Hollywood’s On Its Knees – Union Strikes & AI Technology
Have you used ChatGPT to write a paper for school or an email for work? If you have, you may have savored the way the artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot cuts down your workload by writing intelligent-sounding copy with minimal work on your end. As generative artificial intelligence technology inundates the world, presenting itself as a simple and easy productivity tool in the case of ChatGPT, it is important to remember that it can never truly replace the human brain.
You might be aware of the current impasse in Hollywood. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) has been in strike mode since May, with the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) recently joining them. A primary cause of this collective action is the looming threat of artificial intelligence on the creative industry.
There are claims that studios want to digitally scan background actors and use their likenesses without proper compensation or consultation in future works. Furthermore, scriptwriters in Hollywood harbor concerns that AI tools like ChatGPT might replace them, crafting screenplays instead of the talented individuals who have devoted their lives to mastering this art form.
Could these concurrent strikes serve as the final barrier safeguarding traditional Hollywood from a dystopian, Black Mirror-like future, where robots and artificial intelligence technology have replaced actors, writers, and directors? Only time will tell, but it’s likely that even artificial intelligence technology knows not to cross a picket line.
Ronald Reagan On Strike?
The last instance of the writers’ and actors’ unions striking simultaneously was back in 1960. Mirroring today’s situation, the WGA initiated the strike due to concerns over inadequate residual payments. A few months after WGA went on strike, their sister union, SAG (prior to the 2012 merger with AFTRA), began their own concurrent strike over similar residual issues. Both unions were advocating for fair residual compensation for their members, reflecting their belief in rightful dues from the sale of their work to television companies.
To fight the power of the studio companies, the Screen Actors Guild called out of retirement, their former union president (and future president of the United States) Ronald Reagan. A practiced hand at negotiating, Reagan managed to secure residuals for television actors when reruns of their shows were placed during his initial stint as union president in the 1950s and were able to negotiate with the studios that actors would receive residuals when their films were played on television during the 1960s.
Partially due to the joint strike action led by Ronald Reagan representing SAG, the WGA successfully secured residuals for scriptwriters when their films aired on television. Both unions also successfully negotiated for health benefits. Demonstrating the power of collective action, now, 63 years later, the time is ripe for these two unions to unite against the rising tide of generative artificial intelligence technology.
Hollywood vs. Changing Technology
Jonathan Handel, author of ‘Hollywood on Strike!: An Industry at War in the Internet Age’, was recently interviewed by Vulture regarding the 2023 dual strike, its connections with past strikes, and his projections for the future. According to Handel, all strikes are tied to technological evolutions. This includes issues ranging from films being broadcasted on television, series streaming on digital platforms, to the incorporation of artificial intelligence in content creation.
This strike aligns with that trend, but with the swift advancements in artificial intelligence technology, the WGA and SAG-AFTRA unions are pursuing safeguards that might appear extreme now, yet become essential when considering the broader context.
The union contracts currently under negotiation are binding for three years. This means if the unions only seek provisions and protection against the present state of AI technology, they could be left exposed, depending on future AI implementations by studios
Will Artificial Intelligence Replace Humans?
While the fight for better working pay and better working conditions has been ongoing for decades, the hurdle presented by the rapid integration of artificial intelligence into mainstream use is a relatively new one. For screenwriters, there is fear that AI, like ChatGPT, could be used to draft a script or screenplay, and humans will simply be used as editors, removing the creative vision and natural storytelling that writing professionals hone throughout their careers from the film and television industries.
Beyond generating mundane movies and TV shows, permitting AI to replace human writers – even partially in the writing process – could lead to job losses for hundreds or thousands of both union and non-union members alike.
United in their concerns, actors too have valid reasons to worry about their professional futures. With technological advancements enabling feats like casting a digitally constructed Will Smith opposite himself in ‘Gemini Man‘, de-aging Harrison Ford in ‘Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny‘, and recreating the late Anthony Bourdain’s voice in the documentary ‘Roadrunner‘, there are fears that studios may opt to replace real actors with AI-generated counterparts, thus eliminating jobs
Actress Jamie Lee Curtis told ‘Collider’ in an interview that she didn’t believe that AI could replace actors due to the scientific nature of technology as opposed to the emotions that are needed to portray characters in films and television shows. But are you willing to bet on it? The members of SAG-AFTRA aren’t.