SAG-AFTRA Video Game Contract Talks Resume As Strike Looms

With a Friday strike deadline looming, contract negotiations between SAG-AFTRA and the video game industry resumed today and are scheduled to continue through Wednesday. The chief one issue in the talks is the union’s demand for residuals payments for actors who voice the most successful games – something the $20 billion video game industry has steadfastly refused to provide.

“The No. 1 thing is residuals,” said an actor who has worked on dozens of games. “This is the only billion-dollar industry where actors are paid no residuals.”

At its meeting Sunday, SAG-AFTRA’s board of directors voted unanimously to strike the video game companies if a deal isn’t reached this week. Frustrated by their intransigence on the residuals issue, the union earlier this month promulgated its own video games contract in which performers would receive an additional full-scale payment for each 500,000 units sold, up to four secondary payments if the game sells 2 million units. Under the guild’s current contract, the minimum pay is $850 a day.

“Everyone I talk to at auditions is all in favor of a strike,” the veteran video game actor told Deadline. “We’ve all had enough.”

Last October – more than a year ago – members of the union voted overwhelmingly (96.5%) to authorize a strike if contract talks failed to produce residuals. Since then, there has been some progress, with the companies reportedly withdrawing some of their more onerous roll-back proposals. One of those would have allowed the companies to fine actors $2,500 for being late to work or not being “attentive to the services for which they are engaged” by talking on cell phones between takes. But so far, there’s been no give on the residuals issue.

The threat of any strike is only as good as a union’s ability to convince employers that they can’t do business without the union’s members. A spokesman for the companies said that only 25% of video games employ union actors. But more and more of the most successful ones do, especially franchises and games based on films and TV shows.

The threat of a strike carries more weight now than ever before because so many of Hollywood’s top stars are voicing games, and their loss could severely curtail the production of many popular game franchises. Among the stars who have lent their voices to games include Kiefer Southerland, Neil Patrick Harris, Mila Kunis, Ellen Page, Christopher Walken, Snoop Dog, Liam Neeson, John Goodman, Elihah Wood, Samuel L. Jackson, Ray Liotta, Heather Graham, Susan Sarandon, 50 Cent, Gary Oldman, Mark Hamill, George Takei, Kristen Bell, Oscar-winner Ben Kingsley, Mickey Rourke, Patrick Stewart. Seth Green, Haley Joel Osment, and SAG-AFTRA board member Martin Sheen.

The last major actors’ strike was against commercial producers in 2000. That walkout lasted six months, and was greatly aided by major stars who refused to work until a deal was reached. There’s no telling if a strike against video game producers – if it comes to that – will last that long, but if it does, it will no doubt be shortened by the industry’s need to bring employ the voices of well-known actors.

The gaming industry said in a statement that it “will continue to attempt to reach a fair and equitable contract despite the union leadership’s most recent threatened labor action.” It also warned that “any strike would not only deny SAG-AFTRA’s membership work, but this would also give their competitors, who do not engage union talent, a leg up while any strike would be in place.”

It also poo-pooed the idea that a strike would cripple the industry. “It is important to note that the video game companies’ upcoming games are already in production and the majority will be unaffected by any SAG-AFTRA strike due to the nature of the ‘no strike provisions’ of the collective bargaining agreement. We anticipate minimal impact on current and near-future game releases.”

Which could mean a long strike if the two sides fail to reach an agreement.

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