Hollywood’s biggest labor union this week begins talks on artificial intelligence-era pay as part of contract negotiations with studios and disputes over how human performers should be paid for the work of their “digital doppelgangers.”
Concerns about the disruptive potential of artificial intelligence have rattled Hollywood talent, who fear the technology will leave screenwriters, voice actors and others out of work. Actors are also worried about losing control over their image, as AI technology has been used to create “deeply fake” videos featuring lookalikes of actors such as Keanu Reeves and Tom Cruise.
“We have observed in real time the rapid development of generative artificial intelligence technology over the past 18 months. [and] it’s already affecting our members,” said Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, chief negotiator for the actors’ union SAG-AFTRA.
SAG-AFTRA will meet with its Hollywood studio partners on Wednesday to begin hammering out a new three-year contract. The talks are taking place at a tense time in Hollywood: The Writers Guild of America has been on the march for more than a month, and SAG-AFTRA has asked its members to authorize a strike if no deal is reached by June 30.
If the actors go on strike, it will be the first by their union since 2000. That would bring Hollywood to a standstill just as movie studios begin to recover from the pandemic. A new contract agreement was reached Sunday between the studios and the Directors Guild of America, which they hope will form the basis of a deal with actors and writers.
One of the most important tasks for the actors’ union is to ensure that there is “informed consent” to the use of artificial intelligence-created likenesses of performers and that they are paid fairly for the work of their digital doppelgangers, Crabtree-Ireland said.
“I don’t think we want to see our members in the bottom race with their own digital mates,” he said. “The work of all our members is subject to negotiation above a certain minimum [and] the starting point is union-level” payments for AI-generated likenesses.
Lawyers, producers and talent agency executives say this type of deal could prove a financial windfall for top stars. It would be possible for an actor to shoot a film on location, while the digital version of the actor could earn money by doing a commercial shoot at the same time, they say.
“Actors. . . can be in multiple places at the same time because these tools can help them complete different projects at different stages,” said Hilary Krane, director of legal at Creative Artists Agency.
A veteran Hollywood negotiator added: “George Clooney can probably only physically make two or three movies a year [but with a digital double] maybe you can put it in six movies. As long as you get paid fairly for it, it’s definitely an option.”
Hollywood writers are less optimistic about AI, fearing that the technology could put them out of work. Such concerns have grown since ChatGPT’s launch in November demonstrated the potential of generative AI.
The Writers Guild opposes the use of AI in the screenwriting process except as a research tool, said Charles Slocum, the union’s executive vice president. “Going beyond that is reckless,” he said, calling generative AI software “plagiarism machines.”
The writers’ stance on artificial intelligence — along with their concerns about pay practices fueled by streaming — has led many to conclude that the strike could last well into the summer.
“THE [writers’] The main concern is that the studios are replacing them with artificial intelligence,” said the veteran Hollywood negotiator. “The AI question is currently seen as an existential one.”
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, a group representing studios and broadcasters, has offered to hold annual meetings on AI, saying the technology is advancing too quickly to wait three years between contract negotiations — a proposal was greeted with ridicule from the writers’ union.
According to Ivy Kagan Bierman, an entertainment labor attorney at Loeb & Loeb, the topic of artificial intelligence has pushed studios and unions even further apart.
“It’s understandable that studios don’t want to discuss things that put barriers in the way of using AI technology,” he said. “On the other side of the table are writers, directors and actors who have concerns about this technology being used in a way that doesn’t serve their interests.”
He argued for an industry-wide task force to study the impact of artificial intelligence, but so far the idea has not caught on. “Artificial intelligence is not something we should deal with out of fear, and the bargaining table is not the best place to address concerns,” he said.