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The AI Worries of Hollywood Actors
The SAG strike has an AI heart
Plenty has changed about video media. We have moved from a situation where distribution was through traditional channels — TV, theatres and video stores — to it all being largely on the Internet through streaming. And with streaming, consumers pay all-you-can-eat style rather than a la carte. Any time we have changes like this, it turns out that those who are providers of inputs into the process realise that their old contracts are not worth as much, and so there is an attempt to renegotiation.
For writers and actors, the negotiations are clearly not going well, and they are now both on strike. It is very simple. They used to get residuals from sales of stuff, and now that streaming has decimated that, they want more residuals from streaming. That is more of a challenge since it is easy to “attribute revenue” when you are selling one thing at a time. When it is all you can eat, how much is streaming revenue driven by what? Economically, you are interested in how much the contribution of a given input contributes to people subscribing or keeping subscribing. In the end, you more likely impute this from the share that things you have contributed and allocate some share of subscription revenues on that basis. The problem, as the music artists found out a little time ago, is that subscription prices determine the revenue from the streaming services. The services want them low. Those who want to be paid a share of them want them higher.
So the writers and actors are showing their worth by going on strike. But the impact of that is not as immediate as it used to be. The last time the writers went on strike in the 2000s, the networks had to scramble to find non-scripted shows to fill slows. They ended up giving two hours each week to an upstart named Donald Trump, who got a free chance to show leadership and decisive decision-making in a board room setting priming him to successfully run for President and provide more for the writers to write about. This time, apart from late-night talk shows — which I do miss — the strike barely registers for consumers. Previously, they may have switched off their TVs and cut off ad dollars. Now, they don’t.
The AI Question
There is, however, a new thing in the mix — AI. For the writers, generative AI and its trajectory have them worried it may replace them. So they want (I think) to ban the use of AI in writing. Here is what they are demanding:
Regulate use of artificial intelligence on MBA-covered projects: AI can’t write or rewrite literary material; can’t be used as source material; and MBA-covered material can’t be used to train AI.
The producers want to not think about this and revisit it later. For the actors,
Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, SAG-AFTRA’s chief negotiator, claimed at the news conference that the studios’ proposal for AI rules exploited actors without speaking roles.
“They proposed that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get paid for one day’s pay, and their company should own that scan, their image, their likeness, and should be able to use it for the rest of eternity in any project they want, with no consent and no compensation,” he said.
And they are being helped by a member, Justine Bateman (you know, Mallory from Family Ties) who has a computer science degree (who knew?).
These demands are actually quite different, although when you think about it, they impact the more regular folk than the superstars. The superstars (I think) worry that this is just the first salvo in something that could eventually come for them.
But this is all happening in a context where it is pretty clear that consumers aren’t that keen on AI stuff just yet. We are still getting over Princess Leia in Rogue One, although I wasn’t that bothered by Grand Moff Tarkin.
A simplistic take is that the worries are all about AI-replacement. AI can do some things now that some writers (or writers for some of the time) and some (perhaps many) actors can do. It isn’t surprising that people don’t want to be replaced, and so will strike while the iron is still hot to see if they can slow that process down or get some compensation now in lieu of the future. On the other side of the table, they don’t want to be constrained about how they use this technology. They certainly don’t want a prohibition as it might be very useful. And they don’t want to get people to sign off every time they want to do something new.
The problem is that all of this stuff is far from concrete. So no one even knows what the pie will be, let alone how to divide it. That is a recipe for a mess, and that is what is going on.
Jump to the Future
Let’s suppose that the striking writers and actors get what they want. From an economics perspective, yes, things may evolve a little slower but evolve, they will. If writers prohibit the use of AI in Hollywood production, then production will move out of Hollywood and will be rebuilt from the ground up with fewer writers per project. If actors require signoffs for the use of their likenesses, then Hollywood won’t use their likenesses. For background actors, they can just use AI right from the start. For others, they might start with AI right at the start. This happened with music performances in Japan.
In other words, the demands the writers and actors have do not seem at all to guarantee them what they really want — a career. And my point is that I am not sure anyone can.
Given this prognosis, I would definitely advise those groups to make hay while the sun is still shining. Get as much as you can now and realise that it ain’t going to last. See if you can move into adjacent areas. For instance, no computer programmer is going to know how to create a background actor that can really act. But an actor working with one could.
My point is that the studios want flexibility to do stuff in the future. Now is the time to give them that flexibility and make them pay for it upfront. If the demand is that flexibility is not negotiable, then that takes money off the table.
For those at the top of these professions, the future is much, much brighter. They all become vastly more productive and important as studios use AI. The best writers can do more without a staff. The top actors can share in the value created if AI is more efficient in allowing things to be made without a ton of other people. They already benefit from this and will continue to do so.