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SAG-AFTRA leaders defend AI protections: ‘We achieved the best possible deal’

By Christi Carras, Los Angeles Times
Published: November 19, 2023, 5:24am

LOS ANGELES — SAG-AFTRA leaders are defending the artificial intelligence terms of their tentative deal with the major Hollywood studios in response to criticism from some members that the union did not secure enough protections for performers.

Both SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher and National Executive Director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland have given interviews this week addressing actors’ doubts about the proposed new contract — which is currently in the member ratification process after the negotiating committee voted unanimously to recommend it and 86% of the national board approved it. Voting began Tuesday and will close the first week of December.

A number of actors — including some members of the guild’s national board — have openly criticized the so-called memorandum of agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers that ended the 118-day strike, saying it had too many loopholes in key areas, such as AI.

At an event hosted Tuesday by The Washington Post, Drescher dismissed the contract’s critics as inevitable “naysayers” and reasoned that “you can’t please all the people all the time.”

“We have a lot of reason to be very proud,” Drescher said during the Post’s Global Women’s Summit. “There are always going to be those naysayers who feel like their issue we couldn’t get. And our feelings are, let’s get the language on the page. Let’s get as much as we can get, and we’ll go back. But if there’s no language on the page, there’s nowhere to start to build. And so that was the feeling of our negotiating committee who passed (the deal).”

On Monday, the guild released an 18-page document summarizing the tentative deal, which states that studios must obtain permission from actors in order to create a “digital replica” of them for a project and then compensate the performer appropriately whenever it’s used.

In cases where a performer’s employer seeks to create a digital replica of the actor’s voice or likeness with the intent of using the copy in their place, the employer must first obtain “clear and conspicuous” consent from the performer.

The employer must pay the performer for the number of days they would have been required to perform scenes featuring their digital likeness. And if a digital replica of a background actor is used to portray a principal character, the background actor must be compensated for the days they would have worked in person (plus residuals).

But some actors — including SAG-AFTRA national board member Shaan Sharma — are fearful that companies could refuse to hire performers who won’t consent to digital replication. Sharma told the Los Angeles Times earlier this week that he was among the minority of board members who voted against the deal.

“Consent at the time of employment isn’t consent,” said Sharma, who has seen the contract in its entirety. “It’s coercion. You don’t really have a choice. If you want to work, you’ve got to give them the right to replicate you.”

Dissenters also worry that exceptions to the rules laid out in the deal will be left up to the discretion of companies who don’t have actors’ best interests in mind. For example, studios would need consent to use an actor’s digital replica “unless the photography or sound track remains substantially as scripted, performed and/or recorded,” and employers are required to explain to the performer how their copy will be used — in “reasonably specific” terms.

Crabtree-Ireland, who was also SAG-AFTRA’s chief negotiator, responded to some of the backlash from members during a virtual panel on the future of AI hosted Wednesday by the Brookings Institution.

“I can guarantee you we couldn’t have stopped AI no matter how long we would have stayed on strike,” Crabtree-Ireland said. “What we did do is achieve really strong protections. And are they perfect? No. There are people who criticize these protections and say, ‘It should be this, ‘It should be that.’”

“In any kind of negotiation like this, you have to find the balance,” he added. “We pushed our leverage to the max. … I think that leverage would not have increased from us remaining on strike longer, and I believe we achieved the best possible deal that could have been achieved in connection with AI in this negotiation.”

A number of guild members have also complained that they haven’t been able to access the full contract so far — only the summary — during the ratification voting window

Union negotiators, however, have noted that it is common practice to release a summary of the contract to members before drafting is finalized.

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“Part of that is because the union doesn’t unilaterally decide the final drafting of the contract,” Sharma said. “That is actually worked out between the AMPTP and SAG-AFTRA staff. … So it takes time for our staff and their staff to actually finalize that language.”