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Crunchyroll's Move Back to In-Person Dub Recording Sparks Union Discussion

by Evan Minto,

In March, I wrote about a growing group of anime voice actors demanding more union productions in the anime dubbing industry. Since that article was published the conversation has only intensified, and on Wednesday, April 13 the PGM (People of Global Majority) VO List and the Coalition of Dubbing Actors (CODA) responded with a virtual roundtable to answer questions about unionization, hosted by actor Risa Mei (Inui in My Dress-Up Darling).” The conversation occurred in the shadow of a new development at Crunchyroll: the company is moving back to in-person recording, two years after Crunchyroll and FUNimation switched over to remote recording in response to COVID-19.

The roundtable began with an introduction to union dubs from anime and video game actor Marin Miller (Izanami in B: The Beginning), who later gave the floor to representatives from the union covering actors in the U.S., the Screen Actors Guild-Association of Film, Television, and Radio Actors (SAG-AFTRA). One thing Miller clarified: CODA isn't part of SAG. It's an independent group that advocates for dub actors, pushing for more union shows and better union contracts. The two-hour discussion and audience Q&A highlighted the benefits SAG offers to its members (minimum pay, health insurance, a pension) while also exposing lingering questions from non-union actors about both the impact greater union density will have on the industry, and the path to achieving it.

Miller described the anime dubbing industry as being in a “once-in-a-generation, industry-wide moment of flux.” Citing COVID, the rise of remote recording, and the Crunchyroll and FUNimation merger, they acknowledged that it's a scary time for voice actors, who often struggled to find consistent work even before the pandemic. But according to Miller, the newly-merged Crunchyroll represents a “chokepoint of power.” Crunchyroll is committed to producing many of its shows in-house rather than farming out work to external studios, so signing this one company to a union contract — as SAG was able to do with Netflix — would instantly transform hundreds of shows from non-union to union.

Crunchyroll's shift toward in-person recording complicates those ambitions. After dozens of dubs produced remotely, many using talent from around the country, this season Crunchyroll confirmed that they have moved back to bringing Texas-based talent into the studio. ANN confirmed with multiple industry sources familiar with Crunchyroll's dubbing procedure that the company is not only bringing Texas talent in-house, but is focusing on casting Texas-based talent in its dubs. The Crunchyroll representative did not confirm that the company had told ADR directors to focus on only hiring Texas-based actors or was actively avoiding hiring talent outside of Texas.

An ANN analysis of recent castings as of May 10 reveals the proportion of Crunchyroll roles going to talent based outside of Texas in the Spring 2022 season dropped to less than half that of Winter 2022. This is partially explained by heavier use of Texas-based ADR directors compared to last season, but even shows directed outside of Texas had significantly fewer remote castings than in the winter.

In public Twitter threads and private conversations, actors complained of roles being recast from remote actors to Texas-based ones, with directors in some cases reportedly told not to cast outside of Texas. ANN did not find anyone willing to go on the record with specific examples, and many performers feared retaliation for speaking out. Notably, Texas is a right-to-work state, meaning that state laws curtailing unions will likely make organizing actors to demand a contract much more difficult.

Why the shift all of a sudden? According to Crunchyroll, they've “reopened and expanded,” and this is just a part of that process. The company also recently upgraded their studio space and likely wants to get use out of their investment. In the roundtable Miller also acknowledged the additional costs of remote recording, most notably the audio engineering work to normalize sound quality between different recording spaces. Whatever the reasons, the new approach has hit actors outside of Texas hard, and many complained that they were never officially notified of the change in policy. In a Twitter thread, Risa Mei highlighted the importance of remote recording for auto-immune disabled actors, calling the abrupt return to in-person recording “inhumane.” Mei explained in an e-mail to Anime News Network that for Texas-based actors who are immuno-compromised, it is still dangerous for them to come in-person for studio recording.

"It is inhumane for them to demand that Texas-based actors with auto-immune disabilities still come to the studio to work. This is not specific to just talent, but for production as well," Mei wrote.

According to Miller, SAG encourages remote recording but likely wouldn't be able to mandate it even if Crunchyroll did go union. At the very least it can mandate HEPA filters, regular cleaning, masking, and other COVID-19 safety protocols in the studio. Without the union, Crunchyroll can not only require in-person recording, but also require that actors consent to whatever safety rules (or lack thereof) they have in place.

The fate of international actors is closely tied to remote recording, which was a hot topic in the CODA Q&A session. SAG representatives assured the audience that they don't make casting decisions and thus the union wouldn't stop any client from hiring international talent. Maggie Russell-Brown, National Director of Organizing for SAG, put it bluntly: “Employers have the right to hire and make decisions about their business. Workers have the right to either accept that or not.” When those workers collectively refuse to accept non-union work they give SAG the power to get the company on board and negotiate a contract. “That's where the organizing piece comes in,” she said. One recent example: actor Reba Buhr secured an increased rate for the Ascendance of a Bookworm Season 3 cast as a condition of her returning to play Myne. “I wasn't willing to accept the same old, rock bottom rate I had received in the past,” she tweeted.

“There's power in numbers,” said Stephanie Sheh (Usagi in Sailor Moon), chiming in from the audience at the session. The more productions that sign a union contract, the more union work is available. The inverse is also true, though, and that catch-22 left some audience members uncertain about whether they'd be able to pick up enough work if they joined the union. But as Miller pointed out at the beginning of the presentation, the Netflix contract flipped everything under their umbrella, extending SAG benefits to many more actors. “I'm getting paid 30% more than I was last year,” they said. If SAG and CODA can overcome new policies around remote recording to do the same at Crunchyroll, it could fundamentally change the way anime dubbing work is done.

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