The Screen Actors Guild-SAG-AFTRA strike may be over, but concerns over artificial intelligence regulations in the union’s new contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) have silenced actors .
SAG-AFTRA members are currently voting to ratify the new contract, with voting ending on December 5. Union leadership released an 18-page summary of the agreement as it stands, laying out elements of the deal, including safeguards around artificial intelligence. However, for some union members these proposed protections are too vague to offer any real sense of security.
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What does the new SAG-AFTRA deal say about AI?
The SAG-AFTRA pre-contract accepts AI to operate as an inevitability. After all, Hollywood studios already do background body scans of actors. Things like body scans are among the practices SAG-AFTRA is fighting to limit and better regulate with its 118-day strike.
The deal outlines two types of digital replicas that studios can make to artists: work-based digital replicas (EBDR) and independently created digital replicas (ICDR). EBDRs are created “with the physical involvement of the contractor” on a specific project, while ICDRs are made from existing material, without the physical involvement of the contractor. Actors will be compensated for creating and using these cues, although rates vary depending on the type of cue or if the actor is a Schedule F hire, meaning they are paid a large lump sum per project.
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The consent of the actor is required for both forms of digital replica, and the contract provides that said consent continues after the death of the actor, unless otherwise expressly stated. However, there are some exceptions to the consent provisions for both the EBDR and the ICDR. According to the contract summary, EBDR use does not require consent if “the photography or soundtrack remains substantially as scripted, performed and/or recorded,” which is more at the studio’s discretion. Studios will not need consent from actors to use ICDR in projects that “will be protected by the First Amendment,” which include uses such as scholarship, satire or parody, or historical or biographical works.
The contract also defines a third type of digital contractor: Synthetic Contractors created by Generative AI. They aim to create an entirely new performer who is unrecognizable and will not share a role with a “natural performer”. If the name of a human actor is used in the creation of a synthetic performer, resulting in a recognizable and prominent facial feature, producers will need to negotiate and obtain consent from the actor.
What about these uses of AI have actors concerned?
Several union members spoke out about AI’s terms outlined in the contract summary. Among them is director Justine Bateman, who is a former SAG-AFTRA board member and member of the negotiating committee. IN thread on X (formerly known as Twitter), Bateman raised concerns about the language of the contract.
Tweet may have been deleted
Among these concerns is the fact that F-list actors may not be paid for using EBDR in sequels, and that there is no minimum compensation for using ICDR, meaning that actors will have to negotiate their own compensation. Exceptions to requiring consent are also troublingly vague, as studios can decide what is and isn’t considered “essentially scripted.” Studios also do not have to obtain consent to correct certain elements of a performance such as “lips and/or other facial or body movement and/or the performer’s voice in a foreign language.” Even if a digital copy is used without consent, the contract does not state that the studios will have to change or correct the footage. Actors can only seek monetary damages.
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SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher dismissed critics of the contract. Without naming names, she called them “skeptics” and “opponents.” Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the union’s chief negotiator, said in an interview with Diversity that he talked to Bateman about AI. “Justine is cautious about the future,” he said Diversity. But he said AI’s terms were “the most that can be achieved with a 118-day strike”.
But Bateman is far from the only critic of the SAG-AFTRA proposed deal. Many members are concerned that they will not be able to read the entire treaty before the ratification vote. As Crabtree-Ireland told Krystie Lee Yandoli and Kalia Richardson A rolling stoneSAG-AFTRA has never before had a memorandum of agreement drawn up in time for ratification, but that they are “pushing to try to do that this time.”
Union member Satu Runa also said A rolling stone that she worried about studios “rising[ing] deceased screen performers.” If a deceased performer did not consent during his lifetime, filmmakers can still claim an estate or representative.
Even the contract approach to consent gives actors pause. If the actor does not consent to his likeness being reproduced, studios can simply hire someone else who will. So is this consent or is it coercion?
“Only those with significant leverage will have the ability to say no to replication but still be hired,” said Shaan Sharma, deputy member of SAG-AFTRA’s negotiating committee. A rolling stone. “That really worries me because most members don’t have the ability to say no at the time of engagement.” What kinds of protections would be put in place for actors with less influence, such as background artists?
Finally, there are major concerns about the possibility of Synthetic Performers replacing actors. (A summary of the treaty reads: “The parties recognize the importance of human representation in motion pictures and the potential impact on employment.”) Bateman wrote in her thread that the presence of synthetic performers in the contract felt like SAG-AFTRA giving studios permission to substitute human actors or use non-union actors.
“To me, this inclusion is anathema to any union contract at all,” Bateman wrote.
She also pointed to the fact that the use of digital doubles could reduce the need for other members of the Hollywood crew, including members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Employees (IATSE) and the Teamsters.
This last point is particularly important because while SAG-AFTRA may be the most publicly aligned with AI right now, the use of AI in the workplace is not just a SAG issue. This is a general labor issue, with every new contract containing AI terms setting a precedent for workers in other industries.