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Strike two: Residual anxieties haunt actors, AI and the arts

The writers’ strike set an impressive precedent — but what does it mean for the future of the industry?

Combined, writers’ and actors’ labor unions eventually put over 170,000 people on picket lines in an arduous, last-ditch effort.
Combined, writers’ and actors’ labor unions eventually put over 170,000 people on picket lines in an arduous, last-ditch effort.

Union leaders looked at each other over the lip of a widening chasm this past summer. Negotiations over the three-year contract which governs above-the-line creatives and major studios had collapsed. Combined, writers’ and actors’ labor unions eventually put over 170,000 people on picket lines in an arduous, last-ditch effort. 

It took 148 days to build a bridge between studios and the writers, putting the latter back at work in a revitalized era of pay and protections. Their tentative agreement married familiar concerns — compensation, benefits and minimum staffing — with contention about AI and streaming service residuals. For actors in ongoing strikes, future workers in the entertainment industry and flourishing student creatives, these issues aren’t going anywhere.

This story isn’t new. When television networks expanded in the 1960s, actors and writers fought to earn residuals — royalty payments on repeated airings of their projects. Nowadays, the residuals battle centers around streaming services like Netflix.

However, history hasn’t repeated itself identically. Multitudes of articles have covered the gradually unfolding minutiae of the strikes every step of the way, and that coverage has brought the unions’ unique demands to the forefront. According to Asst. Media Studies Prof. Kate Sweeney, a former producer for Smithsonian Networks and National Geographic, there’s something noteworthy about the media’s focus.

“[Producers, directors and writers] have used their storytelling skills, their narrative skills, to frame this strike in a way that helps the public understand — maybe in ways they hadn't in the past — that this really is a David and Goliath battle,” Sweeney said. “[This] isn't just a bunch of wealthy people asking for more money. It’s a fight for fair wages. It's a fight for not being replaced by AI.”

Two unions are predominantly embroiled in those narratives, namely the Writers’ Guild of America and the Screen Actors’ Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. Major studios, streaming services and networks are represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the association which negotiates industry-wide guild and union contracts.

The strikes’ effects aren’t quite as clear-cut. Despite current fixations on the prolonged actors' strikes, unsung consequences persist for the makeup artists, editors and operators who hold sets together. For better or worse, these “below-the-line” workers are along for the ride.

“There's such a trickle-down effect,” Sweeney said. “There are a lot of people who are at risk of or have lost small, independent businesses that service the production industry. I'm aware of old acquaintances who are on the verge of losing their homes, who can no longer pay rent, who are really suffering.”

Despite the cost, most writers felt they reached a fitting conclusion. Through false starts and fraught negotiations, the WGA and the AMPTP eventually reached an agreement that the WGA deemed “exceptional.” 

The deal augmented writers’ compensation, pensions, health care and minimum durations of employment. It guarantees that the next time a show like “Suits” rises from the dead, it won’t just benefit Netflix. Writers — and hopefully actors as well — will earn appropriate residuals from streaming services.

It also shored up oversights in oft-exploited mini rooms — the groups of writers working on a pre-greenlit project. Job security in mini rooms is tenuous and short-lived, as writers are rarely employed on their projects through production.  However, other unprotected niches still riddle the world of film and media. Sweeney emphasized shortcomings in documentary production, which lacks a formalized union.

“Responsibilities can get really murky … [a] producer may never go to any of the shoots, may never go into the field, may be somewhat absent,” Sweeney said, explaining how lower-level producers must pick up the slack — without due compensation. “The associate producers carry the burden of producing, but they're being paid at the level of associate producer, and they get the associate producer credits.”

The writers’ negotiations also created some original constraints. Though studios now can’t mandate or train AI in the industry, writers can still elect to use AI, provided they are forthright and transparent. Seemingly, the technology will linger as a nascent threat to contemporary methods of creative production.

Actors have yet to secure similar provisions. The SAG-AFTRA roughly aligns with the WGA in their desires for improved compensation, residuals and minimums — it also advocates for the ethical use of technologies that can replicate an actor’s performance, voice or likeness. Mona Sloane, Asst. Data Science and Media Studies Prof., pointed out that those technologies aren’t omnipotent, however.

“The system is constrained to what is being fed, or has been fed before,” Sloane said. “There is a limit to the newness of what it can create, because it's always conditioned on what it has been trained on before.”

The SAG-AFTRA isn’t campaigning for AI eradication. Rather, it calls for proper regulation, consent and compensation with relation to the technology. And as with any shiny new toy, it’ll take time — and tussles — before it’s used equitably. 

“These folks fought very hard for what they got,” Sloane said. “But of course, we also need AI regulation, and we need policymakers to come in and provide blueprints for good guardrails. That is not just for the entertainment industry, but that's for everybody.”

The path AI policy takes in the entertainment industry will stand until 2026, when the current contract expires. Nonetheless, the strikes are historic, preliminary interactions with these technologies. Sloane notes that the world is watching the “first case study” play out between labor unions and AI.

This trial run doesn’t just involve unions, however. Performing, visual and language arts as a whole have a stake. Encompassed within the aptly named humanities, those domains are a central part of what makes us human — analytical, critical and creative forces. 

“I would actually expect [these skills] to become more important, not less. But again, that's a little bit of wishful thinking,” said Sloane. “[Working] with this technology comes down to understanding writing and language and speech and context and culture.”

Though the actors’ strike trudges onward, the SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP have struck up negotiations again. A-list actors pledged 150 million to help kindle the flame, and the end may now be in sight. But no matter how this second strike resolves, the industry is undergoing inescapable change.