With DGA Pact in Hand, Industry Focus Turns to SAG-AFTRA Agenda: Self-Taping, Streaming and AI

With a tentative Directors Guild of America deal in hand and the Writers Guild of America on strike, SAG-AFTRA has been thrust into a bigger role than the performer’s union has played in years in the industry’s triennial labor contract negotiations.

SAG-AFTRA gets its turn at the bargaining table this week, with an agenda that seeks to address the many ways that technology is changing the profession of acting.

Two of the union’s top concerns — streaming residuals and artificial intelligence — are also key issues for the WGA and DGA. The performers’ guild is also uniquely focused on putting limits on “self-taped” auditions, which have become ubiquitous since the beginning of the pandemic.

To maximize its leverage, SAG-AFTRA has already called for a strike authorization vote. With ballots due at 5 p.m. on Monday, the union will have the authorization in hand when it begins talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers on Wednesday.

The ballot deadline comes a day after the DGA reached a tentative agreement on a new contract. The WGA, meanwhile, has been on strike since May 2. SAG-AFTRA has a little more than three weeks to negotiate its contract before the June 30 expiration date.

A SAG-AFTRA strike would affect 160,000 performers, and would immediately shut down all remaining film and TV production.

For actors, the AI issue has become front-and-center in the last couple of months, as leaps in technology have raised fears across the creative world. It has become one of the top issues raised by the many SAG-AFTRA members who have joined WGA picket lines in Los Angeles and New York in recent weeks.

“AI scares me — absolutely it does, as it should scare everyone,” said Brian George, a veteran actor best known for roles on “Seinfeld” and “The Big Bang Theory.” “There’s a total potential for abuse.”

SAG-AFTRA has been looking at the issue for several years, and has incorporated language protecting performers from the use of “digital doubles” in its commercials agreement and low-budget agreements. The union is now looking for more robust protections in its Basic Agreement, including a provision preventing studios from training AI programs on actors’ work without permission.

The union is not trying to prohibit studios from using AI, and acknowledges that the technology can have benefits for actors. Some performers have already agreed to have their voices cloned, for instance.

But SAG-AFTRA does want to make it clear that any use of AI to replicate an actor or create a new performance must be done with that actor’s consent and with payment.

“I feel like we have taken a very reasonable approach to addressing AI,” said Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the guild’s executive director.

He said the guild could have taken the approach of, “OK, let’s try and tell people this technology is evil and ban it.” But he said that fighting technology probably would not work in the long run.

“Our approach has been, ‘Hey, there are potential benefits to AI, for our members and also for the industry in general,’” Crabtree-Ireland said. “So how about we have a conversation about what guardrails there need to be, what reasonable limitations there need to be, to make sure AI is serving humans rather than humans serving AI?’”

Many have raised concerns that AI will be used to eliminate jobs, and are uncomfortable with any use of it in entertainment. Justine Bateman, the writer, producer and former “Family Ties” star, has been raising alarms about contracts that include broad language signing over the right to use a performer’s likeness with any technology yet to be invented.

“If SAG doesn’t get strict restrictions on AI, the whole acting profession in film and series will be destroyed under their watch,” Bateman said in an interview. “For me personally, I would say no fucking AI in any of this. I think pulling AI into the entertainment business will be the worst thing that ever happened to the entertainment business.”

The DGA agreement stipulates that “AI is not a person and that generative AI cannot replace the duties performed by members,” according to a DGA summary. The summary does not indicate that any limits were placed on AI training. More details on the proposal are expected to be released later this week.

Like the other guilds, SAG-AFTRA is also interested in getting an improved formula for residuals in streaming. As more shows switch to streaming, actors have noticed a dramatic decline in their residual income.

Joe Holt, who has appeared on “Walking Dead: World Beyond” and other shows, said that he used to be able to get a guest star spot on “Grey’s Anatomy,” and get $9,000 in upfront compensation, which would turn into $20,000 after the show aired in reruns.

“Streaming has made that impossible,” he said. “You’re still doing same quality of work, but you’re not getting paid for the ‘rerun.’ There should be a way to monetize that. It’s out there in perpetuity. People are streaming it all the time.”

George said the lack of residuals in streaming is “the bane of every working actor.”

“We know residuals were part of the old system,” he said. “That’s a precedent. You can’t just say, ‘This is a different technology.’”

Several actors said they are bothered that streaming residuals are the same regardless of whether a show is a hit or a flop. No one — not the actors or anyone else — is even told how many people are watching the show.

“There is a shell game being played in terms of viewership,” Holt said. “It feels like they never know exactly what the numbers are until they want to cancel a show. Of course they know how many people are watching. Of course they know how that’s being monetized.”

The WGA has also been interested in this issue. The DGA agreement, however, provides only for an increased residual based on international subscribers, not a viewership-based residual.

SAG-AFTRA has said it will not be limited by the DGA deal, but the AMPTP has often forced other guilds to accept the pattern adopted by the DGA.

SAG-AFTRA also wants significant increases in minimum rates to account for high levels of inflation since the last contract was negotiated in 2020. The DGA deal provides increases of 5%, 4% and 3.5%, which is higher than normal but not as high as the increases sought by the WGA.

SAG-AFTRA is also looking to regulate self-taped auditions. Actors have complained that in-person casting hardly exists anymore, and that they have been forced to take on burdens that used to be borne by casting offices.

Actors say that casting directors are asking for self-taped auditions with too many pages of material, and too little time to prepare a tape.

“You can get a call, and it’s 13 pages and it’s due tomorrow morning,” said Kevin Daniels, who has appeared on “Will Trent” and “Modern Family.” “And you wonder, ‘Are people even watching this? Why did you waste my time with this?’ That gets a little annoying.”

He said he also misses the opportunity to make an in-person impression on the show’s writers and producers.

“For me, the biggest issue is we don’t get notes,” said Rebecca Metz, who has appeared on “Better Things” and “Shameless.” She said that adjusting her performance in response to feedback used to be an essential part of auditioning. “Now you’re just sending this off into the ether with no guidance in terms of tone. I don’t get to show 80% of my job.”

SAG-AFTRA is not trying to ban self-taped auditions, as many actors also enjoy the convenience. But the guild is seeking to impose restrictions. The current low-budget agreements already include a five-page limit on self-taped auditions, and that could be one element of a larger set of rules.

Daniels said that he and his friends have already voted for the strike authorization because they want to arm the negotiators with as much leverage as possible.

“People are trying to be fairly compensated for their work. That goes with every guild,” he said. “No one said it’s an easy industry. It’s just about being paid for our work.”

Crabtree-Ireland said he is optimistic that the AMPTP will see that it’s not in the industry’s interest to end up with a two-guild strike at the end of the month.

“I’m committed to doing everything that we can possibly do to make a deal,” he said. “We need partners on the other side of the table to help us with that. So we’ll see.”

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