What 'Bendergate' Says About the Treatment of Voice Actors
By Ben Spaeth
Photo: The Verge – Source
When Hulu announced the revival of the beloved Matt Groening show Futurama fans were elated. That is until further news came out that the voice of Bender, John Dimaggio would not be returning to voice one of his most iconic roles. After the news broke, Dimaggio took to twitter to clarify as to why he wouldn’t be returning and dubbed the entire situation #bendergate. Dimaggio felt that the offer extended to him was not competitive given how popular the show and characters are. Many tried to portray him as selfish because the offer he received was in line with what Billy West (Fry) and Katey Segal (Leela) accepted. To this Dimaggio responded that he believes that the entire cast deserves more and that he didn’t accept the offer out of self respect.
Dimaggio is perhaps one of the biggest names in the voice acting community. He’s done voice work on possibly every huge animated show in the past few years. His IMDb is a treasure trove of quality animated content. On top of this he’s also voiced two of the most iconic animated characters Bender and Jake the dog. He also has a very recognizable voice. It would be hard to imagine anyone else voicing Bender. When Dimaggio says he thinks he was low-balled, I don’t doubt him.
Hulu seemed just fine marching forward with the project without Dimaggio. This is one of the biggest problems with the animated space. Voice actors are treated as though they are replaceable. Studios seem to think that voice acting is inherently lower than regular acting because the person’s face isn’t on the screen. To an extent one could argue that aspects of voice acting are easier than regular acting. For example, you don’t need to worry about the visual aspect of an actor’s performance. Lots of actors like voice acting because they don’t have to put on makeup or wardrobe. They can just show up and start recording their lines. At the end of the day though, the person you hire still needs to know how to voice act. It is a very different skill set from regular acting.
It feels like animation producers think that because we never see an actor’s face, that makes them replaceable. This happens quite often in the animation space. Although not always because of financial issues. For instance Dexter’s Lab had to replace Christine Cavanaugh (the original voice of Dexter) when she retired from voice acting. There are countless other examples though of sequels to popular animated films that were made without the original voice actors.
Dimaggio and Hulu did eventually reach an agreement and the actor will return for the Futurama revival. Ending the #bendergate saga for now. The official details of the agreement were not released and it doesn’t seem like the rest of the cast got the raise in pay that Dimaggio and fans were asking for. Luckily for Dimaggio, this situation seems to have worked out in his favor. Hulu, when they thought their negotiations were going nowhere, decided to announce the revival without casting anyone as Bender officially. Because of the large fan backlash and threats of boycotting, Hulu was essentially forced back to the negotiating table. Admittedly, some of the backlash was Dimaggio’s doing. Stirring up and fanning the flames of fan anger through his twitter account during ongoing negotiations. However, if Dimaggio had not done what he did, there’s a chance that he wouldn’t have come back as Bender at all. Likewise, if Hulu had waited to announce the revival until after they had a new Bender, the response to the outrage would’ve likely been very different. I guess there’s always a chance of a Sonic the Hedge like scenario where the studio moves mountains and Earth to make a heavily requested fan change. But considering they were refusing to pay Dimaggio I doubt that would’ve been the case.
I can’t help but think of all the voice actors who are stuck in a cycle of constantly being undervalued and if put in a situation like Dimaggio’s, would likely not have the fanbase to argue for your reinstatement should you choose to withhold your labor. Until we start giving voice actors the same respect we give screen actors, we will likely continue to see this disparity in how their labor is valued.