Update on the Actors’ Strike: Has Body Scanning Already Begun?
Concerns about how A.I. will be used to cut costs in film and television productions continue to fuel Hollywood’s longest labor dispute since the 1960s. The strike by members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the actors’ union, SAG-AFTRA, is now on track to surpass the longest strike in Hollywood history, which lasted 153 days in 1988.
What started as an effort by WGA to get its members a better deal from streaming services, has now become one of the earliest battlegrounds for workers fighting to protect their livelihoods against artificial intelligence.
One of the biggest flashpoints in the ongoing dispute is the idea that Hollywood studios might use A.I. to clone actors’ likenesses without the actor’s fully informed consent and for meager compensation. To be clear: we here at Creativity Squared do not support this. Consent and compensation are critical and, if done properly, can offer new revenue streams for actors.
Highest career costs for lowest-paid actors
The trade group representing studios and producers in the labor dispute, The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), denied rumors last month that actors’ were being digitally replicated without their consent.
However, NPR spoke to a handful of background actors who say that they were scanned and made to sign a nondisclosure agreement, in exchange for the standard per diem rate of $187.
One background actor, Alexandria Rubalcaba, told the outlet that she was one of a dozen extras that were scanned in a tractor-trailer on the set of the Disney+ production for WandaVision.
Rubalcaba said that she was never informed by the producers whether her digital avatar would be used, or how it might be used. If her avatar did appear on-screen, she might never know and she’d have no recourse to benefit financially.
Of course, Hollywood has already been using visual effects technology to alter appearances or digitally generate large swaths of extras. In one of the most salient examples, the producers of Furious 7 used CGI to finish scenes featuring Paul Walker after the actor’s death in 2013. While A.I. is helping to make the technology more reliable and accessible for production companies, it has to be done with a human-centered approach.
The issue for actors boils down to ownership. Unlike Helen 2.ODD, the current proposal that production studios are trying to push on actors would give ownership of an actor’s digital avatar to the studio, rather than the actor, which is problematic.
One background actor told NPR, “Our likeness is really the only thing that we actually own, so, for background, that would be an existential threat.”
An AMPTP statement in response to the controversy claims that digital avatars would only be used on projects where the human actor is actually employed. Studios and producers also say that any additional use of an avatar would be subject to bargaining for additional compensation for the actor.
However, the fear is real among background actors that production companies will be so motivated to save costs by digitally rendering people into the frame, that employment opportunities for them, some of the most vulnerable workers in the industry, will dry up.
With so much bad faith growing between the parties on either end of the negotiating table, it’s unclear where workers and employers will find enough common ground to resolve the strike.
Hopes for progress lifted briefly last week on news that AMPTP reached out to restart negotiations with WGA. A meeting was scheduled for Aug. 4, but optimism quickly faded as both sides took shots at each other in the press both before and after the meeting, accusing each other of trying to manipulate public sentiment in their favor.
Suffice to say, picket lines and fiery rhetoric will not stop A.I. adoption in Hollywood. Disney recently announced the formation of an A.I. task force assigned to explore how the technology can help cut costs. Headlines recently exposed the hypocrisy of how Netflix is offering a $900,000 salary for an A.I. Product manager role, while the company says they don’t have the resources to pay writers what they’re requesting.
Regardless of whatever changes that actors and writers can secure in the fine print of their contracts, the historic show of solidarity from the two labor groups striking together may signal a watershed moment for the mutualist strategy that Sara Horowitz advocates for.
Depending on the outcome of current negotiations, the Hollywood strikes may even offer a playbook for workers in other industries to collectively resist A.I. threats to their livelihood.
The stakes are high and carry implications far beyond Hollywood. SAG-AFTRA President and star of The Nanny, Fran Drescher, may have summed it up best in her speech the night that actors started striking.
“The entire business model has been changed by streaming, digital, A.I. If we don’t stand tall right now, we’re all going to be in trouble.”