SAG-AFTRA Strikes The Video Game Industry


SAG-AFTRA has gone on strike against the video game industry. Just after midnight PT, the union ordered its members to stop working on games until the strike is over. Shortly before the clock struck midnight, a spokesman for the companies said no date has been set for the resumption of talks.

It’s the first-ever strike against the gaming industry; the first actors’ strike since 2000, when SAG and AFTRA struck the commercials industry for six months; and the first-ever strike by SAG-AFTRA since the unions merged in 2012. It’s also the first strike in Hollywood history to be launched over a single word – “buyout.”

Going into the contract talks, which broke off Wednesday, the union insisted 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 refused, saying that paying residuals would upend its business model.

In lieu of residuals, however, 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.

In the lead up to the strike, Scott Witlin, the companies’ chief negotiator, told Deadline that “It would be unfortunate for SAG-AFTRA to take its members out on strike over terminology and not money.”

By going on strike over a word, the union may be saving face after threatening a strike if video game performers weren’t finally paid some type of residuals. But even if the union wins the strike and gets what it wants, actors still aren’t going to get residuals – only a “buyout” of residuals. And even then they’re not going to get any more money – other than maybe an extra $50 a session – than they would have if their union had accepted the deal and not gone on strike.

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 residuals amounting to a full day’s p[ay 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 about $825 a day.

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.

Only about 25% of video games use union performers, but more and more well-known actors have been working on them in recent years including 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 Martin Sheen.

In a statement issued Thursday, the union called the companies’ last contract proposal a “freeloader model of compensation.”

“In this industry, which frequently uses performers and understands the intermittent and unpredictable nature of this type of work, fair compensation includes secondary payments when games hit a certain level of success with consumers, not simply higher upfront wages,” the union said. “Secondary compensation is what allows professional performers to feed their families in between jobs.

“No matter what these companies are peddling in their press releases, this negotiation is not only about upfront compensation. 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 will hold what it’s calling a “reporters roundtable and background briefing” today at 1 PM to discuss the strike.

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