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Picket lines are not new to Hollywood. Battles between powerful studios and the creative talents that make up the industry have taken place since at least the 1940s. But this time the situation is different with the powerful Sag-Aftra (a coming together of the Screen Actors’ Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) having announced it is joining hands with the Writers’ Guild of America in industrial action. The coming together of these two powerful unions has brought work at studios to a grinding halt and reports from America suggest that the resolve of the groups has been strengthened with several top actors ~ including Meryl Streep, George Clooney and Jamie Lee Curtis ~ deciding to support the cause. Hollywood writers have been on strike for several weeks, and their absence from studios had already hit production schedules of movies, television and OTT shows.
While the major demand of the strikers is a re-negotiation of the terms under which they work for the studios, the ominous presence of Artificial Intelligence has emerged as a major factor. Writers’ Guild placards have for weeks announced “Human writers only!”, but a new dimension has been added to the dispute with the emergence of AI as an existential threat to even actors. The studios claim to have offered groundbreaking proposals on the use of AI, but this has been dismissed with disdain by Sag-Aftra. The union’s chief negotiator, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland told reporters: “They proposed that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get one day’s pay, and their companies should own that scan, their image, their likeness and should be able to use it for the rest of eternity on any project they want, with no consent and no compensation. So if you think that’s a groundbreaking proposal, I suggest you think again.” The impacts of the action by Hollywood’s writers, actors and staff will be felt immediately. Members of Sag-Aftra will, besides not working on new projects, also refuse to promote those that are already complete. Print and radio interviews have been cancelled, and in the slightly longer term, the action will impact film festivals such as at Venice, Telluride and Toronto, which depend heavily on the drawing power of stars. But the strongest impact will be felt on the studio floor, where work will stop immediately in an industry already starved for content following the disruptions caused by the Covid pandemic. The protestors hope this, more than anything else, will force studios to see reason; studios on the other hand will hope the weakest links, those who need money the most, will allow them to batter the unions into submission. Already, reports in the US have quoted studio insiders as saying they will let the strike “drag on until union members start losing their apartments…and their houses.”