What does AI have to do with the Hollywood strikes?

17 Jul 2023

Hollywood sign. Image: adriandanganan/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Actors and writers in Hollywood are on strike with a host of demands; one of their concerns is the rise of AI.

Over the weekend, I attended the Dublin premiere of Oppenheimer. Unfortunately, my hopes of meeting Cillian Murphy (who plays the eponymous theoretical physicist credited as the ‘father of the atomic bomb’) were nipped in the bud as the Irish actor pulled out from his visit in support of the ongoing Hollywood strike action.

The Hollywood double strike, part of an ongoing labour dispute in the US entertainment industry, is a set of two separate but related strikes organised by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and actors’ union SAG-AFTRA against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP).

Strikes of such magnitude are rare enough in the US, and the fact that the latest one marks the first time writers and actors have staged walk-outs simultaneously for the first time since 1960 is telling that something is terribly wrong. And, as you might have guessed, AI forms part of the issue

The rise of generative AI, kicked off most notably by OpenAI’s ChatGPT, has brought with it a plethora of opportunities for almost every industry in human society, entertainment being no exception. But writers are worried that AI is encroaching upon their territory – and livelihood.

As the technology gets more advanced, the line between what is human-made and what is AI-generated is getting blurred. This means some producers are now more likely to prefer AI-generated scripts over ones written by living writers to make some gains on the profit margin.

“The challenge is we want to make sure that these technologies are tools used by writers and not tools used to replace writers,” Big Fish and Aladdin writer John August, who is also a member of the WGA’s 2023 negotiating committee, told The Hollywood Reporter in May.

“The worry is that down the road you can see some producer or executive trying to use one of these tools to do a job that a writer really needs to be doing.”

‘We are the victims here’

The plot thickened as the Screen Actors’ Guild, or SAG-AFTRA, joined in the protest and caused the biggest disruption in the industry since the pandemic.

Last month, the guild voted to authorise a strike if its negotiating committee failed to reach an agreement on a new contract with major Hollywood studios by 30 June. After a breakdown in negotiations, SAG-AFTRA began its strike against shoots, press events and social media promos.

This famously led to the stars in Oppenheimer, which releases this Friday, leaving the film’s London premiere last week in support of the Hollywood double strike.

“We are the victims here,” Fran Drescher, president of the actors’ union, said in a press conference the same day. “We are being victimised by a very greedy entity. I am shocked by the way the people that we have been in business with are treating us.”

As well as improvements in wages, working conditions and benefits, actors are looking to secure guardrails for the use of AI in future TV and film productions.

At the heart of the AI strand of the conundrum is that the guild is unhappy with a proposal from the producers’ alliance that would essentially see background actors get a one-time payment for scans of their faces that the producers would then have full rights over to reproduce.

“They proposed that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get paid for one day’s pay, and their company should own that scan, their image, their likeness, and should be able to use it for the rest of eternity in any project they want with no consent and no compensation,” said Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, national executive director and chief negotiator for SAG-AFTRA.

Meanwhile, Disney CEO Bob Iger told CNBC before the SAG-AFTRA announcement last week that the strikes have unrealistic expectations and come at “the worst time in the world”.

“There’s a level of expectation that they have that is just not realistic. And they are adding to the set of challenges that this business is already facing, that is quite frankly, very disruptive.”

It remains to be seen how long this strike action will go on in response to the potential disruption AI may cause to livelihoods in the entertainment industry, but Succession star Brian Cox told Sky News that the strike could get “very unpleasant” and may last until the end of the year.

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Hollywood sign. Image: adriandanganan/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic