The Actors’ Strike is Happening and AI is at its Center

Actors are leaving movie sets for the picket lines. SAG-AFTRA – the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists – will be going on strike at midnight tonight (Pacific Time), joining the continuing strike of the WGA, or Writers’ Guild of America. SAG has been threatening a strike for several months, and negotiations with the AMPTP, or Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, have been ongoing, but the warring sides couldn’t reach a deal in time to avoid a strike. Under SAG rules, actors can’t appear at conventions, partake in interviews, or do anything else to promote past works, which is why none of the movie studios are going to the San Diego Comic-Con this year. It’s also why the stars of Christopher Nolan’s upcoming Oppenheimer abruptly left the movie’s London premiere. This effectively shuts down any FILMS or TV shows currently in production and puts Hollywood on indefinite pause.

So, what do they want? The usual monetary issues are present, including a desire to, according to CNBC, “improve wages, working conditions, and health and pension benefits.” They also want “more transparency from streaming services about viewership” so they can better calculate how many residuals they’re owed, which is easier to do on traditional television. But most interesting is one of the same things the writers are asking for: protections to make sure they aren’t replaced by artificial intelligence. Their concerns come amid a series of deepfakes and increased use of tactics like digital de-aging of actors to play younger versions of their famous characters, like Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill as Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker.

As with the writers’ strike, I think AI is the main sticking point for the actors. Watch this snippet of SAG president Fran Drescher’s speech (How cool is it that Fran Fine runs the actors’ union?):

The focus was very much on AI. This emerging technology has a lot of people scared; it’s not hard to imagine money-hungry companies replacing as many workers as possible with a computer program it doesn’t have to pay, operated by technicians who work cheaper than, say, Leonardo DiCaprio and Scarlett Johansson. This is likely a growing concern now that seemingly safe movies are tanking left and right, and big studios like Disney need to save money wherever they can. Why pay an actor $20 million when you can pay a team of technicians a fraction of that to recreate them on a computer?

In fact, the AMPTP has already gotten the ball rolling on that score. Look at what they proposed for background actors, according to SAG-AFTRA national executive director and chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (who sounds like he should be playing tennis with the Kennedys):

“In that groundbreaking AI proposal, they proposed that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get paid for one day’s pay, and their company should own that scan, their image, their likeness, and should be able to use it for the rest of eternity in any project they want with no consent and no compensation… So if you think that’s a groundbreaking proposal I suggest you think again.”

Look, I get not caring about Hollywood actors; they’re arrogant, dismissive, and generally annoying, and the face of this will inevitably be millionaires whining that they don’t have enough money. But there are a lot of people who don’t make nearly as much who are being threatened with obsolescence by artificial intelligence. Imagine being paid for a single day – as a background player, not a movie star – and having given away the rights to your likeness forever. They can put you in whatever movie or show they want, have you play anyone, have you say or do anything, and never have to pay you again. That’s evil, and the fact that this was an offer during a negotiation suggests it’s the tip of the iceberg for what the producers and studios want to do.

And the bigger stars know that it won’t end with background actors (who I’m sure they don’t care about nearly as much as they’re pretending to). How badly do you think Disney would like to have the right to recreate a younger Robert Downey Jr. in perpetuity? They could make Iron Man and Avengers movies forever without having to give RDJ a dime. And he could never turn down a movie or have creative input because he’d no longer have the rights to his likeness. That’s an extreme example, and I imagine it’ll be harder to get an established name like his, but you better believe they’re thinking of how to trap the next generation of actors into a quagmire like that. Who’s the next Robert Downey Jr., or the next Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts? You’ll learn their name, but once they’ve signed the only contract studios are willing to offer anymore, you may never actually see them in a movie past their debut.

That’s probably a long ways off – though maybe not as long as we think – but it’s smart for the actors and writers not to wait till they’ve lost any leverage. Studios are already talking about letting the strikes go on till writers are starving and getting evicted, and Disney CEO Bob Iger is calling them greedy pigs. I don’t blame them for striking before Skynet gains sentience, or at least is wielded by people who would happily do away with highly-paid humans in favor of cheap bits and bytes. Perhaps they’ve learned a few things from all those movies they’ve starred in over the years.

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