The 160,000 SAG-AFTRA (The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) members on strike have much in common with the already striking 11,000 scriptwriters. They are all concerned that AI will replace them, which can create scripts and generate likenesses of actors. Many see the remarkable advances made by AI as an existential threat to their profession. The striking actors are trying to protect and capitalize on their right to publicity.
The issues for actors
The list of Hollywood A-list stars is relatively short and ever-changing, depending on who’s hot. While it may seem hard to feel sympathetic to actors who get paid millions to play “make-believe” or use their brand for lucrative endorsement deals, the vast majority of 160,000 striking actors and union members do not enjoy those kinds of revenue streams. The Rock earned $270 million in 2022, but 87% percent of the striking actors earn less than $26,000 annually. The gross pay scale is $27.73 per hour with a minimum of $3,756 for a week’s work on a television show.
The fear is that the Hollywood extra of the future may get a day’s work where the studio scans the actor’s image and then has use of it endlessly. According to SAG-AFTRA negotiators, actors are already scanned with the same regularity as they would get their hair, costumes, and make-up.
There are certainly benefits for the stars:
- Actors do not need to participate in dangerous stunts.
- Missing actors can later get inserted into a scene rather than halt the production.
But the economics for the Hollywood extra are daunting. Studios can generate AI images of people rather than the overhead of running a large set with dozens of extras. Rather than run multiple takes of a scene, the AI characters don’t blow their lines, misuse a prop, trip on something or otherwise make mistakes.
Control of right to publicity
Scanned actors of all levels in the food chain make decisions over what work they do. Actors may take a job because they need the work, but it’s their decision, and they do the work. Unless the use runs afoul of rights of publicity or contractual restrictions, AI can mean that any scanned actor could be made to do anything.
To protect the actors’ livelihood, SAG-AFTRA attorneys are fighting for restrictions on how AI images are used and for how long. Proposals involve using images for the length of a project, with actor approval coming if their image or likeness is used again on another project. Not only does it ensure payment for usage, but it could also be a big deal if a scanned extra subsequently becomes a well-known star whose image is already scanned by a studio.
Money for AI
While studios are using AI to cut costs in other areas, it is worth noting that Netflix recently posted a job for an AI product manager with a $900,000 salary. Rather than the historical job of creating algorithms for recommending shows based on watching habits, that AI product manager will likely do much more. With the studios moving forward, it is clear that the changing IP landscape caused by AI is not an issue that will subside any time soon.