A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 16, 2023

Why Hollywood Actors And Writers Are Striking Over Who Owns Their AI Rights

Actors, writers and directors in film and TV are striking because they justifiably fear that the big studios and producers (including Netflix and Amazon) want to own their digital likenesses in perpetuity for free after as little as one day's work. 

While the studios would undoubtedly love to have such economic power, this probably comes under the heading of 'nice try, but not happening.' JL 

Charles Pulliam-Moore reports in The Verge:

98% of SAG-AFTRA’s members voted to authorize a strike. The union made clear its desire for protections against AI tools. "Actors now face an existential threat to their livelihoods with the rise of generative AI technology. This ‘groundbreaking’ AI proposal that they gave us proposed that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get one day’s pay, and their companies should own that scan, their image, their likeness and should be able to use it for the rest of eternity on any project they want, with no consent and no compensation."

After weeks of unsuccessful 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), the union representing about 160,000 of the entertainment industry’s American laborers began striking at midnight on July 13th .

SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher and chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland announced that the union’s national board has unanimously voted to go on strike in direct response to the AMPTP’s refusal “to offer a fair deal on key issues essential to protecting the livelihoods of working actors and performers.”

Crabtree-Ireland said that while SAG-AFTRA — which represents thousands of actors, broadcasters, and performers of all kinds — has been working tirelessly to find an agreeable solution, the AMPTP — the trade association representing studios and their producers — has not made a good faith effort to reciprocate. Crabtree-Ireland noted the AMPTP’s refusal to craft a contract that fairly compensates performers who are being hurt financially by the shift to streaming as one of the bigger sticking points that led to the impending strike.

“Residual income and high inflation has further reduced our members’ ability to make ends meet,” Crabtree-Ireland said. “To complicate matters further, actors now face an existential threat to their livelihoods with the rise of generative AI technology. We’ve proposed contract changes that address these issues, but the AMPTP has been uninterested in our proposals.”


Though Drescher echoed many of Crabtree-Ireland’s sentiments, she was also much more pointed in her explicit condemnation of the studios represented by the AMPTP for the way they “plead poverty; that they are losing money left and right when giving hundreds of millions of dollars to their CEOs.”

Drescher also admitted that while she originally went into the negotiations earnestly believing that a strike could be averted, this entire process with the AMPTP has disabused her of that notion and crystallized how what’s happening in Hollywood is just one facet of a much larger shift in how workers “across all fields of labor” are pushing for better treatment.

“The gravity of this move is not lost on me or our negotiating committee or our board members who have voted unanimously to proceed with a strike,” Drescher said. “It’s a very serious thing that impacts thousands, if not millions, of people all across this country and around the world.”

“Actors now face an existential threat to their livelihoods with the rise of generative AI technology.”

Soon after SAG-AFTRA’s presser came to a close, the AMPTP issued a statement of its own noting that “studios cannot operate without the performers that bring our TV shows and films to life” and once again placing blame for the strike on the union.

“The union has regrettably chosen a path that will lead to financial hardship for countless thousands of people who depend on the industry,” the studio association said.

On Wednesday evening, just hours after the nominees for this year’s Emmy Awards were announced and not long after the already-extended deadline to hammer out a new labor contract came and went, SAG-AFTRA announced that its board would convene on Thursday morning to decide whether to follow in the Writers Guild of America’s footsteps by striking. In a statement about the latest developments, SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher said that while the union wanted very much to reach a new deal through negotiations, “the AMPTP’s responses to the union’s most important proposals have been insulting and disrespectful.”

“The companies have refused to meaningfully engage on some topics and on others completely stonewalled us,” Drescher said. “Until they do negotiate in good faith, we cannot begin to reach a deal.”

Actors Set to Join Writers On Strike As SAG-AFTRA Contract Negotiations Collapse
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Following the deadline’s passing, the AMPTP also released a statement expressing disappointment, blaming SAG-AFTRA for the negotiations’ dissolution, and insisting that the union was not acting in its members’ interests when it “decided to walk away” from contract talks.

“In doing so, it has dismissed our offer of historic pay and residual increases, substantially higher caps on pension and health contributions, audition protections, shortened series option periods, a groundbreaking AI proposal that protects actors’ digital likenesses, and more,” the AMPTP lamented. “Rather than continuing to negotiate, SAG-AFTRA has put us on a course that will deepen the financial hardship for thousands who depend on the industry for their livelihoods.”

In the days after less than half (41 percent) of the Directors Guild of America’s eligible voters agreed to ratify a contract that many of its members had serious concerns about, the AMPTP turned its focus to SAG-AFTRA, which, like the WGA, has identified the industry’s adoption of AI tools as one of the more pressing matters that need to be addressed as studios rush to embrace the technology.

Back at the beginning of June, when 98 percent of SAG-AFTRA’s members voted to authorize a strike, the union had already made it abundantly clear that its desire for more thorough protections (by way of regulations) against AI tools was another sticking point it’s not budging on. By June 30th, four weeks into the WGA’s ongoing strike that had already shut down the vast majority of film and TV productions here in the US, there hadn’t been any discernible progress between SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP.

The talks were extended to July 12th in hopes that a few extra days of negotiations might move the needle, and SAG-AFTRA — which represents about 160,000 workers — told its members that it planned to “exhaust every opportunity to achieve the righteous contract we all demand and deserve.”

In addition to AI regulations, the “truly transformative” new deal SAG-AFTRA’s members have been advocating for would include better minimum wages across the board, more access to quality healthcare, and a revamped residual payments system that more equitably compensates the workers whose labor has translated to studios’ record-breaking profits in the streaming era.

Despite SAG-AFTRA — which represents thousands of actors, broadcasters, and performers of all kinds — having been consistent in its demands for a new contract throughout the negotiation process, Deadline reported on Monday that the AMPTP was effectively asking actors to trust them to forge “a solid pathway” forward. With the most recent season of Black Mirror and its “Joan Is Awful” episode reportedly spooking the hell out of many SAG-AFTRA members who saw it as a glimpse into their futures, trusting the AMPTP to have their best interests at heart does not seem to be an option that was given much consideration.

By Monday evening, a number of senior executives from various studios, including Warner Bros. Discovery’s David Zaslav, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, and Disney’s Dana Walden and Alan Bergman, had reportedly jumped on a last-minute conference call to discuss potential strike-avoiding options, including bringing in the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

When SAG-AFTRA agreed to initially extend the contract negotiation deadline earlier this summer, it assured its members that they had no reason to see the move as a sign of weakness or kowtowing to the AMPTP but rather the union making a good faith effort at working out a new deal. Though SAG-AFTRA agreed to the AMPTP’s call for federally assisted mediation, it also called the request out as the producers’ way of trying to orchestrate another extension, which the actors have no plans to agree to.

“The AMPTP has abused our trust and damaged the respect we have for them in this process,” the union said. “We will not be manipulated by this cynical ploy to engineer an extension when the companies have had more than enough time to make a fair deal.”

It’s been reported that the AMPTP’s plan is to keep prolonging this fight until “union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.” But a very similar prospect — the possibility of being driven out of the industry by a system designed to ensure that profits remain concentrated among a select few — is exactly why the writers and actors are striking in the first place. The AMPTP has said that it’s “committed to reaching a deal and getting our industry back to work,” and that may be the case. But if it truly is, all the producers need to do is to meet the unions and the workers they represent where they’re at — it’s just that simple.


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