SAG-AFTRA’s new contract hinges on studios acting responsibly with AI

Disagreements over the degree to which Hollywood’s movie studios should be allowed to digitally capture, own in perpetuity, and use the likenesses of living actors without oversight or restrictions are some of the biggest reasons why the members of the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) have been on strike this year. After over four months of picket lines, thinly veiled threats from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), and a general work stoppage that shut the entire entertainment industry down, there was hope of things taking a significant turn for the better this week when news first broke about the strike ending and a tentative labor contract being on the horizon pending a ratification vote.

But as understandably exciting as the prospect of the actors’ strike being over is, the tentative contract’s provisions — especially those regarding the use of generative AI technology — have given many striking actors pause because of how much faith it puts in the studios to act responsibly.

Yet its nebulous language about “unprecedented provisions for consent and compensation that will protect members from the threat of AI” left open many questions as to how well the contract would safeguard actors. The fact that almost 14 percent of SAG-AFTRA’s National Board voted against moving forward and putting the proposed contract up for a general ratification vote last Friday was also a sign that union members should look closely at the option being presented to them. By comparison, the national boards for both the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Directors Guild of America unanimously recommended their respective tentative agreements to their respective memberships earlier this year.

Reading over SAG-AFTRA’s 18-page-long summary of the tentative agreement, the union’s assertion that this deal could help thousands of performers build sustainable careers certainly sounds somewhat plausible. But when you start to parse the contract’s provisions regarding what specific new guardrails would be put in place to protect SAG-AFTRA’s members, it appears as if the AMPTP — a trade association representing film studios — is asking actors to trust that it will act in good faith.

SAG-AFTRA’s summary includes a number of new definitions for different kinds of digital replicas that can be created and details how studios would have to obtain clear and express consent from actors well in advance of having their likenesses captured. In some (but not all) cases, the tentative deal would also require that actors be paid at least the minimum “day performer rate (including residuals as applicable)” for the process of having their faces and bodies scanned. 

All of that…