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What’s Going On? AI Technology Influences the Writers’ and Actors’ Strike

By Taye Johnson

Over the past three months, Hollywood writers have been on strike after contract negotiations came to a halt on May 2.

The strike began when the Writers Guild of America (WGA) was renegotiating their contracts with Hollywood studios. The groundbreaking decision to strike hasn’t occurred in over 15 years. What does the WGA want? They’re mainly asking for an increase in wages, healthy working conditions and regulation against AI. The Hollywood studios are represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which comprises 350 leading studios and streaming services providers such as Apple, Disney and Netflix. The previous WGA strike in 2007 and 2008 reportedly lasted over 100 days and caused a loss of almost $2.1 billion for California.

Coincidently, Hollywood actors also went on strike in July 2023. This unprecedented event made history as the first time that the WGA and Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) were on strike simultaneously since 1960.

The solidarity between WGA and SAG-AFTRA is centered around wages. Hollywood writers and actors receive residuals for their work, but due to streaming services, the percentage they currently receive is not sustainable for a living wage. Most notably, union members have shared pictures and videos of their residual checks on social media. Some checks were as low as 3 cents.

SAG-AFTRA and WGA unite in solidarity for the 2023 writers’ and actors’ strike. Photo courtesy of Genie Music

Can anyone survive as a writer or actor in Hollywood?

I don't think so. I’ve been paying attention to what has happened in the industry since the looming conversation about the strike began earlier this year. With the rise of AI technology and the countless layoffs, I’m mindful of how the economy is changing. Although increased wages and improved working conditions have been cited as a need for WGA and SAG-AFTRA, there’s also a desire to regulate AI technology in the proposed contract negotiations.

The quest to prevent AI technology from eliminating writers’ and actors’ jobs has prompted another discussion about the use and pay distribution of one's work. To highlight the WGA stance on AI-generated scripts, the union released a statement on their Twitter account: “The WGA's proposal to regulate the use of material produced using artificial intelligence or similar technologies ensures the Companies can't use AI to undermine writers’ working standards including compensation, residuals, separated rights, and credits.”

Similarly, SAG-AFTRA publicly released a proposal that they received from AMPTP. In AMPTP’s proposal SAG-AFTRA’s chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland stated that Hollywood studios “wanted background performers to 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.”

That sounds like a bad deal. The thought of Hollywood studios having to pay a one-time, flat-rate payment to actors for unlimited access to replicate their image with AI sounds extreme and cheap.

I understand the purpose of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Technology is a tool that has helped transform multiple industries over the past 20-plus years, but I don't believe it is okay to displace workers or minimize workers earning potential in favor of the studio's profits.

The WGA and SAG-AFTRA aren't the only ones concerned about AI's impact. A recent artificial intelligence survey by the International Thriller Writers organization surveyed participants about their opinions about AI in publishing. The key results state that 93.4% of authors feel the publishing industry should have a code of conduct regarding the use of AI, 85.7% prefer their name and works be excluded from AI training, and 76.1% expect AI to negatively impact author incomes within the next 10 years.

The leading trend towards increasing technological advancements would better serve society when we can understand the implications and impact that it will have on future generations.

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