SAG-gy terms

There are many reasons why a worker might strike, mostly it has to do with rights, terms of employment and pay or benefits. That is the reality for many writers and actors in America, who have been struggling to have their voices heard since their agreement with big studios expired in June 2023. 

SAG is the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA is the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. They have joined forces as SAG-AFTRA as a union for negotiations with The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). Fran Drescher (The Nanny) is the president of SAG-AFTRA and has been fighting, via picket line protest with countless comrades from all creative persuasions, to modernise the agreement with studios to account for the drastic changes in production and delivery of content, based on the use of new technologies, such as AI and digital streaming. 

Let’s discuss that. One of the clauses that AMPTP has sought to include in the latest agreement was unfettered use of an actors image, likeness or voice to create new content without consent or compensation. The example used is that of a background actor who gets called up for a day job and the studio never needing to employ that person again because artificial intelligence can scan the image, record voices and then manipulate one person’s special skill or look to be used in secondary content. The Conversation wrote an article detailing how actors’ are genuinely concerned. Firstly with remuneration generally at a low point and that they don’t get royalties from streaming services that boost their pittance wage. Secondly, the way studios have begun to rely on AI algorithms to use their trained image, voice and acting so that they are no longer a relevant or required service. 

It is important to recognise that movies like Oppenheimer and Barbie, which have broken box office records recently, were written by writers, performed entirely by actors and creatively produced, executed and marketed by people that are creatively at the echelon of their careers, with further to go, if their skill and know-how is allowed to continue. We want shows to reflect the human experience and employ people. Storytelling is a flourishing art form that requires investment. AI has a place, as Greta Gerwig (Dir. Barbie) on Good Morning America explains, it just needs prominent guardrails. This is coming from someone who is a 3 guilded member: actor, writer and director, who knows what it is to make it from a junior filmmaker and evolve into a creative powerhouse that contributes positively to the industry and beyond. 

The rules of protest mean that SAG-AFTRA and WGA union members are disallowed from working or promoting current projects. There are popular, well known celebrities putting a face to the protest against AMPTP, they offer excellent click bait. However, more interesting is the systemic power imbalance that has been highlighted between Hollywood studios and the people who are the creators and performers that channel eyeballs to content. As Fran Drescher says, “we have not been treated well by people we have been in business with [for so long]”. 

AI is a tool. One tool in the tool shed of creativity that can be used responsibly and collaboratively however SAG-AFTRA is expressing disdain that AI is being used to dismiss storytelling as conveyed by the lived experience by humans.  Writing this story I think about the ways Chat-GPT could be stealing not only my hours but also a learned skill. The collaboration with AI for films like Indiana Jones – Dial of Destiny where Harrison Ford plays himself but 30 years younger is incredible but also terrifying and “thanks to several tools—machine learning, CGI, other tech—Ford spends roughly 25 minutes of the film looking like the Indiana Jones of the early 1980s.” 

Faster Networks wrote recently about Paul McCartney using AI to include John Lennon’s voice on a new release. In recent concerts, his former band member, is on stage with him, albeit a screen but nevertheless a presence.

There has been some reprieve from the strike for writers, at last. In early October WGA (Writer’s Guild of America) struck a deal with AMPTP and have since been allowed to return to work. WGAW President Meredith Stiehm said, “on the back of solidarity and determination, we have ratified a contract with meaningful gains and protections for writers in every sector of our combined membership.”

Hopefully, sooner rather than later, their creative siblings at SAG-AFTRA will be celebrating their own return to work with a appreciation for the work that keep us all entertained, on the daily!