Wednesday, May 21, 2008

NY Times: Voice Actor Compensation Confusion Edition


The New York Times just ran an article about voice actors in games. The Times makes it sound like Michael Holick, the voice of Niko Belic is unhappy with his deal, and the part of the quote working its way through the blogosphere makes it sound worse. The whole quote paints a mildly different story. Here is the whole quote:
“Obviously I’m incredibly thankful to Rockstar for the opportunity to be in this game when I was just a nobody, an unknown quantity,” Mr. Hollick, 35, said last week over dinner in Willamsburg, Brooklyn, shortly after performing in the aerial theater show “Fuerzabruta” in Union Square. “But it’s tough, when you see Grand Theft Auto IV out there as the biggest thing going right now, when they’re making hundreds of millions of dollars, and we don’t see any of it. I don’t blame Rockstar. I blame our union for not having the agreements in place to protect the creative people who drive the sales of these games. Yes, the technology is important, but it’s the human performances within them that people really connect to, and I hope actors will get more respect for the work they do within those technologies.”

I get it. It sucks to have that much money woosh by your head. When it happens, you feel it. But the guy is not disparaging the company or the deal he chose to take to make the game. He also happens to be blaming the wrong people; and The Times, is making a non-story into a story by garbling facts.

The game business is no different than any other form of entertainment, and the actors make the decision to participate, or not, of their own free will.  The Times makes a critical mistake of comparing apples to donkeys. The reporter writes:
Had this been a television program, a film, an album, a radio show or virtually any other sort of traditional recorded performance, Mr. Hollick and the other actors in the game would have made millions by now. As it stands, they get nothing beyond the standard Screen Actors Guild day rate they were originally paid.
This is not true. The writer is confusing revenue participation with residuals. If this were a film, and he is an actor, he would only make additional money if he was powerful enough at the outset to secure a gross participation.  If it were television, he would receive the union rate - less than he received for his work on GTA - until the show goes into reruns, sells into syndication or sells on DVD. Mr. Holick, appearing in his first film or tv show, would receive nothing beyond his day's pay. The money the writer is referring to comes from residuals. Residuals come from downstream exploitation windows. The second run of the television show, the radio play, cable sale. He does not get paid on the first run. In games, there are no downstream windows. The first run is the only run. The same run for which John Favreau received a flat fee on Iron Man. When it comes to additional revenue from the primary release window, Favreau, like Holick, is S.O.L. It is the deal he made when he signed.  Now, are Favreau and Holick going to make the same deal the next time? Probably not. 

The actors have a choice to participate in the game or not. The deal is made clear at the outset. When I was at the agency I was called into a talent agent's office to speak with an academy award winning actress. She was much prettier in person, I guess its why she's an actress:

"My brother was in xxxxxx game, and it sold millions of copies and he received no back end." She said.
"Yeah, the game business doesn't pay a back end on games."
"Well every actor should get a back end."
"Yes they should" said the guy who commissions revenue from actors who are not receiving back end payments
"Why don't they?"
"Well, xxxxx with your brother's voice sells 5 million units. xxxxx without your brother's voice sells 5 million units."
"I don't care, actors should get back ends."
The conversation told me this actress would not be available for game work. For every one of her, there is another actor who likes games and is willing to do the work.  They gladly take the flat fee to participate in the game. I heard one story of an actor who felt he was so overpaid for the work he did on a hit title, he took the publishing staff to dinner with the relatively modest amount of money he was paid. 

Actors do sometimes have leverage to secure a back end in the game, but like the actors who receive gross participation in a film, it is because their participation will sell units. Bruce Willis was rumored to receive equity in Activision, in addition to a significant back end for the never released Apocalypse game. He co-created the property, lent promotional assistance and committed to his likeness in the game. There were also rumors of back ends for Pierce Brosnan in Bond, and curiously, Jean Reneau in Onimusha 3. The fact these deals stand out shows the rarity, but they happen. They are rare not because the publishers are unwilling to pay, but because the actors were let down by SAG in their core business, film, not the game business. You notice, two of the three deals had no related film. 

Name actors are most often used in film based games. Publishers secure the license to make a film based game from the studio producing the film. Upon execution of its agreement with the actor, the studios generally receive likeness rights for all ancillaries from lunch boxes to games. The likeness rights pass to the publisher as part of the license fee. The actors are often surprised to receive a call and an offer to work on the game. Their agent will look at the offer - a fraction of their pay for the film - and ask for ten times as much. The publisher will explain the actor can participate, or choose to have their likeness voiced by a sound-a-like. I think you know how the conversation turns out.

So thank you New York Times for bringing all of this to light. What it says to me, is Michael Holick can appear in a video game and get his picture in the New York Times, just like if he were in a film. In a glass half full kind of way, it is another sign games are going mainstream.




5 comments:

Mauricio said...

In response to Michael Holick "blaming the wrong people", who would he, or any concerned voice actor" appropriately complain to if it isn't Rockstar, or the Screen Actors Guild? Or, I suppose, from the diction that your posts takes, I should ask, are there any people for him to complain to in existence? From the sound of it, because anyone who bares the prerequisites for the job, and because there are many options for the hiring staff to choose from, that individual will be paid a flat rate without royalties if they aren't 'powerful' enough. It sounds as if you're saying "this is just the way it is". Is there anyway for an agent representing an actor without "power" and the person hiring the actor to agree on the terms that if a games sells 'x' amount, our (actor) party receives 'x' royalty?

Keith said...

Thank you for the comment Mauricio. He is saying SAG let him down and games are treated differently. My point is he is treated no differently than if he performed in other media. Any money he would make from the game is equivalent to a gross participation in other media. Gross participation in games, like in film, will be paid to participants whose presence will increase sales.

Agents can and should ask every time one of their actors is approached. They just have to be ready to cave if their actor really wants to be in the game. They are as likely to get it in games as they are in film.

Mauricio Bowers said...

And, because his ''name-less" presence doesn't immediately raise software sales, he receives no special treatment? Just like in other forms of media?

weezie said...

Ha! Great image for the post! I worked on Apocalypse and ol' Brucie was paid plenty well for his involvement. Can't say I ever met the man even though I pulled quite a few all-nighters to make him look like a legitimate, kick ass video game hero.

mattmattmatt said...

Why should actors be entitled to any additional compensation before programmers, artists, designers and producers are paid their long tail money?

I think Hollywood and SAG understand the game food chain just fine, they just don't like it because it inverts the structure that gives them power -- that is, the success of games makes the rare freak of nature known a pretty face less valuable (in fact, it makes it a commodity) while making a clever, creative ideas (and, god forbid, even good math skills) more valuable.

Perhaps this signals less an uncovering of the plight of games voice actor and actresses, and more so a value awakening of the creative forces actually driving a medium that confuses and terrifies the entertainment industry of the last century.

Like him or not, Sam Houser lays it out most clearly in a recent interview with Edge:

But what about when Liotta publicly grumbled about Vice City, post-release? "He made some comments later on through his agent, something like, ‘Hey, that game was so big I should have charged them more money’, and I hate that kind of chat. It’s like, be cool. You know? I hate that – it’s so cheesy. Like he’s saying, ‘Next time I’m really going to pin it to them’. Well, how about we just killed off your character? So he doesn’t exist – there is no next time. That’s how we handle that."