Breaking Down the Important Role AI Played in the SGA/WGA Strikes

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Curt del Principe
Curt del Principe



Rocky versus Apollo. Mario versus Bowser. AI versus labor unions?

Labor union members picketing for AI protections

After weeks of negotiations, the writers’ strike has reached a dramatic conclusion, with Writers Guild of America (WGA) leaders voting unanimously to accept a new contract.

Here’s your 5-minute recap on what the strike was about, the role AI played, and its resolution.

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Who was striking?

75% of Americans believe that AI will reduce jobs, according to a recent Gallup poll. But members of WGA and SAG-AFTRA aren’t just taking it on the chin.

In the red corner, with 20,000 members, we have the Writers Guild of America (WGA).

WGA is actually two labor unions in one, covering writers in film, television, radio, and online media.

For the first time since the 1960s, the WGA was joined in strike by the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA). SAG-AFTRA covers over 160,000 actors, stunt performers, singers, dancers, motion capture artists, background performers, and more.

For both unions, this strike only applies to those members under film and TV contracts with major studios.

Who were they striking against?

And in the blue corner, representing over 350 film and television production companies, is the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP).

The AMPTP is the official trade association for nearly any film or TV studio you’ve ever heard of. Members include Disney, Netflix, Amazon, Warner Bros., NBCUniversal, and countless others.

Why was WGA striking?

While AI-related concerns are taking center stage, they’re not the only (or original) reason for the strike. The main concern revolves around streaming services and how they handle residual payments. Remember that – it will become important in just a moment.

But for now, let’s focus on AI.

Like the 3 out of 4 Americans from the Gallup survey, screenwriters are worried that studios will use AI to replace or reduce their jobs.

The most obvious fear is that studios might use AI to create scripts out of thin air. (Be honest. If you found out that Fast & Furious 37 was written by Michael Bay’s graphing calculator, you wouldn’t be shocked. And you might still watch it.)

However, if you’ve tried to use ChatGPT to create long-form content, you’ll know it isn’t quite up to the task yet.

A more realistic fear is that studios may use AI to create a very rough draft and then hire human writers only long enough to polish it up to movie quality.

Since these writers would only be editing a draft, they wouldn’t receive the credit or pay that comes with creating an original script.

Big deal, you say. Why should writers care about credit? Only credited writers are eligible for residual payments from streaming, broadcast, or DVD sales.

That’s important because writers depend on residual income during gaps between contracts – and those contracts are getting shorter due to the rise of streaming.

Why is SAG-AFTRA striking?

For actors and voice-over artists, the threats are more immediate. The technology already exists to digitally recreate entire performances with the voice and likeness of a performer.

As proof, consider the appearance of a young Luke Skywalker in 2021’s The Book of Boba Fett. Effects artists used AI to create both the look and sound of a de-aged Mark Hamill– without Mark Hamill’s help.

Image Source

Now, you’re probably thinking that an A-list celebrity like Hamill must have the clout to ensure he gets paid for his appearance. But what about working, middle-class performers who don’t command the same negotiating power?

During a press conference in July, SAG-AFTRA’s chief negotiator, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, claimed that studios were already proposing infinite contracts for performers’ digital selves.

According to Crabtree-Ireland, "[t]hey propose that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get paid for one day's pay, and their company should own that scan of their image, their likeness, and should be able to use it for the rest of eternity.”

In addition to compensation, this also raises questions of creative control. Could this scanned likeness be used, for example, in an advertisement for a politician that an actor disagrees with?

While the studios deny that they’ve proposed such use, you can already find examples from other industries. At this year’s CogX Festival in London, actor Stephen Fry revealed that AI had been used to mimic his voice for a historical documentary – without his consent.

“What you heard was not the result of a mashup. This is from a flexible artificial voice, where the words are modulated to fit the meaning of each sentence,” Fry announced after playing a sample.

“It could therefore have me read anything from a call to storm Parliament to hard porn, all without my knowledge and without my permission. And this, what you just heard, was done without my knowledge.”

What’s more, this technology could eliminate the need for voice artists, background actors, and stunt performers.

And the impact would have a domino effect: Fewer performers means fewer costumers to clothe them, fewer makeup artists to prep them, fewer craft service providers to feed them, and so on.

What are their demands?

Perhaps surprisingly, neither union is looking to ban the use of AI. Nor are they seeking a moratorium on its use during negotiations.

Instead, the strikers call for rules that ensure AI is used collaboratively alongside human creatives and guarantee fair compensation.

Let’s take a closer look at the AI-related demands:

WGA’s AI Demands

  • “AI can’t write or rewrite literary material.”

    This is to prevent studios from using AI to write entire scripts or completely rewrite scripts submitted by a human.
  • “[AI-generated writing] can’t be used as source material.”

    This is to prevent studios from using AI to write a first draft in order to deny writers credit or reduce pay.
  • “[WGA writers’] material can’t be used to train AI.”

This is to prevent covered materials from being used without permission or compensation.

SAG-AFTRA’s AI Demands 

  • “The terms and conditions involving rights to digitally simulate a performer to create new performances must be bargained with the union.”

In other words, individuals aren’t allowed to sign away their rights. This prevents studios from using agreements with individual performers to circumvent union rules.

  • “We must get agreement around acceptable uses, bargain protections against misuse, and ensure consent and fair compensation for the use of your work to train AI systems and create new performances.”

To simplify, performers should have control over their likenesses and receive fair pay for each use, whether it’s to train AI or in AI-generated performances.

How has AMPTP responded?

For its part, AMPTP denies that member studios would seek to use AI to create scripts or to use digital replicas without permission.

In response to WGA demands, the AMPTP has offered a package that includes wage increases and an agreement that AI-generated writing would not be considered literary material.

A proposal from the alliance notes, “[...] writer’s compensation, credit and separated rights will not be affected by the use of GAI-produced material.”

In a statement obtained by Deadline, the Writers Guild has dismissed this as “neither nothing, nor nearly enough,” pointing out a lack of regulation on using guild writing to train AI.

A joint announcement from the WGA and AMPTP noted that talks would resume on September 20th.

On Sept. 27, the WGA announced that after 146 days, the strike was over, following what they called an “exceptional” deal.

Though the contract now faces a Guild members vote, this was enough to end work stoppage.

Among many concessions, the Guild secured higher residual rates and protections against the threat of AI replacement. The contract states the following:

  • “AI can’t write or rewrite literary material, and AI-generated material will not be considered source material under the MBA, meaning that AI-generated material can’t be used to undermine a writer’s credit or separated rights.
  • A writer can choose to use AI when performing writing services, if the company consents and provided that the writer follows applicable company policies, but the company can’t require the writer to use AI software (e.g., ChatGPT) when performing writing services.
  • The Company must disclose to the writer if any materials given to the writer have been generated by AI or incorporate AI-generated material.
  • The WGA reserves the right to assert that exploitation of writers’ material to train AI is prohibited by MBA or other law.”

“I think that we got everything that we really, really wanted,” said Lisa Takeuchi Cullin, president of Writers Guild East.

SAG-AFTRA remains on strike; however, they’re set to join representatives of AMPTP in negotiations this week. And while the end of the writers’ strike brings hope for a similar finale, the SAG-AFTRA strike has the added challenge of representing a wider range of jobs.

As negotiations continue, the battle between labor and AI mirrors the fears of workers in many fields.

And while acting may be different from programming or content marketing, the outcome of these strikes may help shape policies across industries.

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