Artificial Intelligence Takes Center Stage in Hollywood’s Labor Disputes

Artificial intelligence (AI) has become a contentious issue in the labor disputes within Hollywood. While traditional conflicts over pay models, job protections, and benefits persist, the introduction of AI technology has complicated negotiations and sparked disagreements between unions and employers. The language used surrounding AI can vary from utopian to dystopian, depending on which side of the table you’re on. However, the fundamental concerns of the unions and employers are worth examining.

One of the primary reasons why AI has become such a hot-button issue is the growing fear among star actors that they may lose control over their lucrative likenesses. For lesser-known actors, there is also the concern of being replaced altogether. Writers, on the other hand, worry about having to share credit or losing credit to machines as AI technology evolves.

Although the proposed contracts that led to the strikes have a duration of only three years, it is unlikely that there will be widespread displacement of writers or actors within that time. Nonetheless, both unions and employers recognize that concessions made in one contract can be challenging to recover in subsequent negotiations.

AI technology has already made its mark in various aspects of filmmaking. It has been used to digitally de-age actors, such as Harrison Ford in the latest “Indiana Jones” film or Mark Hamill in “The Mandalorian.” Additionally, AI has been utilized to generate animated images of actors, like Samuel L. Jackson, and create complex visual scenes, as seen in the intro to “Secret Invasion” on Disney+. Furthermore, AI is being employed by platforms like Netflix to provide personalized recommendations to viewers.

All parties involved in the strikes acknowledge that the broader use of AI technology in the industry is inevitable. This realization has spurred the need to establish legal and creative control over its implementation. Actor and writer Johnathan McClain highlighted the parallels between the entertainment industry’s battle over AI and similar challenges faced by other sectors due to automation.

The Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) engaged in discussions with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), representing employers. These talks quickly escalated into a bitter public battle, culminating in a strike on July 13. SAG-AFTRA released a description of the studios’ AI position which caused outrage among actors. However, the AMPTP dismissed it as a deliberate distortion.

According to SAG-AFTRA, the studios’ AI position included the desire to use background performers’ likenesses without consent, modify principal performers’ dialogue and create new scenes without informed consent, and utilize images, likenesses, and performances for training AI systems without consent or compensation. The AMPTP, on the other hand, stated that their offers protected performers’ digital likenesses, with consent required for the creation and use of digital replicas or alterations.

The Writers Guild of America, involved in separate contract talks, expressed a willingness to embrace AI as a tool for writers to enhance their storytelling process. They would consider utilizing AI software to shape stories collaboratively. However, they stressed the importance of maintaining control over the attribution of credits.

Voice technology, in particular, has shown significant progress. While audiences may still feel uneasy about visual avatars of actors, the technology replicating their voices is more advanced. Recent documentaries have even featured recreated voices of the late Anthony Bourdain and Andy Warhol, captivating the attention of union members who rely on voiceover work.

In summary, AI’s integration into the entertainment industry has sparked labor disputes between unions and employers. Concerns over control of likenesses, job security for actors, credits for writers, and consent for the use of AI technology are at the center of these conflicts. Both sides acknowledge the inevitability of AI’s role in filmmaking but seek to establish guidelines to protect their respective interests.