During SAG-AFTRA negotiations, the studios allegedly demanded the ability to use AI on background actors for a day rate, owning their image forever
That was the sentiment several members and non-members of SAG-AFTRA shared with Rolling Stone following Thursday’s announcement that the 160,000-member union would join the WGA union on the picket lines after failing to secure a new contract with movie studio and streaming service executives.
The Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) had been negotiating with the Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers (AMPTP) for the past month, but the already extended deadline expired late Wednesday night. SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher delivered a bruising and rallying speech decrying the AMPTP’s “shameful” and “disgusting” treatment toward the union, saying, “You cannot keep being dwindled and marginalized and disrespected and dishonored.”
Both SAG-AFTRA and WGA — which has been on strike since May 2 — marks the first time since 1960 that both unions have been on strike simultaneously. One of the major points of contention for both groups has been the rapid development and implementation of AI and fears of how it could potentially replace writers and actors.
And their concern was justified, as chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland laid bare the AMPTP’s so-called “groundbreaking AI proposal,” which holds the potential to wipe out an entire pathway to breaking into the industry, as well as a reliable source of income for many. The reported proposal hinged on the ability for background actors to be “scanned, get paid for one day’s pay” and for that company to “own that scan of their image, their likeness, and to be able to use it for the rest of eternity in any project they want with no consent and no compensation.”
“It literally was all of our worst fears confirmed when we heard that,” actress Jamie Miller tells Rolling Stone. “It’s kneecapping people from the start.”
“How can I start a career when one of those options is essentially selling my soul?” asks actor Patrick McCann.
“The thing is, as a working actor you are often, and worse, expected to be in a place where you need the money,” says New York-based actress Megan Rae Ruskey. And because the state of the industry is already at a precious tipping point, “being an actor is kind of like accepting something else will pay the bills — and hoping you’re wrong.”
The gravity of the consequences of AI effectively replacing background actors can’t be overstated. Background actors serve as the backdrop of busy scenes and crowd shots in film and TV projects, filling up otherwise empty restaurants, the passersby on streets, the raucous partygoers; the peripheral characters on period shows dressed in appropriate garb.
Background work serves as a pathway for actors looking to break into the business, allowing them to learn how a set operates, meet fellow actors and industry connections, and eventually can lead to qualifying for SAG-AFTRA membership, which in turn can help land bigger roles. The daily rate for union members is under $200 a day — for days that can stretch up to 16-18 hours. Some background actors can fully support themselves with such work, while others book shows here and there to pad out bank accounts in-between gigs or seek work in other industries.
“It’s crazy, it’s wrong — it’s taking money out of people’s pockets,” says one Chicago-based actor. “The studios are getting away with one thing after another.”
“It will make it impossible to break into the industry,” Miller adds. “If you don’t have that stepping stone to get in, if you don’t have connections already and you don’t come from wealth — you start at the bottom and work your way up from background work. To eliminate that is a tragedy. Think about all of the actors that won’t be able to make it in the industry because it’s eliminating the first step.”
The idea that studios could pay an actor less than $200 and own that person’s image forever to use in any project at any time is terrifying, several actors tell Rolling Stone, particularly when it comes to not knowing what your image is being used for.
“There’s been a lot of conversation about consent on set — AI is just another way to get around consent from actors, particularly actors assigned female at birth,” one New York-based background actor says. “If for some reason they use my face and they put me in a situation that I did not consent to, that is very troubling.”
The practice could potentially restrict how much someone can work, McCann points out. If an actor does background work for a specific company, there’s a good chance for that company to draw from its AI database and use that previously filmed footage or scanned data for another show instead of hiring that actor again — even if it’s years later. “My career has ended before it’s even started,” he says. “It is taking any sort of agency and power we have as performers and saying, ‘Well, it’s not worth anything.’”
Limiting roles and opportunities for background actors would also do untold damage to other production departments, such as costume, hair and makeup, and assistant positions, as big projects often have whole teams solely dedicated to overseeing and handling background roles.
In the hours leading up to the SAG-AFTRA deadline, reports exposed the cruelty and the by-any-means-necessary approach the AMPTP was gearing up for when it came to the WGA union, with insiders saying the plan was to “let it bleed out” and not go back to the negotiating table until late October. “The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses,” Deadline reported one studio executive saying.
The cinematic-villain trope the studio insiders have adopted has only infuriated and unified both members of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA. “It shouldn’t be surprising but it’s pretty wild to see at the same time,” says one West Coast working background actor.
“The major studios have made it clear that profit is their only motive in this business and that they have no problem trying to exploit the resource of background actors. It’s a disappointing time for the industry.”