How Important Are Dub Voice Actors To American Anime Publishers?
by Justin Sevakis,
There's been a lot of controversy about a handful of voice actors behaving badly at conventions lately. But one argument that I see coming up a lot is that it might be a coordinated attempt by other anime companies to smear their competitors' big stars. Are these voice actors really so important to the anime companies? I thought they were freelancers!
This line of conspiratorial thought is usually floated by people who don't really understand how the business works. When someone that you look up to might not be who you thought they were, it's easy to try and dismiss it as some sort of conspiracy, so long as you can uphold your beliefs as they currently are. But the truth of the matter is, English voice actors are rarely - if ever - considered "important enough" by the executive class at any given major anime company to really impact the inner workings of that company.
Voice actors are not employees. Typically they only drop by the dub studio to record for a few hours when they're needed -- they likely don't linger in the offices, and only occasionally mingle among the general staff. In general they aren't told confidential business information unless it's something they need to know to voice a role. They mostly don't interact with people outside of the dubbing crew, and maybe a few marketing people that ask them to do convention appearances.
(Of course, there are people who fans know as "voice actors" that are actually full-time staff at Funimation or Sentai or another dub studio. Being a voice actor is not the full-time job these people have -- they usually work in dubbing in some production capacity, such as voice direction or script adaptation -- and then they simply moonlight or act as just an extra thing they do for their job. I'm not talking about those people.)
Voice actors work entirely as freelance. They don't "belong" to a single studio (though they might work more consistently with one than with others). They can work anywhere that will hire them, and that's generally not a problem, as long as they can make the schedule work out. They are generally seen by the executive class as "expendable". Sure, it would be preferable to maintain the same dub cast for however long a franchise keeps going, but if a particular actor needs to be replaced for whatever reason, it's not the end of the world.
Many fans look up to voice actors, because they're often friendly and charismatic, and they're the closest thing to a human representative of the shows and characters they love. They share fun stories, command the attention of thousands of people at conventions, and are generally entertaining. And for that reason, both conventions and industry spend a lot of time and money flying them to make appearances, give panels, sign autographs, and meet and greet fans. It's good marketing for the shows. It gets fans excited about the product. And as long as a voice actor does what is asked of them, and the fans like them, they'll be asked back.
Some voice actors are well-liked by the people around them, both in the industry and on the convention staff scene. The ones that are kind and gracious quickly become friends with staff, and some even get hired into other jobs at these companies. Others have earned reputations for being rude, self-absorbed, or creepy, and are simply endured for the sake of the fans. And while everyone has their limits for the bad behavior they'll put up with, convention and industry people have put up with A LOT of diva behavior over the years.
Obnoxious or outrageous incidents are generally kept away from the general public. The entire reason the actors are flown to these shows is to let the fans have their fantasies, to get them excited, to let them have a good time. As long as the fans are generally happy and the folks at the top are making money, the show must go on.
But the anime industry has a LOT of friendships across different companies and conventions. While the companies themselves might be rivals, the main competition is for new shows, and that happens in Japan, behind closed doors. At a convention, people from different companies, different parts of the industry, different convention staff, and others hang out, have drinks, and enjoy each others' company -- and that includes the actors. It's an entire social scene that varies wildly depending on who's at the convention, and what the party scene is like at that con.
These industry people talk, and gossip. If someone is a jerk, or does something outrageous, you can bet word will travel fast. Sometimes the gossip gets a little "Mean Girls," but it seldom goes beyond that -- everyone is tired and trying to unwind and do their jobs. There really isn't space or rationale for conspiracy against anybody to exist. Everyone is there to serve the fans. And the people with power — the executives — are generally not the ones engaging in voice actor gossip. They're concerned with other things.
In fact, outside of the dub crew and the marketing crew, individual actors are not a major consideration of anime distributors. They are generally all paid the same rate for a production, and barring some exceptions, in general no one actor is seen as particularly important to any one company. Executives almost never involve themselves with hiring VAs. They're free agents, all of them, and at the end of the day they only represent themselves. If certain behavior comes to light that tarnishes their ability to make fans happy, these companies and conventions might not continue to indulge them.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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