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After talks between the Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) broke down on Wednesday, members of the actors guild today authorized a strike that will begin at midnight.
Striking actors will join their counterparts in the Writers Guild of America (WGA) in pushing back against film and TV studios over a number of issues—including the potential use of generative artificial intelligence (AI) tools in the creative process.
Hollywood is now bracing for a shutdown of the likes that hasn't been seen since actors walked off the set in 1980.
A SAG-AFTRA TV/Theatrical/Streaming Strike has been ordered effective July 14, at 12:01 a.m. Additional details are forthcoming. The Strike Order can be found here: https://t.co/NFBM7lLGTs pic.twitter.com/SGjmR0BPeu
— SAG-AFTRA (@sagaftra) July 13, 2023
“The eyes of the world, and particularly the eyes of labor, are upon us,” actress Fran Drescher, the president of SAG-AFTRA, said at a Thursday news conference, according to The New York Times.
“What happens to us is important,” she continued. “What’s happening to us is happening across all fields of labor. When employers make Wall Street and greed their priority, and they forget about the essential contributors who make the machine run, we have a problem.”
Before agreeing to a media blackout before negotiations started in June, SAG-AFTRA National Executive Director and Chief Negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland told Decrypt that AI—with its potential benefits and harm alike to members—is a topic that SAG-AFTRA is “very focused on.”
Earlier that week, SAG-AFTRA members voted 98% in favor of authorizing a strike before negotiations began.
While generative AI took off in mainstream popularity after the launch of OpenAI's ChatGPT in November, the novelty quickly turned to concern as the realization of what the rapid advancement in AI could mean for several industries—including the entertainment industry.
Artificial intelligence, SAG-AFTRA said, poses an "existential threat" to actors and performers, one that the studios allegedly refused to meaningfully acknowledge. Some actors are concerned that AI technology will be used to replicate performances without their consent, or create additional content without compensation to match.
"[SAG-AFTRA] is not averse to technology," former board member and voice actor Justin Shenkarow told Decrypt in an interview. "But at the same time, what's very important to actors like myself is our likeness and our voice."
Of all of the issues SAG-AFTRA members are concerned with, Shenkarow said the potential of an AI takeover in Hollywood would drive SAG-AFTRA members to the picket lines. It appears he was right.
"This is a fight for our lives," Shenkarow said. "AI should be used as a tool, not as a way to replace us."
Shenkarow, who served on the Screen Actors Guild board from 2005 to 2010, says the negotiations mirror those of when DVDs and streaming were emerging technologies.
“In both cases, [the studios] said ‘This is a new technology, and we don't know if we'll be able to make any money from it. So you're just going to have to trust us that if we do make money from it, we'll compensate you when that comes,’” Shenkarow recalled.
"Of course, what happens is once somebody starts making money, they never want to dip into their honey pot to give it to you,” he continued.
Shenkarow should know, having spent over 30 years in the entertainment industry and featuring in projects like “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” “Spidey and his Amazing Friends,” “Hey Arnold,” and “Eerie, Indiana.” In 2022, Shenkarow co-founded the animation company Three Point Zero Studios, also known as Tzero Studios.
For some actors, allowing AI to make digital copies of them is a matter of getting paid or not getting paid.
"It's a tale of two cities. We can either say no to it, and they're gonna bring another actor in. They're going to make that money,” SAG-AFTRA member Derek Andretti told Decrypt outside Warner Bros. Studios. “Or I can say yes to it, knowing that they're going to use my image in perpetuity," he added, calling the studios “scoundrels.”
In a press conference Thursday, Crabtree-Ireland detailed one of the "groundbreaking" proposals the AMPTP offered SAG-AFTRA negotiators. He said that the proposal would see background actors digitized and used perpetually without further consent or compensation.
SAG-AFTRA Members on Disney’s “ground breaking” proposal on using AI to recreate the likeness of Actors in media. 😬😬😬 pic.twitter.com/6XRPbJBJWQ
— Cris Parker (@3CFilmss) July 13, 2023
But it appears that such proposals have already affected some actors. Andretti told Decrypt that on a recent job, he was photographed from every angle, using several small cameras, to create a digital twin for future use.
"They [digitized] me, and now they can use me in any future movie background as they wish, and they paid me one fee," said Andretti. "I don't think that's fair, and I don't think that my union thinks it's fair."
Shenkarow hopes that a contract that protects SAG-AFTRA members from studios using their image and voices without compensation would also help protect them in other instances—including when AI is used by people on the internet to create convincing “deepfake” content that uses an actor’s likeness without permission.
"If you're going to use my voice without my permission, you're infringing on me," Shenkarow said. "It would be a battle, but I think that it's very important that [SAG-AFTRA] fights for this so that not only am I protected within union jobs, but potentially some nefarious character using my voice without my permission."