In March, several months before SAG-AFTRA actors went on the warpath in Hollywood, Italy’s dubbing industry workers staged a protracted strike demanding higher wages, less frenzied work conditions and protection against artificial intelligence.
The Italian dubbing industry workers – many of whom are voice actors – returned to work after three weeks as local unions entered a phase of negotiations that seemed promising enough, even though their issues are not yet resolved.
Cut to the present day. Italian unions representing the country’s film and TV industry workers are at “a very critical, almost historic juncture” in a broader labor dispute with the country’s motion picture association ANICA and other industry trade orgs, according to Sabina Di Marco, leader of SLC CGIL, the biggest union at the bargaining table.
SLC CGIL, which represents roughly 1,700 Italian actors, and UNITA, an Italian actors’ union with 1,600 members, are in what Di Marco hopes are the final stages of hammering out Italy’s first collective actors labor contract. Besides ANICA, their counterparts also comprise TV producers’ org APA and executive producers’ association APE. Italy is the only country in Europe that does not have a collective contract for actors.
ANICA chief Francesco Rutelli declined to be interviewed for this article citing the fact that the negotiations are in a delicate phase, his spokesman said.
Similarly to SAG-AFTRA in the U.S., the main bones of contention in Italy are increases in basic pay minimums, streaming revenue sharing and artificial intelligence. But, especially on AI, the specifics being thrashed out in the U.S. are more evolved.
“It’s very useful for our cause that American actors, as well as writers, are raising some really significant issues,” said Di Marco, who added that the SAG-AFTRA strike “is like a collective awakening for our sector.”
Di Marco added that in Italy, AI currently mostly impacts the local dubbing industry – a big sector in a country where audiences are still largely reluctant to watching subtitled movies and shows – and where there is a widespread fear that voice actors could be replaced by machines.
That fear is justified by contracts that, prior to the strike in March, forced Italian voice talents to give production companies almost unconditional use of their voice in perpetuity.
“We are stipulating clauses that restrict the use of a human voice to a specific product and prohibiting that it be cloned,” said Di Marco, citing instances of well-known Italian actors whose voice has been cloned with AI and used in porn films.
“You can’t sample my voice without my permission!” Italian voice actor Luca Ward told Variety in March.
Ward, who is the regular Italian voice of Keanu Reeves – most recently in “John Wick: Chapter 4” – and also of Samuel L. Jackson and Russell Crowe, noted that the Italian dubbing industry is considered among the best in the world and that a basic pillar of this industry is that non-Italian actors need to have immediate voice recognition by the local audience.
“It’s really important for each non-Italian star to have a distinctive voice identity,” he said, adding that actors such as Hugh Grant and Sylvester Stallone are usually individually voiced by the same local actors in Italy, while “Bruce Willis has been dubbed by some 50 different actors” and therefore lacks “that same type of empathic identification aspect that is really important.”
This recognition is so important that Ward has insured his voice against damages caused by illness with Lloyds of London. His voice is also insured against copyright infringement. Hopefully, that precaution will soon no longer be necessary.