Hollywood is a month into its first double labor strike since 1960. The Writers Guild of America hit the picket lines in May, and in July, screen actors represented by SAG-AFTRA joined them on strike. Both unions want higher pay and residuals from the big studios.
But when Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke to people picketing outside Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California, this week, another issue came up.
“There’s been a lot of discussion about AI and how it’s going to just easily replace and take away work from actors,” said actor Jeanne Sakata, a member of SAG-AFTRA.
Sakata wasn’t the only picketer to bring up artificial intelligence.
“I think for a lot of people, AI always felt like it was far off in the future and so they didn’t have to think about it, and now the future is mostly here,” said Elliott Kalan, a former head writer on “The Daily Show” and a WGA member.
“For years, we’ve been told this kind of technology can’t replace creative jobs, but if you’re ready to lower the level of quality that you want to work with, then it can take those jobs,” Kalan said.
Sakata and Kalan’s concerns about artificial intelligence are shared across their unions. Yet as actors and writers fight to limit the use of AI, the film and television studios are hiring for a growing number of AI-related jobs.
For an update on where things stand in Hollywood’s labor dispute, Lily spoke with Lucas Shaw, managing editor for media and entertainment at Bloomberg News.
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Lucas Shaw: The writers and studios have sort of returned to the negotiating table. The writers went on strike first and had not really spoken with the studios since then, but the fact that they’re meeting at all most people see as a positive. There’s really been nothing new with the actors. I think it’s pretty common that when a guild or a union goes on strike, at least initially, they seem to want to get on the picket lines and make some noise and try to make the studio sweat a little bit.
One assumes that if one of the guilds makes a deal, it will accelerate the path for the other. I think there had been an assumption that the actors would be the first to make a deal just because they had had more substantive conversations with the studios previously, but now we don’t know. It could be the writers. Who knows?
Lily Jamali: How would you characterize the mood in Hollywood right now?
Shaw: Defeated. It’s been a pretty rough few years for the entertainment business, not that it’s been easy for anyone, but the acceleration in cord-cutting and the decline in paid TV had already led to a bunch of mergers and layoffs and strategy changes that, that were fairly destabilizing. Then we had the pandemic, which was a traumatic event for everyone. As the industry seemed to be emerging from the pandemic, while trying to grapple with the continued secular challenges in the business, there’s this double strike. And so, you have thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people who are either out of work or who have a lot less to do. It has also had an impact on a lot of other related industries. It hasn’t been the most uplifting time for the industry or for the town of Los Angeles or for a lot of other cities where there’s a lot of production. People want to work.
Jamali: Now on the studio side, we’re learning that Disney is creating an AI task force and that studios like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are ramping up hiring for AI-related roles. What do you make of this trend against the backdrop of these labor strikes?
Shaw: I understand why it is a concern for writers, actors and laborers because any movement towards greater adoption of AI feels like a threat to them if they’re not protected. On the other hand, it’s just sort of common sense that these big media companies would want to explore ways they can use this technology that everybody’s telling them is going to change the world. It doesn’t mean they’re going to start employing that technology at scale or they even know how to use it. They’re trying to figure out what it means and what are the best practices. It’s just incumbent upon them that while they do that, they should also be talking with these unions and talking with the talent to make sure that they feel that they are protected. The big thing from my conversations with talent agents, lawyers and people who represent talent is that it is all about control and consent. So that, if you film an actor or you use a writer’s script, you’re not then repurposing it using AI without their consent and without them having some say in how it’s used.
Jamali: What do we know about these kinds of roles, like the Disney task force on AI? What would that actually look like?
Shaw: I think every company has basically pulled together leaders from across the different businesses to get together and talk about ways that they can use AI or what it means for them. Even for these media companies, it’s both offense and defense. On the one hand, they want to figure out ways to use it to their advantage. On the other hand, AI poses a threat to any owner of intellectual property. A lot of these AI models can scrape text from across the Internet and learn how to spit out information. And in film and television, there are going to be models that could be trained on scripts or could be trained on clips from a movie. And so, if you’re a studio, you’re trying to make sure this doesn’t violate those copyrights. We’ve already been through versions of this, like the straight piracy we experienced at the turn of the century. There’s also user-generated content, which has often violated copyrights and the studios had to build a legal framework for how to make sure the original rights holder got paid. I think we’re going to see something similar for AI, where models that get trained on something that is the property of someone else will have to have to pay for the right to access that. That money should then go to these media companies who, hopefully, will also share some of it with their creative partners.
Jamali: Is it your impression that actors and writers are fully against AI? Or is there some middle ground where AI and their jobs can peacefully coexist?
Shaw: Neither one of them has called for a blanket ban. The writers don’t want studios to use their scripts to train large language models and they want to make sure that a human is credited as the originator of any idea. The actors have negotiated with the studios on a number of fronts. They want to make sure there are rules governing how you create and use digital replicas of actors. And they also want some limits around the use of generative AI and synthetic performers, which would be where you train a model on a famous actor or a few actors and then spit out something that is completely fabricated. I think that on the AI front, my sense is the studios and actors will reach a deal sooner rather than later.
We should note that SAG-AFTRA represents some journalists here at Marketplace.
Before either the actors or writers union went on strike, we talked on this show about how Hollywood has used artificial intelligence for years, mostly for visual effects in postproduction.
For that story, my colleague Meghan McCarty Carino spoke to Joshua Glick, a film professor at Bard College, about AI’s leading role in some recent films, like this summer’s “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.” Glick made the case for AI’s value to Hollywood, especially when it can be used to protect the identities of vulnerable people or save a studio thousands of dollars in reshoots.
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