On November 9, after 118 days, SAG-AFTRA, the union representing actors in film, television, and radio, ended its strike on the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Taken together with the Writers Guild strike, which began May 2 and ended in late September, Hollywood-based labor actions brought the entertainment industry to a virtual standstill for six months.
For the guilds, the results have been worth it. In an e-mail to its membership, SAG-AFTRA valued its new deal at around a billion dollars, and rightly stated that “we have achieved a deal of extraordinary scope that includes ‘above-pattern’ minimum compensation increases, unprecedented provisions for consent and compensation that will protect members from the threat of AI, and for the first time establishes a streaming participation bonus.”
Back in July, union President Fran Drescher demanded a bold new contract to reflect the digital era. “You cannot change the business model as much as it has changed and not expect the contract to change too,” she said. “We are not going to keep doing incremental changes on a contract that no longer honors what’s happening right now with this business model that was foisted on us.”
And she got that contract. The union’s members will soon vote on the tentative agreement with the studios, but the draft proposal clearly has made huge strides toward Drescher’s goal. To begin with, it addresses the radically altered conditions of digital-age studio work—from restrictions on the use of AI/computer-generated actors and assessing revenue from streaming platforms to actors’ uploading recorded auditions for parts in one location that get downloaded by casting directors continents away. The contract also introduces other key improvements to basic on-set conditions, in everything from minimum salary increases to translation services to intimacy coordinators during nude or simulated sex scenes. The new deal goes a long way toward eliminating “wiggings” and “paintdowns”—that is, the practice of disguising a stunt performer’s true gender, ethnicity, or race with wigs or body paint to match the actors.
As with the WGA strike, the issues that drew the most headlines in the actors’ work stoppage were AI and a fair profit percentage tied to residuals from the enormous digital money sinkhole known as streaming. Streamers still refuse to release their actual viewer numbers and subscriber profits on shows and movies. In both strikes, the first step toward transparency and equity in streamed productions was a bonus system: a payment that goes out to participants if a show hits a certain threshold of viewers on each platform. Between the professional guilds, Wall Street and public shareholders, and the increasing presence of advertisers on streaming platforms, it’s doubtful the streamers can hold out on supplying this information forever.
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For actors, AI presents a unique existential threat—not only to the profession and guild members, but to the wide range of industries affiliated with acting. As they have continued courting untrammeled digital innovation, producers started to look at actors less as artists than as living, breathing, copyrightable IPs. This meant that actors and their work could be deployed in productions for which the performer in question hadn’t even been hired. The images of hired performers could likewise be used in sequels produced several years later—or in still more remote productions decades later, after the performer had died. Background actors, or “extras,” have been asked in the past to sign over their likenesses to the studios and networks, meaning they could be used in show after show, in much the same way situation comedies use laugh tracks recorded generations ago for modern shows.
AI also has the potential to disappear whole professions and industries surrounding flesh-and-blood performers. As actor Steven Weber pointed out on his Instagram page, “AI would also then be responsible for effectively eliminating the need for electricians to light actors, food professionals to feed them, costumers and wardrobe people to clothe them, drivers to transport them, carpenters to build sets for them and neighboring businesses such as restaurants bars or markets which depend on their patronage. Think it through, schmucks.”
It’s no wonder that AI looks so appealing to the bottom-line managers at the studios. To the overall economy of Los Angeles, however, the technology’s wholesale adoption could prove devastating if the movie and television business drifts more and more toward a glorified version of video-game production.
The Screen Actors Guild did not take a Luddite approach to all this new tech. The unions sought to put the artists in control of the new tools. That means, for starters, ensuring that actors lend their consent to nearly any application of it. Despite the new agreement’s advances toward reining in AI in this regard, former child actor Justine Bateman, who now works as a film director and served as an AI adviser to the SAG negotiating committee, posted some pretty harsh criticism of the new protocols in a Twitter/X thread. She singled out one loopholed passage in particular, which reads: “Consent required unless the photography or soundtrack remains substantially as scripted, performed and/or recorded.”
Bateman contends that the wording is overbroad and open to interpretation by studio bosses sure to exploit it. “Substantially as scripted” leaves a great deal of discretion for studios to radically alter an actor’s appearance after a scene has been filmed. Bateman ended her thread with a video clip showing how an actor’s skin color can be digitally faded to white or shifted to brown, yellow, or black. Since identity politics and culture war disputes play such a central role in contemporary Hollywood, this form of image alteration is an especially charged issue.
It’s not hard to see how studios could employ a digital tweak to make a scene more or less racially diverse, depending on perceived audience demand. “Colorism,” a long-standing bias in American entertainment against dark-skinned actors could get a renewed and subtle lease on life with digital alteration. Producers could also elect to use this vague wording to efface potentially controversial content for certain demographics, such as interracial or gay sexual intimacy.
Then there are the long-standing sexist reflexes of Hollywood producers: An actress in her mid-30s, deemed too old for a given director or producer’s idea of what’s attractive, could be de-aged and slimmed down the way fashion magazines routinely airbrush models. After resolving coercive image makeovers like wiggings and paintdowns in provisions for live actors, SAG-AFTRA may be forced to reopen the issue in digitally altered productions.
With members likely to ratify the SAG-AFTRA deal very soon, the industry can get back to work. But how much work will there be? Before the WGA went on strike in May, giants like Disney and Warner Brothers Discovery (WBD) had already launched into harsh post-pandemic contraction programs. Disney cut 7,000 jobs in the first six months of 2023. WBD gave its CEO David Zaslav a $3.5 billion downsizing brief, which he has approached with the sensitivity of a California wildfire. WBD downsized staff at its beloved Turner Classic Movies and shelved completed movies for tax breaks. That trend continues apace, with the recent announcement that WBD would write off yet another completed movie, Dave Green’s Coyote vs. Acme. A storm of protest among filmmakers at least pressured the studio to allow Green to seek a new distribution deal for the film. Industry analysts currently predict that production of television shows across the board will decline by one-third this year from 2022 totals.
It’s hard to know how much of this downturn stems from current work stoppages and contraction, and how much it might reflect long-term industry trends. But the victories claimed by union members at SAG-AFTRA and the WGA will at least ensure that, even in a diminished film industry, real actors and writers will continue to see real and equitable returns for their creative work.