April 16, 2024

SAG-AFTRA strike ends as AI deal reached, Hollywood still torn

The 118-day Hollywood actors’ union strike came to an end with an agreement on AI usage, though not everyone in the industry sees it as the right move.

The Hollywood actors’ union SAG-AFTRA concluded its strike on Nov. 9 after 118 days of picketing with new deals on various proposed stipulations including artificial intelligence (AI) usage. 

Since then, the union has released a summary of its final deal with studios, which included nearly 4.5 pages of AI guidelines and a digital pamphlet spelling out the agreed-upon AI regulations for the industry.

SAG-AFTRA AI guideline digital pamphlet. Source: SAG-AFTRA

The AI agreement is expected to come into effect 90 days after the ratification of the agreement. Its terms include defining AI in industry terms, the digital replication of performers and background actors, digital alterations and the establishment of semi-annual meetings between the union and producers over generative AI use.

According to a report from Rolling Stone, the contract was approved by 86% of the board of Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and is going to union voters on Nov. 12 with a 21-day voting period.

A new type of digital asset

The deal defines and establishes coverage for the creation, use and alteration of “digital replicas” of performers. These digital replicas are copies of the voice or likeness of a performer for “portraying the performer in photography or soundtrack in which the performer did not actually perform.” 

These “digital replicas” are categorized by those made in employment with studios and those made independently. Compensation for the latter will be bargained by the actors themselves, however for those employed directly from studios, compensation will be for the creation and use of their AI replicas and its use in any additional projects or other mediums – plus normal residuals.

It also laid out a definition for a new type of actor called a “synthetic performer.” Under the terms of the agreement, this is a “digitally-created asset” that “is intended to create, and does create, the clear impression that the asset is a natural performer who is not recognizable as any identifiable natural performer.”

When it comes to the replication of background actors, the agreement seems to shield them from potential replacement saying that:

“Replicas must not be used to meet the background counts for the day. Replicas will not be used to avoid the engagement of background actors.”

The agreement stresses that explicit and “conspicuous” consent from the actor, either principal or background, is needed during the replication process, both for its use in the production for which it is made and for any future use.

Related: Hollywood studios offer new proposal for AI and data transparency to curb strike

This also includes consent for digital alterations to the performer’s performance in “previously recorded material unless it remains substantially as scripted, performed and/or recorded” and producers must provide a “reasonably specific description” of the alterations they would like to make. 

For background actors, the agreement said if “lip or facial movements are altered to make it look like a background actor is speaking, and dialogue is added, they will be upgraded to a day performer.”

Mixed reactions from Hollywood

Reactions from industry insiders to the agreement have been mixed, and alternate between praise for the deal and excitement to move forward, and believing more could have been done and fearing for performers. 

Director and producer Justine Bateman expressed her disagreement with the decision on social media. She called the AI permissions “violating” and said she was disappointed in the SAG-AFTRA leadership.

On the other hand, actor Jason Winston George, a negotiating committee member on the deal, took to X (formerly Twitter) to defend the agreement.

“Not only is it unrealistic and impossible to try and hold back the tide when it comes to technology, these new SAG-AFTRA protections actually allow you to surf the wave of AI technology when it comes to the use of your face and likeness.”

He said if a company wants to pay him by a rate he negotiated to use his AI double while he “stays at home—or better yet to work another job,” he’s on board.

However, he also said there may still be “a fight someday against Synthetic Fakes, completely AI-generated characters that don’t look like any individual performer.”

On the side of Bateman, actor Rainn Wilson, famous for his role in the sitcom The Office, mocked the deal, asking what would happen if actors disagree with the deal. Will they be replaced by AI actors?

The end of the SAG-AFTRA strike comes about a month and half after the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) strike ended on Sept. 24. The WGA strike was also negotiating industry practices, among which AI usage in writer’s rooms was a critical negotiation. 

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