Sarah Elmaleh just landed her dream role — a lead in a BioWare game, Anthem the studio's first major release since Mass Effect: Andromeda. Elmaleh has fought her way to this opportunity, starting her career in the indie space and appearing in games like Pyre, Galak-Z, and Gone Home. Her triple-A credits include, among others, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 and Final Fantasy XV. Still, Anthem is the biggest role in Elmaleh's career and it would be easy to frame this opportunity as the culmination of hard work and singular talent. But, she sees her journey differently.
"Meritocracy is a total illusion," Elmaleh tells SYFY WIRE.
Creatives who bring films, shows, books, comics, and games to life command tremendous cultural cachet. When the final season of Game of Thrones debuts in April, it will be an event that occupies an inordinately large chunk of public attention and discourse. At the same time, the United States is a country that is largely reluctant to pay artists. Even though arts and entertainment are a huge economic driver, pursuing the arts is seen more as a hobby for people who can afford it than as a viable career. Arts education often comes with a hefty price tag and, compared to other vocations, the monetary returns on pursuing a career as an artist are mostly non-existent.
As such, Elmaleh hesitated to pursue a career in acting. It wasn't until she spent a bleak summer in Boston not doing anything artistic that she realized she wouldn't be happy without the arts. "This is a dumb career and even good people don't make it," she says. "It is on paper insane. It is not something you should do… I just decided to be a nut and roll the dice anyway. But I don't feel vindicated in any way, which is probably why I'm so involved on the labor side of things."
Last year, Elmaleh worked with several voice actors — including her mentor and V.O. superstar Jennifer Hale — to broker an indie and low budget game contract with SAG-AFTRA. The contract gave indie game developers the opportunity to work with world-class talent, but it also allows artists like Elmaleh to remain active in the indie space. Triple-A games might control a huge portion of the market, but the indies are a laboratory where exciting artistic work incubates.
Elmaleh would know, as she got her first game V.O. gigs through indie devs. After her time in Boston, she moved to New York, where she attended arcade parties and got introduced to several key players in the burgeoning independent games scene, including Dave Gilbert, who cast her in Blackwell: Deception. The new contract lets established talent to keep working with creators who work on an edge of innovation and artistic experimentation that isn't always possible at the triple-A level.
A big part of this negotiation lies in finding new and inventive ways to pay talent and creatives, exploring residuals and profit-sharing options. Older models leaned on flat fees, which can often sound good on paper until you do the math. A V.O. artist making $1,000 for a session seems like a lot of money for a day's work. To make a $40,000 annual salary (well under the US median) a V.O. artist making $1,000 per gig would have to book forty gigs – which is not just unlikely, but absurd. And that's before chunks of the money go to agents, managers, insurance, and taxes. The work also includes a multitude of unpaid requirements, such as prepping for auditions and actually auditioning. "[It] is like sports, you are either a superstar and make a ton of money or you struggle," Elmaleh says.
After instilling her with a passion for the arts, Elmaleh's parents also gave her an appreciation for labor. Her mother was a flight attendant in the '70s and served as the first treasurer of the Association of Flight Attendants. Prior to the union, flight attendants had to suffer through weigh-ins and make-up inspections to ensure that they were aesthetically appealing to passengers. They were actively discouraged from wearing wedding rings, so as to appear more sexually available. Advocating for labor change made things better, and Elmaleh learned from her mother's example.
"Things need to be better, and they can be better," she says. "And you can do it in a way that's win-win for everyone. And my mom did that. I think I absorbed that optimism and savvy."
The new contract with SAG-AFTRA gives V.O. artists the opportunity to share in the profits if a small indie game becomes a huge hit. The win for indie developers is that the new deal gives them more flexibility to lower initial fees for the recording sessions. Success is shared while alleviating some of the financial barriers to creating new independent works.
In addition to family support, Commander Shepard herself, Jennifer Hale, has championed Elmaleh's career. The two met when Elmaleh had reached the finals in a V.O. competition and got paired with Hale as a coach. Both women stayed in touch afterward, and when Elmaleh was ready to leave New York, Hale was in L.A. and eager to help her secure meetings with agents and managers. That's not always the case with veterans and up-and-comers.
"The way Jennifer puts it, 'at our level everyone is good,'" Elmaleh explains. "'They're either going to want your flavor of ice cream or a different flavor. It's all good ice cream.' She doesn't feel threatened… If I see someone who is talented, hardworking, and adaptable – it is my obligation to help them."
With the release of Anthem, Elmaleh takes up the mantle of leadership in the field while stepping into the next phase of her V.O. career. Her generosity and her deep love for the medium but even more for the people who work in it is evident in her actions on both sides of a microphone. Her ability to empathize with talent on all sides of game development and production are reflected in her craft, as she builds complex and nuanced performances into her work.
"Game voice acting is challenging, and esoteric, and specific, and people committing to it investing their time, energy, education, availability, body — because it's physically taxing — and their imagination," Elmaleh says. "I encourage people to imagine someone who is not a superstar… but someone who is really good. Who shows up and just crushes it. I would like to think they deserve to make a living doing this."