Beyond the Screen: The AI Drama Behind Hollywood Unions Battling the Ghost in the Machine

by | Nov 15, 2023 | Artificial Intelligence, Bargaining/Negotiations, Industry, Labor Relations Ink, Labor Relations Insight, Strikes, Tech - Media, Union Leaders, Union Leaders

AI jitters among workers are plentiful and, in 2023, are being increasingly seized upon by opportunistic unions in an array of industries, including Hollywood. There, the WGA recently ended a 118-day strike with a contract outlining AI protections for writers and studios. SAG-AFTRA also finally concluded their 148-day strike, which means that Deadpool 3 and Stranger Things can now resume production, but what else?

Hmm. This situation might seem to involve only actors whose concerns are removed from civilians’ daily lives. After all, neither you nor I will ever specifically experience the plight of Nicolas Cage, who revealed his surprise to watch 2023’s The Flash, in which he portrayed Superman, and saw “me fighting a giant spider.” While detailing this “nightmare,” he insisted, “I did not do that … I don’t know what happened there.”

Granted, those words seem absurd and rather funny at face value, but they are also unsettling regarding the scope of how AI can be used to render human performance completely obsolete. Cage did suggest that he had consented to de-aging for the project, so somewhere along the line, the project went off the rails with that spider.

As with all things California, these effects could spread to other industries, and the writers’ and actors’ strikes are early tests for how businesses will grapple with AI in the workplace. Soon, SAG-AFTRA members will vote on a 128-page Memorandum Of Agreement, which hasn’t been published yet but reportedly includes 16 pages of language on AI.

The SAG-AFTRA website promises that the MOA includes “meaningful protections around the use of artificial intelligence,” but does it, really? A summary of the MOA stresses requirements for “informed consent” that is “clear and conspicuous” before digital replicas of a performer can be used, whether the actor is alive or dead.

That consent was a sticking point for the union, but these results might be a little much to write home about. That’s especially the case because Section II of the Summary provides a broad swath of exceptions regarding when consent is required. Those exceptions include “[p]ost-production alterations, editing, arranging, rearranging, revising or manipulating of photography and/or soundtrack for purposes of cosmetics, wardrobe, noise reduction, timing or speed, continuity, pitch or tone, clarity, the addition of visual/sound effects or filters, standards and practices, ratings, an adjustment in dialogue or narration or other similar purposes.” It’s a lot.

Actress and director Justine Bateman does not believe this bodes well for union members. She calls the MOA something that actors should only ratify “if they don’t want to work anymore” and “want to be replaced by… generative AI.” She is particularly concerned about a “synthetic performers” section that allegedly allows “studios/streamers a green light to use human-looking AI Objects instead of hiring a human actor.”

For her stance, Bateman received pushback from other actors, including Fear the Walking Dead and Deadwood’s Garret Dillahunt and Rent star Anthony Rapp, so we will see how the final vote tally goes. The resolution will provide a fascinating lens into how unions are attempting to harness the AI issue for their own ends and whether they will deliver on AI-related promises to workers.

For now, we will wait. Previously, we discussed ways for employers to assist workers in adopting new technology and avoid union interference. Undoubtedly, we will explore the subject much more in the future.


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