Actors join strike against big producers, Oppenheimer cast stages walkout

Much hullabaloo over AMPTP’s AI proposal which suggests using actors' image and likeness without extra compensation.
Sejal Sharma
Oppenheimer cast stages a walkout in protest
Oppenheimer cast stages a walkout in protest

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For the first time in over 60 years, two main labor unions representing the interests of actors and writers in the US have joined forces in a strike against major Hollywood studios and streamers.

SAG-AFTRA has joined hands with the Writers Guild of America (WGA). The latter has been on strike since May 2 this year, over a lack of compensation and artificial intelligence (AI) threatening to take over writers’ jobs.

In solidarity with the protests, Oppenheimer’s cast and crew walked out from the film’s UK premiere on Thursday “to write their picket signs,” according to director Christopher Nolan, reported CNN.

The irony of the cast of Oppenheimer, an autobiographical film about one of the greatest advancements in nuclear technology, protesting against a shift in technology being witnessed in the film industry isn’t lost on anyone.

The SAG-AFTRA was formed after the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) merged with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) in 2012. Together, SAG-AFTRA represents approximately 160,000 film and television actors, journalists, radio personalities, recording artists, singers, voice actors, internet influencers, fashion models, and other media professionals worldwide. 

The souring of negotiations with bigwig producers

Since June 7, SAG-AFTRA has been involved in negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) — the entity that represents major studios and streamers, including Amazon, Apple, Disney, NBCUniversal, Netflix, Paramount, Sony, and Warner Bros Discovery.

WGA, which represents over 10,000 writers, too had been involved in negotiations with AMPTP.

But after weeks of talks, the chief negotiator and the president of SAG-AFTRA said in a statement Thursday that AMPTP remained unwilling to offer a fair deal on key issues. Announcing the strike, the labor union said, “They countered with business as usual: Income Erosion. AI Exploitation. Abusive self-tape demands.”

What are they protesting?

The two major grievances raised by SAG-AFTRA were diving compensation due to the rise of the streaming ecosystem and the threat that the industry collectively faces due to the advancements in artificial intelligence, similar to the ones raised by WGA.

“...all actors and performers deserve contract language that protects them from having their identity and talent exploited without consent and pay. Despite our team’s dedication to advocating on your behalf, the AMPTP has refused to acknowledge that enormous shifts in the industry and economy have had a detrimental impact on those who perform labor for the studios,” read the statement.

As per Deadline, the AMPTP said that they presented a deal that offered historic pay and residual increases, substantially higher caps on pension and health contributions, audition protections, shortened series option periods, and a groundbreaking AI proposal that protects actors’ digital likenesses.

Much hullabaloo over AMPTP’s AI proposal

The ‘groundbreaking AI proposal’ says that AMPTP will protect “performers’ digital likenesses, including a requirement for performer’s consent for the creation and use of digital replicas or for digital alterations of a performance.”

But what does that exactly mean? 

When asked about the proposal during a press conference, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, SAG-AFTRA’s chief negotiator said that “This ‘groundbreaking’ AI proposal that they gave us yesterday, they proposed that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get paid for 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. So if you think that’s a groundbreaking proposal, I suggest you think again.”

AI woes

The ‘groundbreaking’ AI proposal is certainly reminiscent of a Black Mirror episode called ‘Joan is Awful,’ in which a Netflix lookalike streaming service called Streamberry makes a TV series based on the real-life of the protagonist without her willing consent.

The use of generative AI has been a sticking point in both WGA and now SAG-AFTRA’s negotiations with the AMPTP. Although AI wasn’t the only reason why AMPTP’s counteroffer was struck down, it does play an important role in how the film industry’s landscape might change given the technological advancement we’re seeing every day.

Surprisingly, Joe Russo, who has directed Marvel movies like Avengers: Infinity War and Captain America: Civil War, said that with the help of AI, anyone will be able to curate a film story according to their mood and style, reported Interesting Engineering earlier. So, the AI threat is real.

AMPTP said they weren’t hoping for a strike “as studios cannot operate without the performers that bring our TV shows and films to life.” AMPTP further told the Deadline, “The Union has regrettably chosen a path that will lead to financial hardship for countless thousands of people who depend on the industry.”

“Our ninety-year history is a testament to what can be achieved through our conviction and unity. For the future of our profession, we stand together,” ended SAG-AFTRA's statement.

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