Why A.I. is a hot-button issue in Hollywood’s labor battle with SAG-AFTRA

Why A.I. is a hot-button issue in Hollywood's labor battle with SAG-AFTRA

The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Entertainment Industry Negotiations

AI in Entertainment

The discussions surrounding artificial intelligence (AI) in the entertainment industry have become a hot-button issue, pushing negotiations into unknown territory. The language used by both unions and employers can sound utopian or dystopian, depending on which side of the table you’re on. This article explores the reasons behind the intense debate and the perspectives of the various stakeholders involved.

The Battle for Control

As AI technology advances, it has the potential to disrupt the entertainment industry in profound ways. Actors are concerned that they will lose control over their lucrative likenesses, while unknown actors fear they may be replaced entirely by AI-generated characters. Writers worry about sharing credit or losing credit to machines.

The recent strikes were triggered by proposed contracts that only last for three years. While widespread displacement of writers and actors may not occur within this timeframe, unions and employers recognize that ground given on this issue now could be challenging to regain in the future.

AI technology has already made its way into various aspects of filmmaking. It has been used to de-age actors like Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill, generate animated images of Samuel L. Jackson and aliens, and provide personalized recommendations on platforms like Netflix. All sides involved in the strikes acknowledge that the broader use of this technology in the industry is inevitable, which is why they are now focused on establishing legal and creative control.

Actor and writer Johnathan McClain, speaking on the picket lines outside Warner Bros. Studios, emphasized the significance of this battle, stating, “It’s easy to marginalize what we do because it’s entertainment. But I feel on some level we are, as far as this tech conversation is concerned, a little bit of a canary in a coal mine. This is an important moment, and we’ve got to really make a decisive stand.”

The Actors’ Perspective

The negotiations between the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) have turned into a bitter battle, which spilled over into the public eye when the strike began on July 13.

SAG-AFTRA released a statement widely shared by outraged actors on social media, describing the studios’ AI position. According to the union, the studios wanted the ability to use an actor’s image without consent, make changes to dialogue and even create new scenes without informed consent, and use an actor’s likeness and performances to train new AI systems, all without compensation or consent.

The AMPTP responded with a statement clarifying their position. They claimed that their offers included an AI proposal that protected performers’ digital likenesses, ensuring performers’ consent for the creation and use of digital replicas or alterations of performances.

SAG-AFTRA outlined similar goals, emphasizing the need to protect “human-created work,” including any alterations to an actor’s voice, likeness, or performance. The protection of an actor’s voice, in particular, holds significant importance, with advancements in vocal AI technology.

Recently, the voices of the late Anthony Bourdain and Andy Warhol were recreated for documentaries, alarming union members who make a living through voiceovers.

Writers and the Line of Credit

In the contract talks between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the industry’s representatives, the guild expressed openness to AI as a tool for writers to aid in their creative process. However, they wanted to ensure that raw, AI-generated storylines or dialogue wouldn’t be considered “literary material” that competes with human-written scripts for credit or awards.

The WGA aimed to prevent AI-generated material from being classified as “source material,” which the guild’s contracts specify as works that writers can adapt into scripts. By doing so, they sought to protect their rights and maintain their role in shaping narratives.

The AMPTP acknowledged the writers’ desire to use AI as part of their creative process but stressed the complexity of determining writing credits for AI-generated material, given that it cannot be copyrighted. They reiterated that AI-generated material would not be eligible for writing credit, potentially addressing the writers’ concerns about sharing credit with AI. However, this approach could also lead to a lack of credit when collaborating with AI.

Already, screenwriting contracts and credit allocation can be convoluted, requiring legal intervention to determine the appropriate credits for different contributions. With AI technologies in the mix, the intricacies of determining credits could become even more complex.

The New Territory of Negotiations

The inclusion of AI in negotiations within the entertainment industry marks a pivotal moment for both the unions and employers. While it may seem like a battle specific to the industry, it echoes the broader fights over automation happening across various industries.

The nature of these negotiations reflects the impact and potential of advancing technology. Both parties recognize that AI will continue to permeate the industry, making it essential to establish boundaries and safeguards to protect the creative processes and contributions of writers and actors.

The outcome of these negotiations will shape the future of the entertainment industry, setting a precedent for how AI is incorporated and controlled. As stakeholders search for a balance, the rest of the world watches closely, aware that the decisions made here will influence negotiations and regulations for AI in other fields.

Ultimately, the battle over AI in the entertainment industry represents a broader societal struggle to define the boundaries between human creativity and technological advancement.