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"Overpaid Voice Actors", episode # 48,763


Niko Bellic stalks in Grand Theft Auto IV.



With this story all over the news of late...

A Video Game Star and His Less-Than-Stellar Pay

...it was probably due to rear its ugly head again.

By "it", I refer to the deluge of internet commentary that inevitably follows any and all media reports of voice actors seeking residuals for videogame work. It ranges from the stupefyingly uninformed ("You get paid big bucks just to sit there and talk into a mic, so STFU") to the kind of union-bashing, anti-residuals snark that evokes the ghost of mogul Lew Wasserman (who once famously said "When my plumber fixes my toilet, I don't pay him every time I flush the @#%$ thing!"). The first opinion isn't worth wasting keystrokes refuting, and the second I'll address later.

Somewhat more reasoned are the arguments that game programmers don't get royalties, and that because their contribution is at least as vital as the actors, the latter shouldn't keep getting paid after the fact. Yes, I have heard tales of game companies overworking and underpaying its programmers, testers, and developers; and if this is becoming the norm rather than the exception, then that's an inequity that also needs to be addressed. Generally speaking, though, a simple (but key) distinction is often lost in this argument: members of the creative team work on salary, while the voice actor is a freelancer.

Viewed without this information, it's easy to think of our VO actor as being greedy, an unscrupulous sod; trying to squeeze out yet more money from a game, a few bucks at a time, after already sitting on a king's ransom. Mine isn't an unbiased viewpoint, but I'm nonetheless here to tell you that it just ain't so. It's important to remember that sales-based residuals aren't "bonuses" or "extra money", as many people out there seem to think. They're deferred payments against the lifetime value of the work. In other words, when residuals are part of a negotiated contract --- something that's not currently part of SAG and AFTRA's "new media" agreements --- the studio is essentially saying "your work is worth X, but that's too large an amount for us to pay up front. Therefore, we'll pay you a smaller percentage up front, and if the game is a success, then we'll pay you the remainder of that value over time." Film stars like Samuel L. Jackson and Ray Liotta get weekly checks for their movie roles not because their performances are stellar, but because their client (the studio) is on an installment plan. (This is one reason why the studios, long ago, agreed to the royalties system proposed by SAG; it places a risk on the part of the actor --- he stands to lose, say, 80% of the value of his work --- alongside the financial risk incurred by the studio on that project.)

There even exist a few voice actors, some for whom I have great respect, who are of the opinion that Hollick signed the contract, knew what he was getting into, and should stop bumping his gums about the lack of residuals. I'm not saying that wouldn't have been a prudent choice, but let's look at some other issues. Leaving aside the fact that his contract doesn't cover the use of his voice for promotional purposes over the Internet, who are any of us to tell an unknown voice actor to say no to a six-figure payday, even one that isn't currently as equitable as it should be?  As much as I admire those who stick to their principles when it's least convenient --- and they are to be admired --- actors have to eat. (Also, 100 grand is nothing to sneeze at, but it doesn't go as far when you live in NYC or L.A.; and residence in these cities is a near-absolute requirement for an actor to do videogame VO work .)

Another such colleague has opined that voice actors shouldn't receive royalties for games, with the reasoning that gamers don't buy titles based on the quality of the actor's performance. This may be true to a degree --- mitigated in no small part by the willingness of those same gamers to flame bad voice acting in game forums --- but it misses the point by a mile. Again, TV and film actors receive royalties for their work not because of their sheer acting prowess, but because the performing unions fought to ensure that these artists --- regardless of the artist's ability or inability to act his or her way out of a paper bag --- aren't left with an inequitable share of profits. The unions understood well that competition for acting jobs is fierce, to a degree that few other industries and professions can relate to.

Or, put another way, in the form of a rebuttal to Lew Wasserman: your plumber doesn't have to audition for his next job against hundreds of other hopeful wannabe plumbers, hoping against hope that he'll land the gig. Taking it a step farther: If the plumber had fixed the toilet so that it spat out a thousand bucks every time it was flushed, he'd be justified in asking for a percentage of that payout. But I digress.

Bottom line: the percentage of actors who can wrap up one job, then count on another gig being in place the next day, is small. As in single digits.

All this may be moot, however, if SAG and AFTRA are unable to negotiate residuals into their new contracts with the studios and production companies (represented by AMPTP). The TV writers were reasonably successful in their quest, but that's no guarantee. We'll see.


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Hi David:

Great post.

I hold the "stop bumping his gums" opinion about the lack of residuals for the voice actor in question as quoted by the New York Times.

If his contract doesn't cover the use of his voice for promo purposes, if his contract didn't address residuals, I blame the voice actor for signing it.

If that is what he wanted in his agreement he should have negotiated for it before signing or rather his attorney/agent should have.

Maybe that's the gray area. Does he have professional consul? Did an entertainment attorney review a $100,000 contract before he signed it?

David, would you enter into a $100,000 agreement without having it reviewed by those with professional experience in such matters? I wouldn't.

Maybe he did and maybe he didn't. Maybe he decided to take the money now and work out the "petty" details later. Maybe he was afraid to negotiate for fear of losing the deal.

In any case, these are all his decisions and to sign the contract as it was...was his choice.

To complain about it after the fact publicly only makes me hope he HAD a really good relationship with the game producers so he has something to rebuild.

He could/should be building on his latest acting credit for future work. I wonder if through this article he's actually deconstructing a VO career?

Time will tell and I wish him well.

Best always,
- Peter


Thanks for the comments. As near as I can tell, he understood that there wouldn't be residuals, and I don't think he's trying to squeeze more dough out of Rockstar. He's pointing out the fact that SAG has allowed "new media" contracts to lag behind those for TV and film, after years of those two mediums slowly losing ground to videogames, internet, et al. (Also, in criticizing SAG instead of the producer, I think he's hoping to mitigate any damage to his relationship with them. I don't blame Rockstar either, as they were operating under the same rules as he.)

Regarding his decision to sign or not to sign: as I said, I'd tip my hat to him if he had stood on principle to say "no" to an inequitable contract. By the same token, I can't fault him in the slightest for taking the gig, even while fully aware of its (relative) shortcomings.

My guess is that he'll work again, even if SAG angers the studios by successfully adding residuals to game contracts.

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