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Video game actors go on strike. They want to be paid like film and TV actors

Video game actors go on strike. They want to be paid like film and TV actors
Actors who work on video games such as "Madden NFL 17" are fighting for more pay and better safety standards. (EA Games / Common Sense Media)

The largest actors union in Hollywood officially called a strike Friday against several prominent video game companies after the two sides failed to agree on how to pay performers who do voice-over and motion-capture work for popular games.

SAG-AFTRA said the work stoppage began at 12:01 a.m. Friday and covers games made by the companies that went into production after Feb. 17, 2015. Many of the most sophisticated games take years to develop and bring to market, and employ large casts of actors over that development process.

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Union members are planning to picket one of the companies, Electronic Arts, at its location in Playa Vista on Monday.

Other companies affected by the strike include some of the largest names in the industry — Activision Blizzard, Take Two, Warner Bros. and Disney.

The chief negotiator for the video game companies said that when negotiations failed, the two sides were not very far apart.

"The only difference is the semantics," said Scott J. Witlin of the law firm of Barnes & Thornburg. "The sad thing is that people are going to lose work."

SAG-AFTRA, however, contends the gap was much more substantive.

The union was asking for a new compensation structure that would allow actors to start receiving residual-like payments based on a game's commercial success. They were also asking for improved safety conditions for voice-over and motion-capture performers.

The proposed bonus system would allow actors to receive additional payments for every 2 million copies or downloads sold — or, for online-only games, unique subscribers — with a cap at 8 million.

But the video game companies balked at the plan, instead proposing a 9% wage increase, which would speed up the 3% annual increase sought by SAG-AFTRA over a three-year period. They were also offering additional compensation of up to $950 per game based on the number of sessions a performer works on a particular title.

On Thursday, the union refused to accept the companies' proposal, describing the current compensation structure as a "freeloader model."

Union members also want more transparency in the hiring process, with actors claiming that they are often kept in the dark about what video games they are working on until well after their job is done. Some say this prevents them from negotiating higher pay on more popular titles.

"I never knew I was in 'Fallout 4' for the 1 ½ years I was [working on] the game," union member Keythe Farley, a voice actor and director, told reporters Friday. Farley voiced a key character in the video game, which raked in more than $750 million in its first 24 hours of sales.

A fair system of pay would include "secondary payments when games hit a certain level of success with consumers, not simply higher upfront wages. Secondary compensation is what allows professional performers to feed their families in between jobs," SAG-AFTRA said in a statement.

"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."

The video game companies — which also include Blindlight, Corps of Discovery Films, Formosa Interactive, Insomniac Games, Interactive Associates and VoiceWorks Productions — have argued that their industry is fundamentally different from Hollywood and that a system of residual-like bonuses for actors would not be feasible.

"We had hoped this would be successful, but union leadership left mediation without providing a counteroffer. We urged union leaders to put the package to a vote of their membership, but union leaders refused," Witlin said in a statement.

It's unclear how much the strike will affect the industry. According to the companies, SAG-AFTRA represents performers in less than 25% of the games on the market. The union says that number is false.

"The top titles overwhelmingly feature union talent," Ray Rodriguez, chief contracts officer for SAG-AFTRA, told reporters Friday. He also said the video game companies will hurt without access to union members: "The inability to access top-tier talent is an issue, and we believe it will apply significant pressure."

Still, employers who are signatories to the union's contract can hire non-union members — even during a strike — and aren't required to give preference to members.

The existing contract, known as the Interactive Media Agreement, expired in late 2014 but performers kept working under it as talks dragged on for 19 months.

Twitter: @DavidNgLAT

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UPDATES:

Oct. 21, 4:20 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from company and union representatives and the names of affected companies.

Oct. 21, 12:10 a.m.: This article was updated with SAG-AFTRA calling a strike.

This article was originally published on Oct. 20 at 4:06 p.m.

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