You should care about the Hollywood strikes

Landmark labour action matters to Manitobans, creative workers around the world

In Hollywood, Calif., union actors and writers have pressed pause on television and film productions  to hit play on the picket lines. While these strikes may seem like a distant issue, Manitobans should care about their outcomes, as they could potentially affect creatives in our province and around the world.

Approximately 160,000 actors and entertainers represented by the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), along with over 11,000 members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA), are now on strike. This marks the first combined demonstration from the two groups in over 60 years. The WGA has been striking since May.

Both unions are seeking better pay and increased job security from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) — the group representing studios and streaming platforms — in part to account for inflation and the way streaming has affected their pay.

However, it is the artificial intelligence (AI) protections the unions are seeking that are poised to affect Manitobans and the wider working world.

Actors are asking for “a comprehensive set of provisions to grant informed consent and fair compensation” when AI is used to alter or simulate their performances. Writers are taking a firmer stance, demanding that AI not be used as source material for adaptation and specifying that AI cannot write or revise material. Both groups also want to ensure that studios cannot train AI using their work.

This is for good reason. If you’ve been anywhere with an internet connection recently, you’ve probably seen headlines about how AI could take millions of our jobs, and about how even those who work in complex creative fields are at risk of being replaced.

The exact impact AI will have on jobs in creative fields is heavily debated. When it comes to hurting the creative workforce in the immediate future, however, I would argue that whether or not AI can actually replace creative workers doesn’t really matter.

What matters is whether companies and executives think that AI models can replace their employees. If businesses believe they can replace even a portion of their workers with something that doesn’t sleep, eat, complain or require a wage, it is laughable to suggest they would not attempt to do so.

A scenario along these lines that worries Hollywood writers involves studios using AI to generate low quality first drafts of scripts, which human writers would be asked to punch up. Studios could then use the fact that the script was generated by an AI as an excuse to pay writers less, arguing that the AI wrote the script while the human writers merely revised it.

Writers fear jobs and pay would be slashed, as studios would not be using human writers for the initial drafting process. Representing another facet of the film and television-making process, actors have similar concerns.

In a statement regarding the strike, SAG-AFTRA alleged that studios want to be able to pay background actors less than a day’s wages to scan their likenesses and feed them to AI as blueprints to generate background characters forever, in any way they choose without having to seek consent.

While AMPTP disputes these assertions, the details the producers’ alliance has provided on the “groundbreaking AI proposal” it claims to be offering actors are not very specific when it comes to compensation, and so do not dispel the threat of AI devaluing actors’ labour.

Government regulation of AI has moved slowly in the U.S., and while the Canadian government proposed a legal framework for AI use last summer, the attempt has been criticized for being exceedingly vague, for leaving too many details for future legislation and for largely omitting labour from the conversation.

With this in mind, the efforts of U.S. entertainment workers should matter to Manitobans. Manitoba is home to a growing film, television and media industry, which secured $365 million in production last year. The overall creative scene in our province is also booming. In 2020, the Winnipeg Arts Council estimated that creative industries in Winnipeg alone were worth $1.6 billion.

But if AI use at the expense of creators becomes the norm in the entertainment industry, Manitobans might lose out on the benefits of this growth.

One film shot in Winnipeg in 2015 provided opportunities for paid background work to 2,000 Manitobans over the course of a few months. But if studios can simply use AI to conjure a crowd out of thin air without having to pay actors fair compensation for their likenesses, those kinds of opportunities will disappear.

Notably, AI could have an incredibly disruptive effect on entry-level jobs in creative industries. Should this happen in Manitoba, I believe it would have devastating effects on our next generation of creative workers.

Beginner creatives of all kinds need opportunities like background work in film or entry-level writing positions to practice and learn from more experienced professionals in order to improve their skills.

If AI is used to wipe out paid learning opportunities, building a career in a creative industry will be all but impossible for those struggling to pay the bills, and talented creators who lack resources could effectively be priced out from ever obtaining higher-paying positions in creative spaces.

The strikes in Hollywood are already affecting our province’s economy directly. Some media productions taking place locally have been put on hold, including a film projected to bring about $15 million to the province. However, this short-term pain is a much better alternative to the long-term harm facing Manitoba’s creators if the unions lose.

When it comes to AI making its way into the creative workplace to some degree, I’m afraid that the tech-genie is already out of the bottle. But if unions representing over 170,000 creative workers can win landmark AI protections, that victory could lay the groundwork for creatives everywhere to secure more control over how AI use impacts their work.

To prepare for the near future, Manitobans and creative workers around the world should be paying attention to these strikes and, if need be, gearing up to organize and follow suit.