SAG-AFTRA Pickets WB Games as Video Game Strike Continues

SAG-AFTRA rally and picket at WB Games - Staff - H 2016
Jonathan Handel

Residual-type back-end remains the sticking point, and both sides have hardened their positions.

Over 350 SAG-AFTRA performers and their supporters picketed Warner Bros.’ WB Games unit Thursday in Burbank, marching under a blazing sun along a residential street in the shadow of the studio’s famed water tower and shouting chants that included "Death screams are on strike!" The union’s video game job action edged into its third week with no resolution in sight.

The picketers, who included actors responsible for voicing the death screams, creature noises and battle cries of such top games as the Batman: Arkham series, as well as those who do performance-capture work for such games, are focused on a handful of issues, notably a proposal for residual-like back-end compensation. The companies have refused that demand, and both sides are dug in.

"We are not going anywhere until we get a fair contract," said union national executive director David White at a rally that concluded the hour-and-a-half picketing. In a statement read at the rally, SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris, who is in Miami — where the union has been attempting to unionize Telemundo — blasted the current, now-expired deal as a "substandard 20-year-old contract."

"[The strike] is going to settle when the video game companies and their lawyer are willing to sit down and get to a fair contract," said SAG-AFTRA executive vp Rebecca Damon in an interview. "It’s a billion-dollar industry, and they don’t want to share any of the profits. They don’t treat any of their workers right."

Some of those other workers do get back-end compensation, though, such as stock options or bonuses. But Damon and others complained that the companies and their chief negotiator, entertainment labor attorney Scott Witlin of Barnes & Thornburg, devalue performers. JB Blanc, who voiced master villain Bain in one of the Arkham games, told The Hollywood Reporter that Witlin said the companies could simply have staff people do the voice work.

"He looked me right in the eye and said that," said Blanc, who trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and has over 200 acting credits across several decades in theater, film, television and games. "I draw on my experience [in other media] when I do voice work."

"Fans buy games for voices as well as game play," he added. Some of the projects are massive enterprises. Mafia III, which Blanc directed, took six months and encompassed 95,000 scripted lines and 200 characters.

The union previously blasted the industry as "freeloaders" for refusing residuals, and "some of the proposals show a disregard that performers matter," Damon said Thursday as picketers from her union, the American Federation of Musicians, The Animation Guild, IATSE and the Writers Guild of America filed past.

Witlin and a publicist for the companies disagree, and have previously said that they do value SAG-AFTRA performers, while pointing to the fact that staff developers work on a game for months or even years, while performers generally come in just for several days.

The companies’ representatives also claim that SAG-AFTRA has no more than 20 percent to 25 percent market share in video games. The union says its share is much higher among top-selling games. But in either case, there appear to be no reliable figures available.

Asked for comment on Thursday, the companies’ spokesman reiterated comments made previously that "SAG-AFTRA is striking against the very video game companies that are its biggest advocates — and largest clients of SAG-AFTRA talent — in an industry that overwhelmingly uses non-union performers" and again blasted the union for not submitting the companies’ most recent proposal for a membership vote.

The union has previously pointed out that the strike was authorized by 97 percent of those who voted a year ago on the issue, and that its negotiating committees and board do not send out contracts for ratification if the committee and board don’t agree that the deal is fair. Those procedures are in accord with the union’s constitution — which, in fact, goes beyond legal requirements, since labor law doesn’t require that members be allowed to vote on contracts.

The picketing Thursday was followed by a brief rally and came 10 days after a similar demonstration attracted 300 people to Electronic Arts in Playa Vista, Calif., south of Santa Monica and Venice and part of the region’s Silicon Beach-centered tech/media community.

In addition to residual-like “secondary compensation,” other issues between the two sides include:

 – Transparency: Performers often aren’t told in advance what game or character they’re working on, which not only keeps them in a peculiar, if not demeaning, darkness, but also inhibits their preparation, reduces their agents’ negotiating leverage and can lead to unknowingly agreeing to uncomfortably sexual or violent roles.

– Stunt coordinators: The performers say the companies often ignore the need for stunt coordinators on set, a matter of safety.

– Vocal stress: The performers assert that four-hour recording sessions of screaming, wailing and gnashing of teeth result in medical damage to their vocal cords that could be avoided.

As is typical in Hollywood contract disputes, upfront compensation is not a contentious issue. There appears to be agreement to increase session fees, for instance, from $825 for a four-hour voice session to $900 at some point over the life of what would be a three-year contract renewal, if the parties could agree to terms.

When that will happen is anybody’s guess. With the holidays approaching, it becomes harder to get teams together and working on negotiations, especially since the companies may now be more focused on maximizing holiday season revenues than on figuring out compensation models.

But there’s a risk for the companies in waiting: Starting in February or so, SAG-AFTRA is likely to shift its own focus to the much bigger TV/theatrical negotiations with the AMPTP and studios. Although they have yet to be publicly unscheduled, those negotiations are already casting a shadow, since neither the union nor the video game companies — which include a Disney subsidiary as well as the Warners’ unit — want to appear weak on the eve of the larger talks.

And once the TV/theatrical talks start, they will likely sideline any possibility of video game negotiations for four to six weeks. That could be a problem for the companies, since March and May bring a pair of trade shows, the Game Developers Conference and E3, in preparation for which the companies often engage actors to help create demos of upcoming product, noted SAG-AFTRA interactive committee chair Keythe Farley. Without a deal, union actors would be unavailable.

That suggests the possibility of talks in December or January. "We could resolve this dispute today," White told THR, adding, "We’ve offered them a deal that they can make."

But the companies don’t see it that way, and it looks like this strike may have many more weeks of game play yet to unfold.