The Voice Actor Strike Is Not Just About Money, But Since You're Asking...
Let's face it: money is important. Sure, it's not as important as having pride in your work, going through life with honor or a warm batch of lemon bars with just the right dusting of powdered sugar... but yeah, money's pretty high up on the list.
So, why is it that so many people are ready to equate "WE'RE ON STRIKE!" to "WE WANT MORE MONEY!"?
It seems to be the main sticking point when it comes to people's uneducated opinions on labor strikes... which brings up one key word: uneducated.
So, if you will, I'd like to take a few moments and do my best to educate you.
Please note: I'm not an expert, and I certainly don't claim to be. But I do like number-crunching, and I also like comparisons to real-life situations as it helps to hammer points home... so I took it upon myself to run some numbers and get a good comparison up of what the SAG-AFTRA union of voice actors and other performers are asking for from videogame companies... and how everyone might be able to see if what's being asked for is unreasonable or not.
A Brief Bit of History
In case you're a bit late to the game, union voice actors and those in support of them went on strike on Friday, October 21st, 2016 as over 18 months of negotiations came to a stand-still with no clear compromise in sight. The main sticking points for the union came down to three major items: workplace safety (regarding vocally stressful recording sessions and having stunt coordinators on-set to assist in performance capturing scenes), more transparency (studios haven't always been divulging what games actors are working on, in an effort to safeguard trade secrets from leaking out) as well as... and here's where the money part comes in... additional compensation for games that make an overwhelming profit.
While there's plenty to say about the first two issues, I'm going to address the final concern... the one that everyone seems to fall back on in all matters of life... and the one Pink Floyd song that every Pizza Hut jukebox seemed to have in its roster when I was a kid... MONEY.
How Much Money Are They Asking For?
Right now, a union voice actor gets $825.50 for four (4) hours of voice work in an Interactive Media project (i.e. videogame, mobile app, etc).
"But wait, that's like over $200 an hour! Why are these guys complai-- ?!?!"
Shut up, noob; I'm getting there.
So... they make this much over four hours of work. And it's not "just talking" either... it's usually a full session of multiple characterizations and intense vocal stress. But that's a labor point for another time (i.e. work safety), so let's get back to the topic of money.
Now, this isn't a typical session that every voice actor participates in 3-4 times a week. In fact, most actors lucky enough to even snag a session like this are able to do so one time in... maybe a 2-3 week timeframe. Some are luckier than others, but for the most part they may only do one or two sessions in a calendar month. So please, don't equate a voice actor's recording sessions to hourly wages; it just doesn't work that way.
"Still though! It's not like you guys should be entitled to residuals! You're not pouring in as much time as the dev team!"
Once again: shut up. Secondly: you're right; game developers put in monstrous amounts of time and effort to create wonderful games... but they don't have a union (which sucks, because they can't fight for equal rights and fair pay/work conditions)... and voice actors aren't asking for money to be taken away from devs, which I'll get into shortly. And the third problem with your make-believe outburst: the union isn't asking for residuals.
Let's define that, as there are lots of haters out there and even several news sources that are using that word incorrectly. A residual is a percentage of a piece of sold media paid back to the actor on behalf of every unit that's sold; got that? Every unit sold. Many audiobook narrators nowadays (union or not) will see a piece of every audiobook sold, even if that piece is $3.50 over a calendar month.
if SAG-AFTRA was asking for residuals... then even a game that sells poorly would be forced to divvy up their meager earnings and recycle them back to the voice actors. This is not the case. The union is, in point of fact, asking for a "bonus compensation", which means that performers get an agreed-upon payment (not a percentage) if, and only if, the title sells over two million units, digital downloads or (in the case of online games) passes two million unique subscribers.
Let's look at an example of the kind of bonus compensation that could entail.
Breaking Down The Numbers
On November 8, 2011, Activision saw first-day sales of Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 of over $400 million, with over 6.5 million copies being sold.
Under this new proposal, SAG-AFTRA voice performers would have asked (back then, although numbers were different back in 2011... but this is just for example) for an additional $2,476.50 on the those sales (with a stipulation that an extra bonus compensation if the game hits 8 million copies sold... but let's just stay on topic with the first day sales).
And $2,476.50 equates to .00000619125 of the $400,000,000.00 or .0006% of total sales. That's LESS than one percent of one percent of the game's profits FROM THE FIRST DAY SALES of one of the MOST POPULAR GAMES in HISTORY.
And now, let's put THOSE numbers in perspective of something in real-life... like, let's say... the retail field of the upcoming holiday season.
According to this CNBC article... in 2015, the National Retail Foundation (NRF) found that Black Friday sales (the day after Thanksgiving, the biggest shopping day of the year for anyone not aware) totaled $10 billion. That's the single biggest shopping day of the year, so pretty damn popular with shoppers.
So let's take 5% of that, and assign it to a single retail chain's earnings for that day... that'd be $500 million. And I think that's fair. Sure, there's plenty of money being moved around ... but some stores/chains are more popular than others, right? So, five percent. $500 million. Got it? Cool.
Now, let's assume you get hired to work the Black Friday holiday for this particular retail chain and you put in 10 hours of work (some workers will put in even more on that day... but we're just messing with numbers for comparison) and let's also say that this store is REALLY GENEROUS and you get $15.00 per hour, which is much higher than the national minimum wage ... but again, we're playing with numbers for the sake of comparison. That's 8 hours of normal pay and 2 hours of time-and-a-half, which equates to $165.00 of gross pay for working Black Friday. Got that? $165 before taxes ... probably closer to $130 after taxes, but let's stick with that $165; we're being generous here.
So, let's review...
- Total profits made by our company: $500 million
- Hours worked by you: 10 hours
- Total pay earned: $165 gross pay
If you asked for three additional payments of $165 each because of their exceptional sales made on that day (like in the model of Modern Warfare 3 above), and that you were key in bringing in a portion (albeit a small portion) of the final numbers... that would equate to $495 as a "bonus compensation". And that would equate to .0001% of total sales under this model. One percent of one percent of one percent.
Basically $500 from $500 million. And then the company looks at you and says, "You're crazy. What did you contribute to our global sales figures for the day?!"
And you know what, they'd kinda be right. You didn't drive sales or make the shoppers come into the store on your own. You just helped handle traffic on a busy day.
But... and stay with me on this, because here's where we make a really cool parallel... what if you were the voice of the Black Friday ad that brought shoppers into the store because you sounded kick-ass in the commercial?
Think you might have a bigger say in arguing for that $495? That one percent of one percent of one percent? Yeah, you would.
And yeah, company... now you *DO* look like you have that kind of money to spare.
In A Partisan Effort Of Fairness
During the negotiations between SAG-AFTRA and videogame employers, companies reportedly offered a nine-percent increase on top of the current recording rates (dates on when those rates would take effect were not released, nor were those documents detailing that offer made public... simply reported on).
Using this figure, we can calculate that a new recording rate would come to $899.80 for a four-hour session ... or an extra $74.30.
So, let's look at these numbers:
- SAG-AFTRA is asking for an extra $825.50, depending on game sales or unique subscribers, capping at a maximum of $3,302.00 (that's four (4) bonus compensations) for the highest selling/subscribed games.
- Videogame companies have apparently countered with an extra $74.30 per four-hour recording session.
Again, to put this in perspective (as we did above)... this would be similar to you asking for your $495 as a bonus compensation for your hard work... and then your boss saying, "How about this? Instead of that, what say we just tack on an extra 9% to your check, OK?"... which would come to an extra $14.85.
$14.85 versus $495. See the disconnect?
The Final Say
Voice actors and similar performers have a union like SAG-AFTRA to argue these points and arrange fair contracts. And if no negotiation can be reached, they can call for a strike or other labor action. Retail workers, like the ones in the above scenario, don't always get that right (some do, as point of fact)... so it's harder for them to stand up to the executives at the top of the ladder who are walking away with millions of dollars after successful sales events.
These games that sell like hotcakes sprinkled with heroin and crystal meth are INSANELY popular... and when equivalent films, TV series and even commercials have this kind of popularity, there's a bonus paid to the actors in the form of additional compensation. This has been a writer in union contracts for years. Videogames have come to a point where their popularity (and more importantly, sales) are equivalent to high-grossing films. And union performers are asking for a very, VERY small slice of that massive pie.
And videogame companies admit to their titles having more than an impact than just "entertainment". Eric Hirshberg, CEO of Activision Publishing said [in regards to Modern Warfare 3's record-breaking sales], "Call of Duty is more than a game. It's become a major part of the pop cultural landscape."
So, when voice actors are asking for less than one percent of one percent of the profits shared by company executives (not game developers, mind you; that's an important sticking point!)... and these same executives are relating how much they feel their games affect lives beyond entertainment... maybe you'll understand why union members are getting pissy when those same companies come to the negotiating table and ask, "Aren't you being a bit unreasonable?"
No. No, they're not. And you know why they're not, Mr. Executive?
Because performance matters.
Addendum: ONE MORE ANALOGY, MY LOVELIES!
The Continental United States makes up 3,119,885 square miles. If a tribe of Native Americans had asked for the same fraction of land from the U.S. Government that actors are asking for from videogame employers, they would be asking for 19.54 square miles... or roughly 1% the size of Rhode Island.
Think the government would be a bit presumptuous to call them "greedy" at that point? No?
Good. Now you know why actors are pissed off.