It’s game over for thesp talks

Strike looming in gaming biz

In a move that could easily spell the end of union actors in the booming vidgame biz, SAG/AFTRA and representatives of the vidgame industry broke off talks on the last day of a contract extension with no agreement and a strike likely.

While the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists still must hold a caucus to see if the unions will strike, insiders confirmed that the guild and industry ended talks Friday far apart and with little hope of reconciliation.

The unions had been insisting on some form of residual payments, a demand that publishers adamantly refused. Final offer by the industry group did, however, include a hefty 35% increase in the base rate of $556.20 per session for voiceover work as well as various backend incentives.

SAG/AFTRA’s final proposal included a demand for profit sharing in games that sell over 400,000 units, a category that includes only a few hits per year, such as “Halo 2” and “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” but on which the vidgame biz makes most of its revenues.

Total revenue for vidgame sales in 2004 was $6.2 billion.

Studios at risk

Also at risk are the studios and tenpercenteries that are becoming increasingly involved in the vidgame biz. If any type of game would be affected by the absence of pro actors, insiders agree, it’s movie adaptations, where gamers have come to expect they will see and hear talent from the movies (though some games, like last year’s hit “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” adaptation, succeed without movie talent.)

If fewer such games are made, studios will see licensing revenue — a growing biz for them — diminish. Similarly, agencies will feel the pinch if they can’t put their stars into games. Thesps such as Vin Diesel and Robert Duvall have drawn salaries as high as the low seven figures for vidgame work.

“If a strike happens, all of us in Hollywood will be in the same boat with this problem,” said a studio exec who deals with interactive licensing.

At loggerheads

“There is only one way to describe (vidgame producers’) position: completely unreasonable and lacking in any appreciation of the contributions made by actors to the enormous profits enjoyed by this industry,” said SAG prexy Melissa Gilbert. “If producers want their games to maintain a professional quality, they need to offer an agreement that shows greater respect to the professional performers who make these games come alive.”

Publishers’ reps countered that the unions’ demand was unreasonable. Game companies typically spend less than $50,000 on voiceover work for games that don’t have a celeb involved. Industry insiders complained they could end up spending as much as $1 million on hit games under the guilds’ proposal.

But ultimately, the dispute seemed to come down to whether SAG and AFTRA have any leverage in potentially removing their members from the vidgame biz.

“It is simply shortsighted to believe that consumers don’t care about the artistic quality of the characters,” declared AFTRA national prexy John P. Connolly.

But the vidgame industry claims just the opposite is true.

“Voiceover work represents a small fraction of a videogame’s development and consumer enjoyment,” said Howard Fabrick, a partner at law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, who negotiated on behalf of the publishers. “The game publishers don’t expect any impasse to have long-term impact on their business.”

Most vidgame industry pros echo that sentiment. Electronic Arts and Activision were the only major publishers involved in negotiations, and execs at many others seemed indifferent when asked about a potential strike.

The breakdown in contract negotiations comes just as the vidgame industry is gathering for the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3. Expo runs Wednesday through Friday.

SAG insiders said that over the weekend, negotiating committee leaders conferred and have advocated a low-profile approach with regard to their differences with the publishers. Rumors flew that a guild demonstration was being planned at E3, but a SAG insider with knowledge of the union’s plans insists it will be a low-key leafleting effort, not a massive rally of actors.

No ‘nuclear war’

“We’re not trying to make this into a nuclear war,” said the insider, stressing that behind-the-scenes talks were still being considered as an option, though no formal negotiations are on the calendar.

For the game industry, dealing with unions is a new and, in the case of actors, unique experience. Developers, the people who create vidgames, aren’t unionized, and even the Writers Guild allows its members to work on games under an optional contract that just includes a pension and health contribution.

The majority of games produced today are done with non-union talent. Insiders say a strike by SAG and AFTRA would lead those publishers that have decided to start using union talent, ranging from EA to Microsoft to Sony, to simply do without.

“They’re union-free with this one exception, and I think after the experience with these negotiations they would be happy to wash themselves of unions entirely,” said Lev Chapelsky, general manager of Blindlight Prods., which recruits voiceover actors for vidgames.

Publishers claim that they consider professional voiceover talent to be a luxury, not a necessity, and most gamers focus on graphics and gameplay when deciding whether to spend their $50.

More and more games, including ones not based on movies, use celebrity talent, however, including Heather Graham in “Everquest 2” and David Duchovny in “Area 51.” Such big names, which publishers love to use in marketing and PR, would be cut out along with unknown day players if a strike is called.