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Voice Actors Seek a Share of Video Game Profits

Performers who want residuals for hit titles will vote on whether to authorize a strike.

June 03, 2005|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

Lynnanne Zager screams for a living.

In "The Passion of the Christ," the actress voiced angry women screaming in Aramaic at Jesus before his crucifixion. In "Titanic," her distressed cries were heard as passengers plunged into the chilly seas. In "Shrek," she screeched at the sight of the ogre.

Perhaps her most strenuous voice-over gig was a four-hour session for a video game. Zager's signature shrieks can be heard in the upcoming "The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction" as panicked pedestrians flee the monster.

"It was so intensive," Zager said. "I lost my voice for an hour and a half."

The price of her laryngitis: $900, a fraction of the $10,000 she earned from "Shrek." That discrepancy in pay is the reason Zager and other actors now are raising their voices to complain about how much they are paid by game publishers.

With video game sales soaring to $25 billion worldwide, actors say it's time for game publishers to start sharing the wealth by paying actors residuals on sales when a game becomes a hit. As it stands now, they receive a flat session fee.

On Tuesday, about 2,000 actors affected by a contract with game publishers will vote on whether to authorize union leaders to call a strike against such major companies as Electronic Arts Inc. and Activision Inc.

"It is impossible to get around the fact that professional actors contribute significantly to the enormous revenues that video game companies enjoy," said Seth Oster, speaking on behalf of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

Game publishers argue that their current offer is generous. They resist sharing their profits, contending that voice actors play a small part in the development of a video game and aren't the reason consumers buy them.

Attorney Howard Fabrick, who heads a negotiating committee representing eight game publishers, said that granting residuals would open the door to requests from scores of others in the game development chain.

"That would set a precedent for hundreds of other people who created a game to say, 'What about us?' " Fabrick said.

Last month, the two actors' unions rejected a final offer from the game publishers that included a proposed 35% increase in the session rate for voice-over actors -- an increase to $750 from $556 per four-hour session by 2008. But union officials said that the offer masked what had been paltry increases over the last 12 years.

The chief sticking point: Publishers balked at a union proposal that would pay workers extra session fees when games sell more than 400,000 units.

The labor dispute comes at a delicate time for game publishers, who are increasingly courting Hollywood stars in an effort to make their games more like movies, with studio-quality storytelling, effects and acting. SAG's Oster said nine out of the top 10 games last year featured actors working under the union contract.

Activision is developing a game based on 20th Century Fox's upcoming film "Fantastic Four" that includes star Jessica Alba. Electronic Arts tapped Sean Connery to reprise his role as James Bond in a video game version of the film "From Russia With Love."

SAG and AFTRA have never struck the video game industry. Their last walkout against any industry came in 2000 during a six-month strike against advertisers over pay for commercials.

Analysts believe a strike would not seriously harm game makers. They note that new titles for 2005 are mostly complete, and the companies will have little difficulty finding replacement workers.

"It will have zero impact," said Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities in Los Angeles.

Game publishers are ready to reach out to casting directors, acting academies and voice-over schools for potential nonunion talent, said negotiator Fabrick, who noted that only about 15% of all video games involved actors working under the union contract.

"At the end of the day, it's not like the United Auto Workers walking out of General Motors," he said.

But Oster said actors stick together during work stoppages, which would hurt the companies.

Still, the prospect of a strike has divided actors, even those who sympathize with the cause. They argue that the unions lack clout with game makers.

"We don't have the kind of control that we need to win this thing," said Denny Delk, president of AFTRA's San Francisco branch.

Actors are hoping to gain sympathy by pointing out that those most affected aren't stars such as Connery and Alba, but working actors such as Zager and David Sobolov.

Known as "Voice Guy," Sobolov, 40, has voiced a number of top-selling games, including a jewel thief in Activision's "Spider-Man 2" that generated more than $120 million in sales.

"To walk away with $556 and change on a video game like 'Spider-Man 2' just doesn't cut it," said Sobolov, who is on SAG's negotiating committee.

As for Zager, 50, a single mother of two teenagers, she said the work should pay fairly for the amount of effort she puts into her roles.

"I wouldn't be able to live off the money I make from video games even though I work just as hard," Zager said.

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