Lights, camera, strike action - so how big a threat does AI pose to Hollywood livelihoods?

Workers worry that artificial intelligence will churn out writers' screenplays and actors' likenesses

Hold that line. Actor Maurice Compte, who starred in Narcos and Breaking Bad, joined the picket line on July 28. Photo: Lucy Sherriff
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As the strike by Hollywood actors and writers drags on, the use of artificial intelligence in films and TV shows has taken centre stage.

The Writers Guild of America has been striking since May 2, joined by the Screen Actors Guild on July 14, the first time in 60 years the unions have picketed together.

Actors and writers are striking against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers over poor working conditions, including pay, creative rights and the looming threat of AI.

Striking over pay is nothing new, but fighting against the encroachment of how AI will be used in future productions is.

“The emergence of AI has been so sudden and has moved so rapidly that it has dominated public discourse, and understandably so,” WGA member Steve Vitolo told The National.

“It’s harder than ever for working-class writers to earn a living and with AI representing an existential threat that could replace livelihoods, these negotiations are more important than ever.”

AI is already used in the entertainment industry in post-production, such as special effects, animation and video editing.

But in this case, workers are concerned about generative AI, which produces original content from data it is fed.

This model, on which programs such as ChatGPT run, can make creative output, such as an image or a script.

Using generative AI could replace scriptwriters, as well as background extras. One of the more dystopian scenarios – a plot that was recently the subject of a Black Mirror episode – is performance cloning.

Studios would pay background actors, like the restaurant waiter or the girl on the street corner, a one-time fee to scan their likeness. That likeness would then be owned by the studio and could be used in perpetuity.

“If we don’t stand tall right now, we are all going to be in trouble,” said Fran Drescher, president of the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (Sag-Aftra).

“We are all going to be in jeopardy of being replaced by machines.”

Writer, director and producer Justine Bateman said: “What if [background artists] make it as an actor later? Then, [a studio] says, 'Whoops, we already own your rights. Congrats on making it, but we’re just gonna put you in a bunch of movies for free'.”

During a rally in Times Square, Sag-Aftra chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said that the proposal did not apply only to background actors, but franchise projects too.

“So any principal performer out there who thought, ‘Oh, wow. I might have a chance to get on a Marvel movie’ … that job could be your last.

“Because they can tell you that if you want that job, you have to agree to give your consent for them to use your digital replica for ever, with no additional consent and no additional compensation.”

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers denies that is what was in its proposal, saying an actor’s likeness would only be allowed to be used “in the motion picture for which the background actor is employed”.

Sag-Aftra has not yet said what its counter proposal is. But it is clear actors do not want their likenesses to be used by the studios without their permission, input and, importantly, compensation.

There are ways to use AI collaboratively, said Mr Vitolo, who is also the founder of a production app, Scriptation, which allows filmmakers to make notes on scripts.

The tool uses AI to identify and summarise changes between drafts of a script, eliminating the need for users to manually review what has changed, which could save production crews hundreds of hours.

With his app, Mr Vitolo aims to make the lives of industry workers easier, rather than threaten their jobs.

“Our [WGA] membership will not accept a studio executive using AI to write a synopsis of a show, or even a first draft of a screenplay, and then ask a writer to work on it,” he said.

In June, the Directors Guild of America won protection against being replaced by AI tools in a labour contract with producers. Screenwriters and actors are hoping they will be able to negotiate a similar deal.

Aside from the AI issue, industry workers are also campaigning for an increase in minimum pay and higher fees from streaming networks, as giants such as Amazon, Hulu and Netflix have dominated the market in recent years without properly compensating talent.

Screenwriter Kyra Jones revealed that the first residual cheque she received for a broadcast show on which she wrote was for $12,000.

The first residual cheque she received for a streaming show on which she worked was $4.

“The royalties most actors and other industry workers live off have been severely compromised by new technologies, like streaming platforms,” actor Maurice Compte told The National.

“We [have] reached a pivotal moment where we need to make a stand.”

Bringing AI into the entertainment industry needs to be done sensitively and with care, to create an environment where everyone’s job is safe, Compte said.

“The nature of the business is precarious enough as it is without the threat of large conglomerates finding ways to marginalise journeymen actors more than they’ve already been,” he says.

“While I’m sure there’s a peaceful way for new technologies such as AI to coexist in the industry, we need time to integrate it without anyone losing their job.”

Updated: August 04, 2023, 6:00 PM