Ties That Bind

I wrote a piece last week about the lost decade experienced by SAG/AFTRA, and how specifically the voice-over business has faced radical changes that have endangered the union benefits and status of many voice-over professionals. In order to regain some of the lost work, SAG/AFTRA needs to incorporate several measures. One small solution I propose is a SAG/AFTRA voice-over only agreement with employers. Due to technology, voice-over is a relatively flattened international industry and very rarely do voice-over talent need to perform where the production is based. The opposite is true with on-camera performers and consequently, separate markets have evolved for voice-over and on-camera performers. Current SAG/AFTRA contracts, specifically for commercials, industrials and promos, link the two together, and I am proposing there are strong reasons to separate them.

Why Are the SAG/AFTRA Voice-Over and On-Camera Tied Together?

Initially, there were very strong reasons to have commercial, industrial and promo contracts incorporating both skills as they virtually guaranteed a 100% commitment to union talent on every production. In other words, if production wanted to hire SAG/AFTRA talent on-camera, they would also have to commit to union voices as well. The reverse applied to non-union work and in principal, that rule is supposed to protect union jobs by not allowing production to cherry pick union and non-union performers based on whims or reallocated resources. Unfortunately, a myriad of modern problems evolved as well.

Production Is More Local Than Ever.

One of the first problems that evolved was the evolution of hundreds of local productions.   A decade ago, if you were shooting a series of bank commercials in Colorado or Tennessee, you likely hired a director from New York or Los Angeles and possibly actors from there as well. Today, that’s usually not necessary as there are a slew of capable local directors, camera people and production companies who cut their teeth with easily accessible modern video technology.   Local production companies are most apt to hire local actors, and this is where things get complicated with 100% union contracts.

First, keep in mind, if you are Denver or Memphis there just are not a lot of available SAG/AFTRA actors to begin with and even fewer types to choose from. So unless your production wants to pay travel and casting costs, you are likely hiring from a local non-union pool. A second factor is that many of these jobs tend to have few, if any, speaking parts so they don’t need actors as much as types. As long as a handful look like bankers and another handful look like customers, the director will likely be able to get the performances he/she needs.

What is then missing? The voice-over that weaves the narrative thread. In this scenario, the voice-over is by far the most important performer yet a union actor is not allowed to be hired even when almost everyone involved is willing to spend the money on a union actor. A voice-over specific commercial contract solves this problem and also allows the possibility that the voice talent will be used in other mediums (for instance, radio) as well.

Animation and Graphics Has Also Changed the Landscape.

More and more commercials, industrials and promos today feature incredible animation and graphics, which were impossible a decade ago. SAG/AFTRA already has voice specific animation and interactive agreements yet there are none for commercials and industrials.

Why is this important? Take for instance, the rise of the “Explainer Video.” Before the Internet, an “explainer” was simply known as an “industrial film.” Explainers can be made incredibly cheaply… it’s not unheard of that $500 can get you a high quality explainer video yet what is often missing is a high quality narrator. In many cases, production is willing to pay voice-over union rates, but this is a circumstance where signing a SAG/AFTRA Industrial Agreement incorporating union on-camera actors as well is simply too binding for the producer. For example, any future hopes of incorporating local live action shoots would need to be seriously reassessed once SAG/AFTRA actors are accounted for.

What About Unintended Consequences?

I am sure there will be (and can even anticipate) some unintended consequences, but I still believe that separating some voice-over and on-camera contracts would create a healthier long-term industry. In the very least, SAG/AFTRA should consider it as a pilot program and then assess the results as they evolve.


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