With DGA Pact in Hand, Industry Focus Turns to SAG-AFTRA Agenda: Self-Registration, Streaming and Artificial Intelligence

The SAG-AFTRA building in Los Angeles, California on February 16, 2021.

With a tentative Directors Guild of America deal in hand and the Writers Guild of America on strike, SAG-AFTRA has been thrust into a bigger role than the artists union has played in years in the three-year contract negotiations of industry work.

SAG-AFTRA has its turn at the negotiating table this week, with an agenda that seeks to address the many ways technology is changing the acting profession.

Two of the unions’ top concerns, streaming residuals and artificial intelligence are also key issues for the WGA and DGA. The artists’ guild is also uniquely focused on putting limits on self-recorded auditions, which have become ubiquitous since the start of the pandemic.

To maximize its influence, SAG-AFTRA has already called for a strike authorization vote. With voting scheduled for 5pm on Monday, the union will have the clearance in hand when it begins talks with the Alliance of Film and Television Producers on Wednesday.

The voting deadline comes a day after the DGA reached a tentative agreement on a new contract. The WGA, meanwhile, has been on strike since 2 May. SAG-AFTRA has just over three weeks to negotiate its contract before the June 30 deadline.

A SAG-AFTRA strike would affect 160,000 artists and immediately shut down all remaining film and television productions.

For the actors, the question of artificial intelligence has become central over the past couple of months, as advances in technology have raised fears across the creative world. It has become a major issue raised by the many SAG-AFTRA members who have joined WGA pickets in Los Angeles and New York in recent weeks.

AI absolutely scares me, as it should scare everyone, said Brian George, a veteran actor known for roles in Seinfeld and The Big Bang Theory. There is total potential for abuse.

SAG-AFTRA has looked into this matter for several years and has incorporated linguistic protection of artists from the use of digital doubles into its commercial agreement and low-budget deals. The union is now seeking firmer protections in its basic agreement, including a provision that prevents studios from training AI programs on actors’ work without permission.

The union isn’t trying to ban studios from using AI and recognizes that the technology can have benefits for actors. Some artists have already agreed to clone their voices, for example.

But SAG-AFTRA wants to clarify that any use of artificial intelligence to replicate an actor or create a new performance must be done with that actor’s consent and for payment.

I feel we have taken a very sensible approach to addressing AI, said Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the executive director of the guilds.

He said the guild could have taken the approach of, OK, let’s try to tell people this technology is evil and ban it. But you said the combat technology probably wouldn’t work in the long run.

Our approach has been, Hey, there are potential benefits for AI, for our members and also for the industry at large,” Crabtree-Ireland said. So how about we talk about what guardrails there need to be, what must there be reasonable limitations, to ensure that AI serves humans rather than humans serving AI?’

Many have expressed concern that AI will be used to eliminate jobs and are uneasy with any use of it in entertainment. Justine Bateman, the writer, producer and former Family Ties star, has sounded alarms about contracts that include signing off in broad language on the right to use an artist’s likeness with any yet-to-be-invented technology.

If SAG doesn’t get tough restrictions on artificial intelligence, the entire acting profession in movies and series will be destroyed under their control, Bateman said in an interview. For me personally, I’d say no fucking AI in any of this. I think bringing AI into the entertainment world is going to be the worst thing that has ever happened to the entertainment world.

The DGA agreement stipulates that AI is not a person and that generative AI cannot replace the duties performed by members, according to a DGA summary. The summary does not indicate that any limitations have been placed on AI training. More details on the proposal are expected to be released later this week.

Like the other guilds, SAG-AFTRA is also interested in getting an improved formula for streaming residue. As more shows transition to streaming, actors have noticed a dramatic drop in their residual income.

Joe Holt, who has appeared on Walking Dead: World Beyond and other shows, said he was able to land a guest star spot on Grey’s Anatomy and get $9,000 in upfront compensation, which would have turned into $20,000 after the show aired. replicas.

Streaming made that impossible, he said. You’re still doing the same quality of work, but you’re not getting paid for replication. There should be a way to monetize it. It’s out there forever. People broadcast it all the time.

George said the lack of residue in streaming is the bane of any working actor.

We know the residues were part of the old system, he said. This is a precedent. You can’t just say, “This is a different technology.”

Several actors said they are annoyed that streaming residuals are the same regardless of whether a show is a hit or a flop. No one, not the actors or anyone else, is even told how many people are watching the show.

There’s a shell game being played in terms of viewership, Holt said. It seems like they never know exactly what the numbers are until they want to cancel a show. They obviously know how many people are watching. Of course they know how it is monetized.

The WGA has also taken an interest in this issue. The DGA agreement, however, only provides for an increased residual based on international subscribers, not a residual based on viewers.

SAG-AFTRA has said it will not be limited by the DGA agreement, but the AMPTP has often forced other guilds to accept the model adopted by the DGA.

SAG-AFTRA also wants significant increases in the minimum rates to account for high inflation levels since the last contract was negotiated in 2020. The DGA agreement calls for increases of 5%, 4% and 3.5%, which is higher than normal but not as high as the WGA-requested raises.

SAG-AFTRA is also seeking to regulate self-recorded hearings. Actors have complained that in-person casting almost no longer exists and that they have been forced to shoulder burdens that were borne by the casting offices.

Actors say casting directors ask for self-recorded auditions with too many pages of material and too little time to prepare a tape.

You can get a call, and its 13 pages and due tomorrow morning, said Kevin Daniels, who has appeared on Will Trent and Modern Family. And you wonder, are people watching this? Why did you waste my time with this? This gets a bit annoying.

He said he also misses an opportunity to make an in-person impression on the show’s writers and producers.

For me, the biggest problem is that we don’t get notes, said Rebecca Metz, who has appeared on Better Things and Shameless. She said tailoring her performance in response to feedback was an essential part of the audition. Now you’re just sending this out into the air without any guidance in terms of tone. I can’t show 80% of my work.

SAG-AFTRA isn’t trying to ban self-taped auditions, as many actors also value the convenience. But the guild is trying to impose restrictions. Current low-budget deals already include a five-page limit on self-recorded auditions, and this could be one element of a larger set of rules.

Daniels said he and his friends have already voted to authorize the strike because they want to arm the negotiators with as much leverage as possible.

People are trying to be fairly rewarded for their work. This goes for every guild, she said. Nobody said it’s an easy industry. It’s all about getting paid for our work.

Crabtree-Ireland said he was optimistic that the AMPTP will see that it is not in the interest of the industry to end up with a two-guild strike at the end of the month.

I pledge to do everything we can do to make a deal, he said. We need partners across the table to help us with that. So well see.

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