Hollywood’s latest Writers and Actors Strike: A Roundup of the actions of SAG-AFTRA and the WGA, then and now

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A historical moment occurred this year in the Film and TV industry when the SAG-AFTRA joined the WGA on strike, marking the first time since 1960 that both unions took collective action, bringing many upcoming productions to a halt.  

Back in 1960 strikes by SAG and WGA, were led by then-actor and future US President Ronald Reagan. These strikes led to notable achievements for both actors and writers, including residuals for actors on all films made from 1960 onwards. In addition, a one-time payment for pre-1960 films to establish a SAG pension and health plan. Meanwhile, the WGA secured significant gains, such as the first residuals for theatrical motion pictures, an independent pension fund, and an industry health insurance plan.

Dancer Fred Astaire (R) in dressing room, talking to co-star Debbie Reynolds (L), after the studio where they were filming was shutdown by strike called by the Screen Actors Guild.

Astaire in his dressing room, talking to co-star Debbie Reynolds, after the studio where they were filming The Pleasure of His Company, was shut down by the strike called by the Screen Actors Guild in 1960. Astaire was against the strike, saying “It is violently wrong to interrupt production in the middle.”

In 2023, both SAG-AFTRA and WGA decided to strike together again, citing several concerns that led to their collective action. One of the key issues was the struggle for fair wages for actors and writers, given the ever-changing landscape of the entertainment industry. Additionally, the unions expressed reservations about the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Film and TV productions, particularly in relation to the unauthorized use of an actors’ digital image and audio replacements through AI.

SAG-AFTRA’s focus on AI and the potential misuse of an actor’s digital likeness, raises ethical and legal questions about consent and ownership of one’s image. The possibility of supporting actors being duplicated in multiple scenes through AI also raised concerns about job security and fair treatment within the industry. Equity, formerly titled the British Actors’ Equity Association, stands in solidarity with the American Union and has issued their own statement and advice on the matter.

To provide an illustration of the potential use of unauthorized imagery, I experimented with a free version of an AI software that provides copyright-free images, which can be manipulated. Lawrence from our lovely team has kindly given us permission to use his ‘Meet The Team‘ image for this purpose.

Although this free software struggles with understanding human anatomy, it does raise alarms regarding how effortlessly a person’s image can be manipulated by AI, potentially leading to misuse against actors, particularly in the media. Moreover, skilled professionals using tools like Photoshop can further alter these images, portraying individuals in ways they did not consent to. This raises pertinent questions about the vast possibilities of what AI in film can achieve with the collaboration of experts and future technological advancements. One of the many reasons actors are striking is for the correct laws to be in place.

Writers Guild of America’s has continuously struggled for fair contracts and protection, so in 2023 the concerns revolves around seeking better pay, improved contracts, and stronger protection against the increasing integration of AI in screenwriting and storytelling.

AI presents a genuine dilemma for the writers, as they strive to maintain creative control while adapting to technological advancements. As the WGA cannot stop the development of AI, assurances can most certainly be put in place in making sure basic standards of human involvement and fairness is involved.

Despite the concerns, it is important to note that AI has also been used positively in the industry. The example of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker demonstrates how AI technology was utilized creatively to complete scenes using existing footage. This illustrates how AI can be a useful tool in certain scenarios, emphasizing the need for a balanced view on its potential benefits and drawbacks.

The strikes have undoubtedly impacted the industry, leading to disruptions in production schedules, financial losses, and heated discussions about the future of entertainment. To ensure a fair evaluation, it is essential to consider diverse perspectives, including those of actors, writers, producers, and the broader public, as they all have vested interests in the industry’s prosperity and sustainability.

In conclusion, the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes in 2023 signify a crucial moment in the history of Film and TV. By presenting a balanced analysis of the concerns raised by both unions and acknowledging the potential impact on the industry, we can engage in constructive discussions that lead to mutually beneficial outcomes. Addressing the complex challenges brought forth by AI integration requires collaboration, transparency, and understanding, as the entertainment landscape continues to evolve in the digital age.