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AI: The Unexpected Player in Hollywood’s Labor Strikes, Explained

by Michael Nguyen
5 comments
Artificial Intelligence in Hollywood

Artificial intelligence (AI) has emerged as a contentious issue amidst Hollywood’s labor disputes. Alongside conventional debates over salary structures, benefits, and job security, AI technology has become a curveball in the contract negotiations that have driven actors and writers unions to strike.

The technology has led discussions into uncharted waters, with the rhetoric often being painted as either utopian or dystopian, depending on one’s position. Let’s take a look at what the unions and their employers are arguing for.

WHY IS ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE SO CONTROVERSIAL?

As technology that creates without human creators rises, renowned actors are anxious about losing control over their valuable image rights. Up-and-coming actors fear replacement, while writers are concerned about sharing or even losing credit to machines.

The proposed contracts that sparked both strikes only span three years. Despite the rapid evolution of AI, it’s highly unlikely that it would cause extensive displacement of writers or actors during this period. Nevertheless, both unions and employers understand that any ground conceded in one contract can be difficult to regain in the next.

Already, nascent versions of this technology have infiltrated virtually every aspect of filmmaking. From de-aging actors like Harrison Ford in the latest “Indiana Jones” film or Mark Hamill in “The Mandalorian,” to generating abstracted animations of Samuel L. Jackson and a range of aliens in the opening sequence of “Secret Invasion” on Disney+, to offering recommendations on Netflix.

All parties involved in the strikes recognize that the more widespread use of this technology is inevitable. Hence, all are now seeking to establish legal and creative dominion.

Actor and writer Johnathan McClain suggests that this battle mirrors those over automation in other sectors but also anticipates many more to come as technology advances.

“People often overlook our profession because it’s entertainment,” McClain stated on the picket lines outside Warner Bros. Studios. “But I believe we are somewhat of a canary in a coal mine in terms of this tech conversation. This is a critical moment, and we need to take a firm stance.”

THE ACTORS’ PERSPECTIVE

Discussions about AI between the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents employers, escalated from theoretical groundwork to a public feud when the strike began on July 13.

Outraged actors widely shared a description of the studios’ AI position, released by SAG-AFTRA, which the AMPTP labeled as a deliberate misinterpretation:

“We want to scan a background performer’s image, pay them for half a day’s work, and then use that individual’s likeness for any purpose indefinitely without their consent,” stated the union. “We also want to change principal performers’ dialogue, and even create new scenes, without informed consent. And we want to use someone’s images, likenesses, and performances to train new generative AI systems without consent or compensation.”

In response, the AMPTP stated that its offers included an “AI proposal which protects performers’ digital likenesses, requiring their consent for the creation and use of digital replicas or digital alterations of a performance.”

SAG-AFTRA reiterated their demands, stressing the necessity of safeguarding “human-created work,” which includes changes to an actor’s “voice, likeness, or performance.”

Interestingly, “voice” tops that list. While audiences may still be uncomfortable with the visual avatars of actors like Hamill and Jackson, the technology recreating voices appears to be more advanced.

The voices of the late Anthony Bourdain and the late Andy Warhol have both been resurrected for recent documentaries. Union members who make a living from voiceovers are certainly paying attention.

WRITERS’ CREDIT LINE AT STAKE

Screenwriters’ contract discussions, which collapsed in early May, saw the Writers Guild of America expressing its willingness to permit the use of AI — but only as a tool for their own work.

They might consider shaping narratives with AI assistance. However, they refuse to let it influence the credits crucial to their reputation and income.

The guild is striving to prevent raw, AI-generated storylines or dialogue from being classified as “literary material” — a term used in their contracts for scripts and other story forms produced by a screenwriter. This ensures they wouldn’t be competing with machines for credit — or for an original screenplay Oscar.

The writers also don’t want these storylines or dialogues to be deemed “source material” — their contract term for novels, video games, or other works that writers may adapt into scripts.

The AMPTP stated that writers “want to use this technology as part of their creative process, without changing how credits are determined, which is complicated given AI material can’t be copyrighted.”

The studios also underscored that previous writers’ contracts established that any “corporate or impersonal provider” of literature is not a screenwriter.

“Only a ‘person’ can be considered a writer,” said the AMPTP. “AI-generated material would not be eligible for writing credit.”

While this stance could ease writers’ concerns about sharing credit with AI, it could also lead to no one receiving credit when they “collaborate” with AI.

Current screenwriting contracts and credit attribution are already complex, often requiring guild intervention to clarify. Injecting AI into this equation could exacerbate the complexity.


Big Big News journalist Krysta Fauria provided additional reporting from Burbank, California.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Artificial Intelligence in Hollywood

Why is artificial intelligence a hot-button issue in Hollywood’s labor disputes?

Artificial intelligence has become a contentious issue because it is potentially disruptive to the industry. Prominent actors are worried about losing control over their valuable image rights, up-and-coming actors fear they might be replaced by AI, and writers are concerned about sharing or losing credit to AI-powered systems.

What are the unions’ concerns regarding AI use?

The unions, including both actors and writers, are worried about the potential misuse of AI. They fear that AI could be used to create digital replicas of actors without their consent or to generate stories and dialogues, affecting their credits and payment. Unions are seeking to protect “human-created work” and to ensure that AI systems cannot be credited as creators.

How have Hollywood’s negotiations regarding AI use in production changed recently?

Negotiations regarding AI use in production have become more intense and public. The debates have evolved from theoretical discussions to more contentious disputes, with strikes being called by actors and writers unions. The disagreements revolve around the use, control, and credit of AI-generated work in the film industry.

What is the position of the studios on the use of AI?

The studios represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) argue that their offers include proposals to protect performers’ digital likenesses and require consent for the creation and use of digital replicas. They emphasize that AI-generated material would not be eligible for writing credit, asserting that only a ‘person’ can be considered a writer.

How is AI already being used in filmmaking?

Emerging versions of AI technology have infiltrated almost every aspect of filmmaking. They’re used to de-age actors, generate abstract animations, and even provide recommendations on platforms like Netflix. Despite the ongoing labor disputes, the wider adoption of AI technology in the industry is seen as inevitable.

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5 comments

OldSchoolCritic July 22, 2023 - 12:51 am

Not a fan of these de-aging effects. Looks too fake. Let actors age gracefully. Dont need AI for everything…

Reply
SteveTheMovieBuff July 22, 2023 - 3:03 am

Unbelievable, AI is really changing everything huh? i hope the actors and writers get their due. We need people for good stories, not just machines!

Reply
CinemaLover101 July 22, 2023 - 4:11 am

This is crazy, man! I can’t imagine a world where machines replace our beloved actors and writers. Respect to them for standing up.

Reply
TechieTina July 22, 2023 - 2:39 pm

The pace of tech innovation is mind blowing. But it raises important questions bout ethics and control. Hope they figure it out.

Reply
StarStruck2023 July 22, 2023 - 6:08 pm

Wow, this AI thing is gonna shake up Hollywood big time. I stand with the unions, we can’t let AI take over completely. Human creativity is irreplaceable.

Reply

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