Hollywood’s largest union will begin discussions over pay in the artificial intelligence age as part of contract negotiations with studios this week, debating how human performers should be remunerated for the work of their “digital doubles”.
Concerns about the disruptive potential of AI have rattled Hollywood talent, who worry that the technology could result in fewer jobs for screenwriters, voice performers and others. Actors are also concerned about losing control of their image, as AI technology has been used to create “deepfake” videos featuring the likenesses of actors such as Keanu Reeves and Tom Cruise.
“The rapid advances in generative AI technology over the last 18 months has been something we have been observing in real time [and] it’s already affecting our members,” said Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, chief negotiator at the SAG-AFTRA actors’ union.
SAG-AFTRA will meet its Hollywood studio counterparts on Wednesday to begin hammering out a new three-year contract. The talks come at a tense moment in Hollywood: the Writers Guild of America has been on the picket line for more than a month, and SAG-AFTRA has asked its members to authorise a strike if an agreement is not reached by June 30.
If the actors strike, it will be the first by their union since 2000. It would bring Hollywood to a halt just as movie studios are beginning to recover from the pandemic. A new contract agreement was reached on Sunday between studios and the Directors Guild of America, which some hope could form the basis of a deal with the actors and writers
A top priority for the actors union is to ensure that there is “informed consent” about the use of performers’ AI-created likenesses and that they are paid fairly for the work of their digital doubles, Crabtree-Ireland said.
“I don’t think we want to see our members in a race to the bottom with their own digital doubles,” he said. “All of our members’ work is subject to negotiation above a certain minimum [and] the starting point would be union scale” payments for AI-created likenesses.
Attorneys, producers and talent agency executives say this kind of arrangement could prove to be a financial windfall for top stars. It would be possible for an actor to shoot a film on location, while the actor’s digital version could be earning money shooting an advertisement at the same time, they say.
“Actors . . . could end up being in multiple places at once because these tools could help them execute different projects at different stages,” said Hilary Krane, chief legal officer at Creative Artists Agency.
A veteran Hollywood negotiator added: “George Clooney can probably only physically produce two or three movies a year [but with a digital double] you can maybe put him in six movies. As long as you can get paid a fair rate for that, it’s definitely an opportunity.”
There is less optimism about AI from Hollywood writers, who fear that the technology could put them out of work. Such concerns have grown since the launch of ChatGPT 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, an assistant executive director at the union. “Going beyond that is imprudent,” he said, labelling generative AI software programmes “plagiarism machines”.
The writers’ stance on AI — along with their concerns about remuneration practices brought about by streaming — has led many to conclude that the strike could last well into the summer.
“The [writers’] main concern is that the studios are going to replace them with AI,” said the veteran Hollywood negotiator. “They look at the AI issue right now as an existential thing.”
The group representing the studios and streamers, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, had offered to hold annual meetings on AI, saying that the technology is moving too fast to wait for the three years between contract talks — a proposal that was greeted with derision by the writers’ union.
Ivy Kagan Bierman, an entertainment labour lawyer at Loeb & Loeb, said the subject of AI has driven the studios and unions even further apart.
“Understandably, the studios do not want to negotiate something that will put obstacles in the way of using AI technology,” she said. “On the other side of the table, you’ve got the writers, directors and actors that have concerns that this technology may be used in ways that aren’t in their best interests.”
She has argued for an industry-wide task force to study the impact of AI, but so far the idea has not caught on. “AI is not something we should be addressing out of fear, nor is the bargaining table the best place to initially try to resolve concerns,” she said.