The video game companies need and want our members’ talent …
Following negotiations that started in February 2015 and after more than six months of strike action against 11 video games companies, the US performers’ union, the Screen Actors’ Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) has finally announced that “some video game developers” have agreed to pay voice-over actors and motion-capture performers royalties based on game sales.
Video games production is the only sector within screen-based media which does not pay actors or performers royalties or, as they’re called within the industry, “residuals”. This is a particularly important issue when it comes to the increasingly significant area of Subscription Video on Demand, or SVOD.
SVOD, a form of content streaming, is emerging as the dominant means of accessing commercial domestic screen-based media with companies like Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO Now and Hulu Plus beginning to present real challenges to broadcast television and the cinema.
The revenue generated by filmed entertainment worldwide is estimated at around $300bn in 2017, while all forms of Video on Demand services (VOD), of which SVOD represents about 80 percent, will be worth an estimated $54bn in 2017.
By comparison, the global market for digital games is already worth $90bn, according to industry website Deadline.com, and it seems likely that the formats — movies, TV and games — will increasingly converge in the next few years as the idea of accessing content on any device through an SVOD service grows in popularity.
SAG-AFTRA, which was formed by a merger between the Guild and the Federation in 2012, represents around 160,000 film and television principal and background actors, journalists, recording artists, and radio personalities worldwide. Spurred by the recent success of the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) in negotiating a new contract with TV and movie producers, SAG-AFTRA is ramping up the six-month dispute through social media (hash-tag #PerformanceMatters) and solidarity rallies such as an event on 2 February which brought together members of SAG-AFTRA, unions including the Writers’ Guild, Teamsters Local 399 and the American Federation of Musicians, and officials from the California and Los Angeles County federations of labor (<em>sic</em>).
The union issued its “Do Not Work Order” in October 2016 with the following notice: “Please be advised that as of 12:01 a.m. PT on Friday, Oct. 21, SAG-AFTRA is on strike against the following video game employers with regard to all games that went into production after Feb. 17, 2015.”
There followed a list of 11 companies: Activision, Blindlight, Disney, EA, Formosa, Insomniac, Interactive Associates, Take-Two, Warner Bros, VoiceWorks and Discovery Films — a combination of standalone games companies, such as Activision and EA, and subsidiaries of major entertainment companies, including Disney and Warner Bros.
In its strike leaflet, the union set out the strikers’ demands. Along with establishing the principle of paying residuals, they demanded better information on the projects that they are working on. Video games employers routinely hire performers without identifying the role or even the game that the performer is being engaged to work on. And they typically refuse to provide basic information about the nature of the performance that will be expected of them. This means that, unlike actors in any other form, performers in video games can’t make a meaningful decision about whether to accept a role or to negotiate appropriate compensation if they do.
SAG-AFTRA also claims that the employers have not been taking negotiations seriously, citing their offer of putting more tea and water in recording booths for the actors who risk damage to their voices.
The standard contract for interactive media was originally written in 1994, and fails to recognise the immense changes that have overtaken the industry in the past two decades. The union argues that it is committed to bringing the contract into the 21st century with the protections and compensation that its members deserve, but says “our partners across the table … seem more interested in ‘winning’ this round of negotiations.”
But the union believes that it will succeed. It used its trade magazine to announce that some games companies have now accepted the call for residual payments: a full day’s wage for every two million units a game sells, up to a maximum of four payments at eight million sales. Unfortunately, we do not know precisely which businesses have agreed to the payments. The union says more than 20 companies have signed deals relating to 30 productions “under the same terms that the AAA companies have refused” — which suggests that the biggest businesses listed above, Disney, Warner Bros and Activision, have refused to settle.
“These deals show that other companies see that what we’re asking for is reasonable,” performer Phil LaMarr told the SAG-AFTRA magazine.
SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris commented: “This is a crucial time. The video game companies are getting ready to start production on a slate of new titles. They need and want our members’ talent to be on their games.”
SAG-AFTRA website (which includes strike updates).
Christopher Dring, ‘Games companies agree terms with Screen Actors Guild‘, Games Industry, 23 May 2017.
David Robb, ‘SAG-AFTRA Makes Inroads As Video Game Strike Drags On‘, Deadline.com, 15 May 2017.
Jim O’Neill, ‘Global VOD market forecast to top $100B by 2026; SVOD in 50% of US homes‘, Ooyala.com, 11 May 2016.
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