All those years when he was struggling to get by as an aspiring actor--tending bar, working in a bagel shop in Morningside Heights, spraying perfume at Bloomingdale's--he was aiming for Broadway and prime time. As he moved from regional theater to soap operas, middling musicals and Law & Order, he remained just another good-looking guy hoping for an audition.
His face still isn't famous, but Hollick's voice and gait have moved into the pop-culture firmament recently as those of Niko Bellic, the sardonic, textured Balkan criminal at the , the acclaimed gangster fantasy that has become the
Produced by Rockstar Games and its corporate parent, Take-Two Interactive Software, the game has generated at least $600 million in sales over the last three weeks.
Yet even as Saturday Night Live has spoofed the Niko character, even as Hollick's voice has been heard in tens of millions of homes in advertisements broadcast during American Idol and the NBA playoffs, even as fans have flocked to his MySpace page, his triumph has been bittersweet.
That's because Hollick was paid only about $100,000 over roughly 15 months between late 2006 and early this year for all of his voice acting and motion-capture work on the game, with zero royalties or residuals in sight, he said.
Had this been a television program, a film, an album, a radio show, or virtually any other sort of traditional recorded performance, Hollick and the other actors in the game would have made millions of dollars by now. As it stands, they get nothing beyond the standard Screen Actors Guild day rate they were originally paid.
That is because the contracts between the actors' union and the entertainment industry
"Obviously, I'm incredibly thankful to Rockstar for the opportunity to be in this game when I was just a nobody, an unknown quantity," Hollick, 35, said last week over dinner in Willamsburg, Brooklyn, shortly after performing in the aerial-theater show Fuerzabruta in New York's Union Square. "But it's tough, when you see Grand Theft Auto IV out there as the biggest thing going right now, when they're making hundreds of millions of dollars, and we don't see any of it. I don't blame Rockstar. I blame our union for not having the agreements in place to protect the creative people who drive the sales of these games. Yes, the technology is important, but it's the human performances within them that people really connect to, and I hope actors will get more respect for the work they do within those technologies."
Rockstar declined to comment for this article, but it is an issue that has been hanging over the video game industry for years. On the one hand, through both creative and technical ambition, game makers are infusing their wares with more realistic characters and stories than ever. On the other hand, the $18 billion United States game industry has steadfastly refused to pay royalties to voice and motion-capture body actors along the lines of other entertainment media.
To the actors, it is a simple issue of equity: equal pay for equal work, regardless of the medium.
"For instance, our contracts say nothing about the use of voices for promotional purposes over the Internet," Hollick said. "The first GTA IV trailer generated something like 40 million hits online, and that's my voice all over it, and I get nothing. If that were a radio spot, I would have. Same thing for the TV ads. I recorded those lines for the game, but now they're all over television. It's another gray area."
One of the big differences between games and traditional media is that while a film, play, or TV show is usually marketed around a few well-known stars, games almost never highlight the people behind the digital characters, and almost no one buys a game based on which actors are in it.
"What drives video games is not Tracy and Hepburn; what drives it is the conception of the creative director," said Ezra J. Doner, a former Hollywood executive who represents entertainment companies as a lawyer at Herrick, Feinstein in Manhattan. "The actor whose appearance or voice is used is more analogous to a session (musician) for a band. The session musicians don't get residuals on the sales of the CD. They get paid a session fee. It's not like the star quality of Tom Cruise that's getting people to buy that video game."
Hollick said he "asked about residuals when we negotiated, but I was told that was not a possibility."
Ryan Johnston, the 29-year-old actor behind the Irish hood Patrick McReary, one of the main supporting characters in the game, said he believed it was just a matter of time before actors' financial participation in games caught up with their popularity. He said the general guild-negotiated rate for actors is about $730 a day. Hollick said he had been paid about 50 percent more than the standard rate, or about $1,050 a day. A spokeswoman for the union said this week that no one was available to discuss the issue.
"What we're seeing is a basic shift in the way that people seek their entertainment," Johnston said. "People want their entertainment to be convenient. They want it in their home or in their iPod for the train ride, which is a lot different than the old mode, where I had to spend hundreds of dollars to see a Broadway play or pay $12 to sit in a crowded movie theater where I can't even pause or go to the bathroom. And games are the first entertainment product that has taken full advantage of that shift."
The game companies that make millions in royalties appear reluctant to share. Among their executives, one real fear is that if they start paying royalties to a handful of actors, they will soon face similar demands from the legions of artists, designers, audio producers, musicians, programmers, and other people who work for years to make a top-end game. If the actor doing a police officer's voice-over gets royalties, the argument goes, why not the artist who designed his face, or the artificial-intelligence programmer who designed how he chases the bad guys?
Doner, the lawyer, said the situation fit into the general food chain of the media business. "When it comes to video games, the actors are being paid for their work for that initial use, and what they get paid is what they get paid," he said. "If they can negotiate a big fee for themselves, great. If not, well, that's too bad. So long as it's the medium for which they were hired, the logic of the industry has always been that that you get paid for the work that you do."
Compensation is a particularly delicate issue for Rockstar, which has positioned itself as a creatively independent voice amid what the company construes as the staid mainstream game industry.
For Hollick, Niko has still been the role of a lifetime. A native of the eastern shores of Maryland, Hollick developed a talent for dialects as a theater student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, he said. In the game, Niko is a war-scarred Serbian who has worked as a human trafficker before landing in New York (known in the game as Liberty City).
Hollick's masterly performance as the voice and body of Niko appears to stem from Hollick's rich conception of the character, as well as from a stellar script.
"Developing Niko, the dry sense of humor, as the story begins--he's this really hard guy with this really difficult background, but what gives it depth is that there is this naivete as well," Hollick said. "He comes to the big city, and he's not on firm ground. He's not sure where he stands. So there is a lot to work with. And as he becomes more confident, the sense of humor comes out. The screenwriters and directors were really hip to that and really did a great job of making the character three-dimensional."
Of course, because this is a video game, in addition to thousands of lines of dialogue, there were the more, shall we say, atmospheric effects.
"So we would have the 50 pages of screaming, 10 pages of being shot, 10 pages of being thrown off a roof, 20 pages of being burnt alive, just screaming," he said. "The ones being burnt alive were the best. And I'd just be like: 'Bring me more hot tea, and honey and lemon. Earl Grey.'"