The voting window on the new TV/Theatrical contract for SAG-AFTRA members, nationwide, commenced on Tuesday, November 14th and will end on Tuesday, December 5th. As a member of the negotiating committee, this feels like a pretty good time to offer some insight on what I call, the boogeyman of acting. Yes, A.I., aka, Artificial Intelligence or for many actors, “Aartificial insult,” “Arbitration insanity,” “Actor invisibility, “Artificial imaging,” and so many others I could go on and on, but I won’t. No doubt, you already get the point.
Since, time in memoriam, the ability to diminish, dismiss and marginalize actors has been virtually a daily practice going back to before and after the inception of the Screen Actors Guild in 1933. Back in the day background performers were called, “extras,” a day player was a “bit player,” so on and so forth. Yet, even many stars or leading actors were abused, underpaid or stretched to the limit by, so-called management aka the studios. Be it silent pictures, the talkies or when television finally was born, actor labor, has always been challenged. Today, I think it is fair to say that we face our greatest challenge ever in a visual human medium, technology. The reality of “being replaced” by our own digital scan or the creation of a “synthetic fake performer” has birthed a fear conversation in the voting and ratification of a new contract and a wide, “No vote” contingency.
As a veteran actor, predominately in television, I have been asked more than 100 times in the last two weeks: “Hey Kevin, aren’t you concerned too?” My answer is always, “Absolutely,” but there is a vast difference between concerned and just blindly being scared. As with most of life, when any issue or conversation is not black and white, we must discuss and consider subjective nuance. A.I. and the actor has a mountain of nuance far beyond just the capabilities of A.I. Here is where I insert my own authored cliché from decades ago: “Just because something is possible doesn’t make it a good idea.” You can focus on the possibilities of A.I. and what it can do, and you can also choose to just agree with the contract before you, and “Vote Yes,” or you could do what I recommend, and that is to consider both sides, so as to arrive at an intelligent professional decision, and then… vote.
Many union actors across the U.S. have listened to various “celebrities” on social media platforms who suggest that what SAG-AFTRA should have done is “Just say NO” to all A.I., period. While that is a lovely thought, and I can absolutely be an idealist about a lot of elements of life, it simply isn’t logical. Well, why not Kevin? Simply put, because A.I. is already here, and the technology isn’t going away ever. If SAG-AFTRA were to leave a blank contract page with no A.I. provisions, then you have nothing upon which to file claims, build a case against management and win in an arbitration suit, per Scarlett Johansson versus Disney for $50 million. Human history has always shown us that when you create rules and laws, someone will always try to break them, and A.I. applied to moving pictures all over the world will be no different. Therefore, my suggestion is, build as strong a defense as you can now and dig in for the battle because avoiding it will erase you, the actor.
Trust me, I’m not about to attempt to dissect the legal provisions in this screed, because I’ll wind up confusing more people than educating. I will however, provide a few basic thoughts, that hopefully will quell some of the rampant fear building in actors. Know that A.I. technology to replace a physical human shooting on set is very expensive. While not an exact calculation the average “broadcast quality’”digital replica can cost anywhere from $10 to $20,000 to create. Will those costs decrease over time? Absolutely. But remember the SAG-AFTRA contract, due to our strike, is only for 2.5 years and by then, per our provisions, we will have a lot of evidence and case study regarding how and to what level A.I. is being utilized within the actor profession.
When you take a moment to exhale, my fellow thespians, please consider this: do you really think is will be cost-effective TOMORROW for a network to spend the time and money to scan you and use your digital replica for an actor on a TV show for one day? No. Do you think all the short filmmakers, ultra-low budget projects etc. etc. can afford to spend fifty or sixty thousand dollars to replace four to five humans? No.
Also, remember that this new contract protects all the required “Background Performer” numbers. They MUST still hire the same number of humans as before and must also give a 48-hour notice to inform you that they “wish” to scan you and then you still have the ability to consent or not and also be compensated in line with our day rates. Also, as it has always been with our contracts, any actor with more clout, can always negotiate even better terms.
Within A.I., as it pertains to acting, there are “digital replicas,” “digital alteration, “synthetic (fake) performers,” “generative A.I.,” and “Generative A.I. training.” Yes, that is a lot to take in, when we just want to act. Still, if we want to make thousands or even millions of dollars, there is a professional responsibility inherent in learning what is truth, fiction, fearmongering or as I said at the top, concern.
Since 1991, when I founded my award-winning actor business organization, The Actors’ Network, I commenced a difficult road of trying to assist the most under-educated profession in the world bar none, actors. I have never put that onus on actors per the lack of legitimate “acting business” education globally. It’s just vastly misunderstood, so most universities and even “so-called” actor biz experts don’t even properly educate. But I will extend, with respect, that if you want to have a career, as an actor, you’re gonna have to put on your “big boy pants” going forward.
Trying to harness A.I. within the acting profession will be a little akin to trying to catch the wind in an airtight container that somehow still allows a wind draft. UGH. Yet, without any A.I. protections or provisions, most actors, except powerful stars, could easily be erased in about three years. Both non-union and foreign productions would explode, not to mention the right-to-work provisions in certain U.S. states etc. etc. While the covenants of this new contract SAG-AFTRA has presented isn’t perfect, I’d say that it is more due to what A.I. is, rather than poor negotiations. Can there be better language in terms of storage, security, transference, as well as the eventual increased limitations that relate to stunts, humans, voice? Sure. Will A.I. eventually lessen the number of human performers in the world, on a set, standing in front of a camera? Absolutely. But if you’re in the U.S., and a member of SAG-AFTRA, the possibility of a monetary career can continue onward.
I need to reiterate that this contribution herewith is not about trying to, change your mind or vote if you’re a fellow union member. Perspective, proper perspective, is what I offer. Will SAG-AFTRA need more staff in the claims department to handle what is coming our way? YES! Will actors (even non-union) be required to read contract more carefully, be better educated about their work contracts, be willing to perhaps regularly file claims and own their profession more? 100 freakin’ percent. But ask yourself, regardless of age, how many times in our lives or your own ‘other career’ or other industries have we seen CHANGE. What is the old adage? Adapt or die. That is what we have to do here because we cannot stop A.I. nor can we protect against every manipulative cheating network or studio but with provisions we can win lawsuits and establish case law. In my humble opinion, someday, A.I. via Hollywood will be sitting on the desk of the Supreme Court. In all candor any SAG-AFTRA contract cannot stop that from happening no matter how long we were to stay, on strike.
Please know, I am you and you are me. I’m on your side and with you in concern but also with heightened professionalism, not blind fear. Embrace the excerpt combination of these two well-known quotes: “Cometh the hour-Cometh the man…IN the arena….” Yes, the “Boogeyman Cometh,” so regardless of your career status, you’re going to have to arm and educate yourself against the boogeyman or hide under the bed. It’s up to you.
Kevin E. West is a veteran television actor with nearly 70 credits including guest starring on The Righteous Gemstones, Hawaii 5-0, Criminal Minds, Bones, Castle, CSI: Miami, Justified, Leverage, Lost, 24, Desperate Housewives, NCIS, Alias, CSI, and dozens more, as well as a former stand-up comic.
Kevin has been a National speaker since 1991 including: the WGA, SAG-AFTRA, UCLA, and A Date with Hollywood panel (Swedish Film Institute-Stockholm). As the Founder of The Actors’ Network, Kevin is an expert on the ‘business of show business.’ The Actors’ Network is the most endorsed actor’s business organization in the U.S., with consecutive BackStage West “Reader’s Choice” awards (06/07). Alums include Emmy Nominee Masi Oka (Heroes), Chelsey Crisp (Off The Boat), Chris Gorham (Ugly Betty), and Maggie Grace (Taken).
Kevin is considered by many to be the top educator for the Business of Acting. He created, the interview series ActorBizGuru, voted the #1 online educational resource by BackStage West and co-Authored the audio CD, The Actor’s Guide to GETTING THE JOB.