Everything is bigger in Texas except anime voice actor wages

A critical look at the connection between wages and professionalism in the anime localization industry.

One of my favorite stories from the film business is about a non-union gaffer known for getting into trouble. We’ll call him Bob.

Bob is working on an indie film somewhere in the middle of South Dakota. The hours are long, the pay sucks, and the summer heat is unbearable. 

They’ve been shooting outside for 14 hours with no end in sight. The sun is going down as they began work on the final scene of the day. As the actors and director rehearse, Bob goes to the electric truck and cracks open a beer. 

The line producer walks by as he pops the can. 

“What the fuck are you doing‽” she shouts at Bob. “You’re still on the clock!”

Bob looks up from his drink with a sinister grin. “I’m going to tell you two things. 1) We’re in the middle of bumfuck nowhere South Dakota. The nearest gaffer of my skill level is 500 miles away, and they wouldn’t get out of bed for what you’re paying me. 2) I’m drinking this fucking beer.”

Bob did not get fired that day.

If the producer had fired him, Bob would’ve loaded his truck and taken his crew with him. The grip department would have likely done the same in solidarity. You can’t shoot a movie without lights. 

How does this relate to anime?

When the news broke that KissAnime was shutting down, several members of the anime localization community took to social media to remind fans of the legal streaming options available to them. Nothing wrong with that. This is how they make a living. Of course, they’re going to encourage those options.

It could have been an opportunity for these companies to convert new customers. We know that fans are upset about the recent news. If you sign up for an account today with the coupon code “KISSANIME” you’ll get a free month of Crunchyroll premium.

Instead, the prevailing message was condescending, complete with industry professionals getting into Twitter arguments about ethics that, frankly, no one involved was qualified to have. One of the most egregious arguments came from Alex Moore (Fire ForceFairy Tail), who compared people who pirate anime to colonizers.

Alex Moore's controversial "colonizer" Tweet.
Source: Alex Mooree’s Twitter

I have always loved and supported the people that work to localize anime. For a few years, I worked as an ADR technician for a small cartoon studio, so I know what it’s like to spend all day recording lines. It’s not easy work. 

The unfiltered behavior on social media is another story. It’s nothing short of a PR nightmare, and if localization companies paid their contractors worth a damn, they might be in a position to fire some of them. 

This is where Bob the non-union gaffer comes in. 

Bad wages give skilled workers leverage to be a little rowdy. A few years ago, I was on a film where I would pull out a bottle of bourbon each night during loadout. The reason I got away with this is because it was easier for my employer to tolerate my behavior than find a suitable replacement. It also helped that I shared with the executive producers.

This power is great for the workers, but it can become a problem for the employer. What if I start bringing out the bottle before loadout? What if I show up already drunk? Paying low wages is the same as gambling. Sometimes you get a skilled technician for a bargain. Sometimes people win the Powerball, too.

Rachael Messer (My Hero AcademiaBlack Clover) has been open with fans about the rates that localization companies pay actors. She states that actors – presumably non-union – can sometimes make $100/hour, but the number she most frequently cites for anime work is $35/hour. 

That’s a $72,000/year salary, right? Not quite. Most recording sessions only last a few hours. The actors I used to work with were typically booked 2-4 hours at a time, twice a month. Our company didn’t cover any tolls or parking expenses either.

It’s a hard truth about the entertainment industry. When you’re starting out, you’re lucky to get paid at all. This problem is particularly bad in the anime industry because its tendency to hire fans.

Callum May (The Canipa Effect) discusses this at length in his video “It’s Impossible to Live as a Crunchyroll Translator.” When Crunchyroll started producing simulcasts in 2008, they contracted people from fansubbing groups. These translators would have been doing the work anyway, so making $80/episode didn’t seem like a bad gig to them.

The business was also in different shape back then. In the late-2000s, we lost Geneon EntertainmentADV FilmsBandai Visual USA, and Central Park MediaBandai Entertainment would join them in 2012. ADV would rise from the ashes as a series of shell companies. 

It’s been over a decade since the anime bubbled burst. Funimation and Crunchyroll somehow survived and were swept up by Sony and AT&T respectively. Being owned by multibillion-dollar corporations means the excuse that anime companies can’t afford to pay better wages is no longer valid.

Then why would they do it?

The answer is a dangerous combination of “because they can” and “because we let them.” Let’s give Funimation the benefit of a doubt and say that $35/hour is a good rate for a voice actor. There still needs to be a minimum guarantee regardless of hours worked. Eight hours should be the standard. Tolls and parking expenses should also be reimbursed within 30-days of turning in a receipt.

We know they can afford to do this, but why would they pay better rates if they don’t have to? The reason is because anime fans would line up around the block for an opportunity to be in a dub of their favorite show. Many would do the work for free. 

In rare cases, fans will pay the anime company.

In 2016, one fan donated $5000 to the Kickstarter campaign to redub The Vision of Escaflowne for a small role. Later that year, three fans did the same when Pied Piper, Inc. launched a campaign to dub Skip Beat!

Due to the secretive nature of the anime industry, it’s difficult to determine the exact costs involved in dubbing. The Escaflowne Kickstarter goal was $150,000. When asked for a breakdown, Funimation Brand Manager, Jennifer Fu, said the details were “locked down via contract.”

The Skip Beat! Kickstarter was more transparent. Their original goal was $155,000 with 47% going towards producing the dub. When Nozomi ran campaigns to dub Aria the Animation and Emma: A Victorian Romance they budgeted 75% of their goal towards dubbing costs. Based on these three examples, we can surmise a budget of $3000-$6000 per episode. 

Without knowing the percentage Funimation budgeted, we can’t say for certain that they fall within this range; however, their cost per episodes should be lower because they have an in-house recording facility.

Taking a deeper look at the Skip Beat! campaign shows that $21,855 of their original goal is budgeted for cast. Splitting this across the series gives us a whopping $874.20 per episode. That same amount is spread among the director and sound team. 

It’s worth pointing out that all of these campaigns exceeded their original goals. Funimation put the extra money towards special features and higher quality packaging. Nozomi dubbed additional seasons and added a 5.1 mix. Pied Piper, Inc. stands out as being the only campaign to openly put that money towards hiring actors.

We may never know the real numbers, but the connection between low wages and bad behavior can’t be ignored. People act rashly when they have nothing to lose. When I started making more money at work, I started acting more professionally.

It’s the golden rule of employment. Respect your employees, and they’ll respect you. Well paid employees are also happier employees; happier employees are more productive employees. I still love to pull out the bottle of bourbon after a long day of work, but I wait until I’m done working now because my job is more important to me than waiting another hour for a drink.

Localization companies need to do better. They’ve been taking advantage of their workforce for too long. In 2017, Gen Fukanaga was boasting that Funimation makes $100 million in annual revenue. That number doubled in 2019. Crunchyroll surpassed 3 million subscribers this year, which should put them around $290 million annually. Meanwhile, industry professionals are forced to use GoFundMe to cover their medical costs. It’s embarrassing.

The solution to this problem is to organize. This will only work if aspiring voice actors and overzealous fans stand in solidarity and refuse to cross the picket line when it happens. The money is there, it just needs to be demanded. Imagine what would happen the entire cast of My Hero Academia and Black Clover just said “naw” one day. There would be a collective bargaining agreement complete with better pay and health insurance within months.

Unless these companies start to offer competitive wages, they’re more likely to hire people that don’t even have the common sense to make a horny Twitter or a Finsta when they want to talk shit online. Sometimes a company will get lucky, but when skilled actors make a name from themselves and join the union, they stop doing anime. When you lowball your contractors, you get what you fucking pay for.