SAG-AFTRA Board Members Explain ‘No’ Votes: ‘There Should Be No AI’

Two members of the SAG-AFTRA board said they voted against the new contract because it does not do enough to protect actors against artificial intelligence.

The negotiating committee unanimously approved the deal last Wednesday, ending the 118-day strike. The national board approved the deal on Friday, with 86% of the weighted vote in favor, and sent it to members for ratification.

Shaan Sharma and Anne-Marie Johnson were among at least eight dissenters on the 80-member board. Both said that AI was key to their opposition, though they also had other reservations.

“There should be no AI. Only human beings should be used in what we create for public consumption,” Johnson said. “Without staving off AI, everything we achieved is for naught. It’s a waste of time.”

Sharma, who also served as an alternate member of the negotiating committee, said he was concerned about “significant loopholes” in the AI language that left “existential threats to some of our categories of work.”

SAG-AFTRA released an 18-page summary of the agreement on Sunday. The deal establishes consent and compensation requirements for use of AI to generate “digital doubles.” But it does not prohibit AI, and it does relatively little to stop studios from training on actors’ performances to create “synthetic” performers.

If an AI-generated synthetic character has a recognizable facial feature of a real actor, and that actor’s name was used in the prompt to generate that character, then the producer must get the actor’s consent.

But Sharma said that limitation does not add up to much.

“We didn’t get any meaningful protection there,” he said. “If the replica doesn’t give a clear impression that it’s you, none of the protections apply.”

Fran Drescher, the president of the union, and Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the executive director, defended the AI provisions of the contract during a 3 1/2-hour Zoom meeting for SAG-AFTRA members on Monday.

Crabtree-Ireland also acknowledged that the deal is not “perfect,” and that the union will have to keep fighting to get further protections in future contracts.

“The reality is, there has never been a time when we have been able to successfully just block technology from advancing,” Crabtree-Ireland said. “And so strategically, our best option is to channel that technology in the best possible direction.”

Crabtree-Ireland fielded numerous AI questions from union members. He was asked if actors could be required to give an AI consent as a condition of employment.

“Yes, they can ask you for that,” he said. “If you can’t reach agreement on that, then yes, they can go and hire somebody else instead of you.”

He was also asked how to make sure that AI would not deteriorate the craft of acting over time.

“I don’t think we can guarantee that,” he said.

Crabtree-Ireland said the union is pursuing legislation in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento, and lobbying the Copyright Office, in an effort to shape public policy on the issue.

The guild is holding another informational meeting at the Hollywood Palladium on Thursday evening.

During the Zoom, Drescher also took aim at “naysayers that have exploited this momentum of ours… to gain a voice for themselves.” She encouraged members to take in the information “with an open heart and an open mind, if you haven’t yet been poisoned by contrarians.”

Drescher did not mention Justine Bateman by name. Bateman, a former SAG board member and former SAG negotiating committee member, has been an outspoken critic of the AI terms of the deal.

In an interview on Tuesday, Bateman said she is not attacking SAG-AFTRA leadership, but does want members to be aware of the threat posed by AI.

“It’s not clear to me why the leadership would not want the membership to be aware and asking questions,” Bateman said. “If it were me, I would encourage that.”

She also said that she is not advocating for anyone to vote for or against ratification. But if the deal is ratified, she advised that actors should talk to their agents and lawyers about how to bargain individually for more robust AI protections.

“This is a brand new area. And for most people, they haven’t even contemplated this kind of technology and what it can mean to them,” she said. “This is not an area where you can assume you are broadly protected by the (union) MBA.”

Johnson, the national board member, said she was also dissatisfied with the residual bonus in streaming. She warned that Netflix and other streamers may not be transparent about which shows are hitting the viewership thresholds to qualify for the bonus, and said it would have been better to get a share of revenue.

“We should have held out for as long as it took for a percentage of their revenue,” she said. “That’s quantifiable.”

The deadline to vote on ratification is Dec. 5. Sharma said it is quite likely that the deal will be ratified, as all previous deals have been. If it were rejected by the membership, that would not automatically mean the union would go back on strike.

The union would have to return to the bargaining table without a guarantee that the current terms would remain in place, Crabtree-Ireland said Monday.

“We’d have to evaluate what the likely success is of going back and reinstituting a strike,” he said. “From my point of view, we gained the maximum amount of leverage and we reached a deal right at our point of peak leverage in this process. Continuing the strike into the holiday period, in my view, would not have resulted in additional leverage. It would have probably de-leveraged us for a variety of reasons. And I do not believe we would have been able to gain additional gains in this contract by staying on strike longer.”

In the deal, SAG-AFTRA did get a provision that forces studios to get permission from the estate of a deceased actor before using AI to reanimate the actor. If the actor does not have an estate, and representatives cannot be found, the producer can get permission instead from SAG-AFTRA.

Crabtree-Ireland said Monday that actors can communicate their wishes about AI to the union now, and the union will adhere to those instructions if the issue comes up after their death.

Johnson said she already has plans to visit her lawyer to draft her instructions: “I refuse to approve any manipulation of my performance.”

This post was originally published on Variety

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