Hollywood AI backlash: What striking writers and actors fear about tech replacing role

Concerns emerge over AI proposal that could allow studios to use scans of actors in perpetuity

Vishwam Sankaran
Monday 17 July 2023 08:46 BST
Related video: Hollywood actors join writers on strike

Hollywood’s actors and writers have both gone on strike for the first time since 1960, as they protest against a potentially unsettling future for the industry.

On Thursday (13 July), the leaders of SAG-AFTRA, the Hollywood union representing 160,000 television and movie actors, went on strike.

In doing so, they join the Writers Guild of America, who represent the industry’s screenwriters and have already been picketing for over 70 days.

Follow The Independent’s live blog for real-time updates on the SAG-AFTRA strike.

Both unions are striking in protest against a number of decisions by major studios that include not just job cuts but also how generative artificial intelligence tools could replace their roles in the industry.

Over the last decade, AI has found several uses in the movie and television industry, from de-aging actors, analysing patterns and behaviours of viewers on streaming platforms, bringing back the voices of late actors and even helping stitch together entire movie trailers.

One of the proposals, as explained by SAG-AFTRA’s national executive director and chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, feels like it is straight out of dystopian science fiction series Black Mirror.

During a press conference on Thursday, Crabtree-Ireland alleged that a proposal from Hollywood studios was to use “groundbreaking AI” to scan background performers and only offer them a day’s pay while the companies get to own the scans and use them for any project they want.

“This ‘groundbreaking’ AI proposal that they gave us yesterday, they proposed that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get one day’s pay, and their companies should own that scan, their image, their likeness and should be able to use it for the rest of eternity on any project they want, with no consent and no compensation,” he said.

“If you think that’s a groundbreaking proposal, I suggest you think again.”

A statement from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) that represents the studios claimed the “groundbreaking” proposal “protects actors’ digital likenesses for SAG-AFTRA members”.

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“We are being victimised by a very greedy enterprise... The entire business model has been changed by streaming and AI If we don’t stand tall right now, we are all going to be in jeopardy,” the actors’ guild president Fran Drescher said.

Writers who have already been protesting since May have also sought assurances from studios that their jobs would not be threatened by AI.

With the steady rise of online streaming services looking to rack up user subscriptions by churning out endless amounts of digital content, writers on strike have sought new pay structures, guaranteed periods of work as well as better discussions on the limits of AI use.

Members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) shared concerns that producers may seek to use AI to write scripts or at least use the technology to complete unfinished screenplays, and have also urged production houses to agree to safeguards around its usage.

Screenwriters fear AI could be used to churn out a rough first draft with a few simple prompts and writers may then be hired after this initial step to punch such drafts up – albeit at a lower pay rate.

Without further dialogue with studios, writers have raised concerns there could be a number of new ways that AI could be used to craft outlines for stories, fill in scenes and even come up with mock-up drafts.

“There are ways it can be useful. But too many people are using it against us and using it to create mediocrity. They’re also in violation of copyright. They’re also plagiarising,” Michael Winship, president of the WGA East, said in May.

With these risks in mind, the WGA seeks more safeguards on how AI can be applied to the screenwriting process.

In a recent interview with The Independent, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend writer Rachel Bloom said that AI creates “formulaic” writing, but feared that execs would use AI-generated scripts as a jumping-off point which writers would be asked to hone.

“If you are not artistically ambitious and you’re like, ‘I just want... a formulaic but passable script, that’s very scary,” she said. “[AI] doesn’t yet extrapolate in the way that writers do, but it very well could very soon.”

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