publishing companies, including Santa Monica’s Activision Blizzard Inc.; Walt Disney Co.’s Disney Character Voices Inc.; Burbank’s Insomniac Games; and Electronic Arts Inc., which operates a large facility in Playa Vista. The nine publishers are negotiating collectively in the talks, while others, including Riot Games and French game maker Ubisoft, are expected to adopt the negotiated agreement as a de facto industry standard.
The primary issue to be ironed out is how voice actors should be paid for their work on blockbuster game titles, which have become multibillion-dollar cash cows for publishers due largely to growth in digital download revenue and in-game purchases.
The U.S. video-game industry raked in $23.5 billion in revenue last year, according to the Entertainment Software Association. In the third quarter of 2016 alone, Activision reported revenue of $1.57 billion – a year-to-year increase of 58 percent, thanks in large part to the success of its multiple “Call of Duty” titles, a franchise that utilizes SAG-Aftra talent.
“They are making a lot of money. They are making that money on the back of the performances of really good actors,” Keythe Farley, national chair of SAG-Aftra’s interactive negotiating committee, said of the publishers. “The video-game industry needs to grow up and recognize that it is part of the entertainment industry.”
The union argues that film, TV, and radio companies compensate actors with residual payments based on content sales, so game publishers should, too. SAG-Aftra is asking for residual payments for voice talent that would kick in after each multiple of 2 million copies sold (with a ceiling of 8 million copies). Actors who record four or more voice sessions for a title would be eligible to receive a maximum cumulative payment of $3,300.
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