Actors Push Past AI Concerns to Get Back to Work – The Hollywood Reporter

On Dec. 5, SAG-AFTRA members wrapped Hollywood’s season of labor turmoil by ratifying the contract deal that ended the 118-day actors’ strike. Voting 78.33 percent to 21.67 percent to approve the compromise reached by their negotiators, actors sent a resounding, if not overwhelming, message that the agreement — the merits of which had inspired heated debate online for weeks — was sufficient to end a fraught negotiation period.

The contract, valued at over $1 billion, is the result of the 160,000-member union’s stand over the changing nature of employment for performers in the streaming era and the rising threat of AI. “I hope [this deal] sends a clear message to anyone who thought that ultimately SAG-AFTRA wouldn’t go on strike or its members weren’t willing to take that hit to make sure that the contract terms were fair. Hopefully that notion has been dispelled,” the union’s chief negotiator, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, tells The Hollywood Reporter. 

But members didn’t monolithically embrace the deal reached by its negotiators on Nov. 8. In fact, SAG-AFTRA’s ratification period was far more tense than it was for the Writers Guild of America after the latter union ended its 148-day work stoppage about two months earlier. Two days after the SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee announced the agreement, nine members of the union’s national board voted against the pact, including several who went public with their discontent.

“We were advocating for protecting human being jobs in this negotiation, and we left all these doors open and all these people vulnerable,” board member Shaan Sharma, who voted against the deal, said of its AI language. Soon, debate unfurled on social media about the solidity of those AI protections, particularly language tackling “synthetic performers,” AI tool training and scans and replications functioning as a condition of employment.

Feeling the pressure from members who were demanding more details, on Nov. 24 the union released a memorandum of agreement that offered a fuller picture of the contract’s legal language than the summary the union traditionally provides. (By contrast, after WGA struck its tentative deal Sept. 24, members were largely positive about the pact in public, and an eye-popping 99 percent of voting members supported the deal in a ratification vote.)

Voter turnout, at 38.15 percent, was only somewhat up this year compared with previous rounds — 11 percentage points higher than in 2020, and 22.82 percentage points higher than in 2017 — which is notable considering the high-profile nature of this year’s agreement. (Even so, in a labor group as sprawling as SAG-AFTRA, that turnout represents more than 55,000 voters.)

With much of the deal going into effect Dec. 10, a few open questions about key provisions linger. In the realm of AI, it remains to be seen whether studios will begin using actors’ performances as training data and if they will end up paying for those uses (SAG-AFTRA and studios are set to meet to discuss potential remuneration), as well as whether “synthetic performers” will become sophisticated enough over the term of the contract to take human roles. (Per the contract, studios must inform the union when this happens and offer “an opportunity to bargain in good faith.”)

As for the union’s new success-based streaming bonus, a chunk of which is set to be funneled into a distribution fund for a wide swath of union members, labor and management have yet to finalize the details of who will receive capital from this pool. A SAG-AFTRA committee is set to make recommendations in the coming weeks.

Crabtree-Ireland acknowledges the “debates and dialogues” that swirled around the vote, and as the contract takes effect, he doesn’t expect them to end. “What I expect to happen over the next couple of years, as these terms play out, is that we’ll be getting feedback from our members on what’s working, what needs to be improved upon,” he says. “And like every cycle, that’ll continue to be something to build on.” 

This story first appeared in the Dec. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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