Arts and Culture Film

Actors and AI: What the end of the SAG-AFTRA Strike Means for the Television and Film Industry

At long last, the 118 day actor’s strike has ended, following the end of the WGA writer’s strike which ended in late September. For those of you who don’t know the motivation behind the two strikes- as always, they lie in pay and benefits, and now concerns over streaming and artificial intelligence. 

Streaming essentially took over the TV and film industry. As blockbuster theater releases saw heavy losses in revenue, streaming platforms took up the majority of consumer watchtime. Before the strike, actors would see almost none of this revenue, no residuals for streams, and no compensation, simply because their work was on a new platform. For studios, this was great. Streaming services are a tricky business as they rarely release their view numbers, making it hard for studios already struggling with lower licensing fees. Not having to pay actors (or writers) helped to cushion this loss and keep numbers up in the wake of streaming. 

But no longer. With the end of the strike comes rules that aim to rectify this unfair treatment. Now, once a show or a movie reaches a certain threshold a payment is sent to the contributors, which is called a streaming participation bonus (similar to residuals). Through this, actors will be compensated more fairly for their work and studios will no longer pocket the entirety of licensing fees. Streamers still have the right to withhold exact viewer and profit numbers, but it is still a strong step in the right direction. 

Along with changes in streaming practices, the strike ended with a base pay increase for all members of the union, equating to about 7% (2% more than the WGA achieved). This amounted to about a billion dollars in total salary gains. Another strong step towards fair compensation. With such enormous benefits following the strike, it is no wonder that the union vote in favor of the deal was unanimous. 

However, this deal was not easily won. Any strike is costly, for both the unions and the studios. It was estimated that about 150 million dollars were lost per day as a result of the strike, not to mention the potential wages lost from participating actors. During this time actors were forbidden to work, except on specific union-approved projects. Some of these were student productions, along with certain studio films, including A24. This is due to their lack of ties with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents most major studios and acts as the liaison between them and the union. 

It still remains to be seen whether next year’s theatrical season will be irreversibly crippled, or if studios will crunch to pump out the same amount of content with far less production time. 

One way studios may make up for lost time is with the ever-controversial use of artificial intelligence. The use of AI was one of the largest concerns in both the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strike, as rapidly advancing AI tools like ChatGPT threaten the very existence of writer’s rooms and AI actor recreations threaten the agency an actor has over their own likeness. We’ve seen actor recreations before – see Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher resurrected by CGI in Rogue One – but so far they have mostly been used to briefly show characters whose actors have passed away. Now AI has the potential to fully recreate living actors for the purposes of film, something that has surely brought uncertainty into the hearts of performers across the world. Until now there had been no regulations or rules surrounding this entirely new practice, something that the actor’s union wished to address by striking. 

And address it they did. New rules agreed upon by the studios and actor’s union state that informed consent must be given before a studio creates an AI replica of an actor for any purpose, and that purpose must also be agreed upon by the actor in question. This also extends to the digital replication of background actors and their compensation. If an actor is called in for the creation of a digital replica, they must be paid for the full day and the estimated time for any work that the AI replica is being used for. In other words, it is just as expensive to use an AI replication as it is to employ the actual actor, with compensation always going to the actor. 

This change has huge implications. For studios, AI has always been looked at as a cost-saving tool. It can perform the tasks of actors and writers without any form of salary or compensation, making it a cheap way to pump out ideas and content. The dystopian version of this sees a world where entertainment is soullessly made by a computer while writers and actors lose their jobs to AI. However, with the regulations now put into place by both unions, AI is just as costly as the real thing and cannot be used by studios to generate ideas, instead only being allowed as a tool for writers. 

All in all, the conclusion of both strikes has left writers and actors with less to worry about in the present and future. Higher base pay, protections against AI, and fair compensation for streaming has adapted the television and film industry to the rapidly evolving twenty-first century, and ensures that the talented creators of the media we know and love will not be steamrolled by technology.