Are Actors Overthinking the A.I. Threat?

SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher speaks as SAG-AFTRA National Executive Director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland looks on at a press conference discussing their strike-ending deal with the Hollywood studios on November 10, 2023, in Los Angeles.
I stand by my conclusion on Sunday that SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher and national executive director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland achieved the best deal possible, but it’s worth looking at the various concerns that members are raising about A.I. Mario Tama/Getty Images
Jonathan Handel
November 16, 2023

The A.I. panic is setting in, and opposition to the tentative SAG-AFTRA agreement is growing. The deal is still expected to be ratified by the union’s 160,000 members when voting closes Dec. 5, and I stand by my conclusion on Sunday that president Fran Drescher, national executive director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, and the negotiating committee and staff achieved the best deal possible. If members compare the contract to an idealized perfect agreement and vote it down, they may find themselves facing months more on the picket lines—and possibly no A.I. protections at all when the dust settles.

All of that said, it’s worth looking at the various concerns that members are raising: that A.I. is a job killer and “soul destroyer” and should be banned; that actors’ consent to digital replicas will be coerced; and that the A.I. provisions will hurt stunt personnel, in particular.

“Synthetic” Actors?

Former SAG-AFTRA board member Justine Bateman and two current board members have been particularly vocal in asserting that fully synthetic performers may take over the profession, as the new agreement doesn’t prohibit their creation and use. All the union achieved here was a requirement that the studios notify the union whenever they use such a digital creation, plus offer the union an opportunity to bargain for appropriate compensation, “if any.” Bateman was dismissive of this language on The Town podcast today: “It’s like negotiating with a cannibal,” she analogized. “So is it gonna be the left foot or the right foot that you’re gonna cut off? And will you be grilling it or broiling it? And what kind of sauce?”