On the first day of the actors’ strike against the video game industry, the companies’ chief negotiator is calling on the leadership of SAG-AFTRA to put their final contract proposal to a vote of the union’s members “rather than continue to strike over terminology.”
Dissatisfaction among actors working in the gaming industry is so high, however, that they would almost certainly reject the companies’ offer – if on principle alone. A year ago, actors working under the union’s Interactive Media agreement voted overwhelmingly – by a margin of 96.5% to only 3.5% – to authorize a strike. Many actors contacted by Deadline feel that the $20 billion a year gaming industry operates on a plantation-like system, where performers are overworked and underpaid. And they’re especially unhappy that the industry doesn’t provide any type of residuals or back-end compensation for their work on successful games.
The main issue in the strike, however, is not even about residuals, but what to call a bonus being offered by the companies. The companies call it “additional compensation” and the union insists on calling it “contingent compensation” — a buyout of residuals.
Regarding secondary compensation, which is the chief strike issue, the union said that “employers have offered to give actors an upfront bonus based on the number of sessions worked, starting at the second session worked. The negotiating team is willing to agree to their proposal, as long as secondary compensation is an option. In other words, an employer would have the option to buy out an actor by paying a bonus upfront or, if they prefer, they would have the option to pay a bonus after the game releases, if the game happens to sell more than 2 million units. The employers have refused to consider this option, excluding games from union talent if they are unable to afford the upfront bonus structure.”
The union’s offer of an employer option – to either pay an upfront bonus or a back-end residual on successful games – could give many companies the best of both worlds: They could end up paying their actors no upfront bonuses, and for games that sell less than 2 million units, no back-end residuals either.
“When you compare the SAG-AFTRA contingency prepayment structure to the companies’ additional compensation structure, the two are almost identical,” said Scott Witlin, the companies’ chief negotiator. “The video game companies did everything in their power to reach agreement with union leaders, offering a money package almost identical to SAG-AFTRA’s last demand. We are greatly disappointed that SAG-AFTRA refuses to allow its members to have a democratic vote on our proposal and decide if the significant money on the table is acceptable to them. We believe SAG-AFTRA performers should be allowed to look at what we offered and compare it to the union’s last demand – and see that the terminology and other minimal differences are not worth striking over.”
The gaming industry has steadfastly refused to offer residuals – or even a buyout of residuals – to performers, saying that such back-end payments do not fit its business model, which is more like the mostly non-union tech industry than the heavily unionized entertainment industry.
Going into the contract talks, which broke off Wednesday, the union insisted that it was time for the $20 billion a year gaming industry to start paying residuals, just like films, TV shows and commercials do. The industry, however, refused to budge.
In lieu of residuals, the companies offered “additional compensation” in the form of a bonus for actors who work for more than one on-camera or voice over session per game. The bonus money, which would be paid on top of an actor’s regular pay, would start at $50 for the second session, and top out at $950 for eight sessions.
The union essentially agreed to that deal – with two slight modifications. It wanted the bump to start on the first session instead of the second – which would amount to an automatic $50 pay increase on top of the 9% pay hike the companies had offered. But that’s not the strike issue. The strike was called because the union wanted to call this bonus a “buyout” of residuals instead of what the companies wanted to call it – “additional compensation.”
The companies, however, refused to call it a residuals buyout, saying that to do so would be “fundamentally unfair” to the hundreds of animators and designers who develop the games but receive no residuals at all – buyout or otherwise. Perhaps of equal concern to the companies is that once they start calling a bonus a residuals buyout, the union may start insisting on actual residuals payments the next time around.
“SAG-AFTRA tried for more than 19 months to negotiate a new deal with employers in the video game industry,” the union said in a statement. “Meanwhile, performers have been governed by the more than two-decade old contract still in place. That has left voice actors without the protections necessary to work in the modern video game industry.”
“The strike is going to hurt the SAG-AFTRA performers that these companies value,” Witlin said, noting that the companies’ review of industry data revealed that less than 25% of video games utilize unionized workers. SAG-AFTRA’s data, however, reveals that more than 40% of the top-selling games feature non-union talent.
“No matter what these companies are peddling in their press releases, this negotiation is not only about upfront compensation,” the union said in a statement. “It is about fairness and the ability of middle-class performers to survive in this industry. These companies are immensely profitable, and successful games – which are the only games this dispute is about – drive that profit. We have proposed a fair payment structure that enables the sustainability of a professional performer community. These employers have unreasonably refused that. The time has come to end the freeloader model of compensation and that is why our members are united behind this cause.”
The union said it will put up its first picket line on Monday outside the offices of Electronic Arts in Playa Vista.
“The strike will have little to no immediate impact on the ability of fans to buy and play the video games they love as the majority of upcoming games already are in production,” Witlin said, and the union is not permitted to strike most of the games due to the nature of the ‘No Strike Provisions’ of the interactive media agreement.”
The union said that the strike will immediately effect the following companies for all games that went into production after February 17, 2015: Electronic Arts Productions; WB Games; Disney Character Voices; Activision Publishing; Blindlight; Corps of Discovery Films; Formosa Interactive; Insomniac Games; Interactive Associates; Take 2 Interactive Software; and VoiceWorks Productions.