SAG-AFTRA strike: Actors stand strong to protect their craft from AI intrusion

Jul 14, 2023, 5:46 PM UTC
5 mins read
SAG-AFTRA strike: Actors stand strong to protect their craft from AI intrusion
SAG-AFTRA members walk the picket line in solidarity with striking Writers Guild of America workers outside the Netflix offices Tuesday in Los Angeles. (Photo by Mario Tama / via Getty Images)

The wheels of Hollywood’s film and television assembly line have ground to a halt as thousands of screenwriters continue their strike for over two months. Now, they are set to be joined on the picket lines by thousands of actors represented by the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), a labor union boasting some of the most renowned faces in the entertainment industry.

In a unanimous decision by SAG-AFTRA’s national board, the decision to strike was made, marking the first work stoppage by film and television performers since 1980. The vote followed high-stakes negotiations that broke down between the guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), a trade association representing entertainment industry powerhouses such as Disney, Netflix, Paramount, and Warner Bros. Discovery.

It is worth noting that Hollywood actors and writers have not been on strike simultaneously since 1960, a time when John F. Kennedy was vying for the presidency, “Gunsmoke” topped the U.S. television ratings, and stars like Elizabeth Taylor graced cinema marquees.

Key players

The ongoing dispute pits SAG-AFTRA against the AMPTP, representing a trade association comprising colossal entertainment corporations. SAG-AFTRA emerged in 2012 as a result of the merger between the Screen Actors Guild, founded in 1933, and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. This combined guild represents approximately 160,000 performers, ranging from Oscar-winning A-list stars like Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep to radio personalities and television presenters.

Fran Drescher, renowned for her role as the titular character on the CBS sitcom “The Nanny,” serves as the president of SAG-AFTRA, having been elected to lead the union in September 2021.

Demands of the Actors

The primary objective of SAG-AFTRA’s members is to secure a new contract with the AMPTP, one that reflects the economic realities brought about by the streaming revolution and addresses the risks posed by emerging digital technologies.

Among the actors’ key demands is an increase in performer base compensation, which union leaders argue has dramatically declined as entertainment companies move away from residuals, a type of royalty that was more prevalent when popular shows were sold for syndication rather than exclusive streaming rights.

Furthermore, the actors are deeply concerned about the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), particularly tools capable of creating digital composites of popular stars. SAG-AFTRA has called for stricter regulations and safeguards to protect actors from the unauthorized use of their voices, likenesses, and performances.

Addressing these concerns in a letter to SAG-AFTRA members, Fran Drescher emphasized the importance of protecting performers who are the backbone of the industry. She highlighted the erosion of compensation caused by the rise of the streaming ecosystem and emphasized the existential threat that AI poses to creative professions. Drescher emphasized the need for contract language that safeguards actors’ identities and talent from exploitation without their consent and proper compensation.

Similar to the concerns raised by the screenwriters’ strike, the actors fear that generative AI programs like ChatGPT could potentially replace their human labor, exacerbating the situation.

Response from the Studios

As negotiations failed and a strike became increasingly likely, the AMPTP expressed deep disappointment and accused SAG-AFTRA of abandoning the talks. The trade association stated that the choice to strike lay with the union and dismissed their offer of historic pay and residual increases, higher caps on pension and health contributions, audition protections, groundbreaking AI proposals protecting actors’ digital likenesses, and more.

Disney CEO Bob Iger, a prominent figure in the American media industry, spoke out about the situation in an interview with CNBC, stating his concerns about the actors’ and writers’ unrealistic expectations. He underlined the challenges faced by the industry due to disruptive forces, ongoing recovery from the impact of Covid-19, and the inopportune timing to add further disruption.

Amidst the growing tension, an anonymous studio executive’s quote, published by Deadline, caused dismay among entertainment industry workers on social media. The executive was quoted as saying, “The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.”

What does this mean for Audiences?

The ongoing Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike has already had a tangible impact on the entertainment landscape. Production on numerous small-screen projects halted, and late-night talk shows relying on scripted monologues and segments were forced into reruns.

The actors’ strike has the potential to exacerbate the impasse, leading to further disruptions in the film and television release calendar. Networks may increasingly rely on unscripted programs, such as reality shows stockpiled before the writers’ strike, while big-budget movie sets might go dark until a new agreement is reached.

Everyday consumers of pop culture may also observe recognizable stars scaling back on promoting their projects due to the restrictions imposed during the strike. As a result, questions arose regarding the cast of the Christopher Nolan historical drama “Oppenheimer” and their appearance at the film’s London premiere, which took place on Thursday.

As the strike unfolds, the future of the entertainment industry remains uncertain, and the resolution of these disputes will significantly shape the content that audiences consume.

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