Videogames are featuring big-name actors. But what are the stars worth?

By Geoff Keighley
March 05, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Listen closely to the Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King videogame. You’ll see Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom, but you won’t hear them. When a salary standoff happens on a TV show, it typically ends with the ac-tor getting a major pay bump — not being replaced. But in the videogame business, ditching an actor’s as easy as finding a lower-paid soundalike. (Licensing agreements often let game producers replicate a character’s likeness and voice quality, with or without the actor’s participation.) Since sources say the two LOTR actors felt unfairly compensated for last year’s Two Towers game — which grossed around $250 million — they demanded far more than they were being offered for Return. When the demands weren’t met, they pulled out. (Average actor salaries run about $40,000 to $60,000.)

With the $11 billion video-game industry increasingly turning to name actors who are used to top salaries, such negotiations are becoming more common. Agents are angling for big talent fees, but game publishers are pushing back, claiming actors are less essential to a game than to a movie. ”What determines the success of these games is not whether a celebrity is involved or not,” says Alias creator J.J. Abrams, himself an avid gamer. ”You buy a game because it’s a great game.”

That may be a bitter pill for some stars to swallow, but, historically, games have sold well without marquee-name involvement. ”In the movie business, adding an actor’s name to a project guarantees a certain box office number,” says Lori Plager, senior director of brand development and licensing at Activision. ”But in the game business that’s yet to be proven.” Some actors who’ve tried crossing over have had a bumpy ride. In 1998 Bruce Willis was paid more than $1.2 million to lend his voice and likeness to Apocalypse, a critically panned action game that earned a hugely disappointing $10 million in the U.S.

However, like everyone else, game makers have celebrity fever and are ”trying to outdo each other with their voice casts,” says Natanya Rose, cohead of the animation department at ICM. ”It’s becoming like the DreamWorks and Disney rivalry for animated-film voiceovers.” Respected actors like Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, and Brian Cox have recently appeared in games. ”It’s profitable because it’s quick,” admits Cox, whose four-hour recording session for Manhunt was initially done just for fun.

Deals for the real marquee names are harder to close. In 2002 Microsoft considered hiring Harrison Ford to star in Crimson Skies for the Xbox — that is, until the company was told negotiations would run into the millions. ”I don’t know of a case where we’d be willing to pay even a million dollars for a voice-over,” says Activision’s Plager, who failed to sign Mike Myers for the Shrek 2 game. (A soundalike will step in.) Hollywood agents, not surprisingly, insist actors deserve richer deals and profit participation. Says ICM’s Larry Hummel: ”It’s hard to take a game to an Academy Award-winning actor and say, ‘Do this for a couple of nickels,’ when everyone else is saying these games are making a fortune.”