We’re only six days away from the end of the voting period on the 2023 SAG-AFTRA TV/Theatrical contract, Tuesday, December 5.
What do I think the final tally will be? I have no idea. Do I think there may be a notable amount of “no” votes across the country? Yes, I find that to be fairly likely due to the simple fear of A.I. (Artificial Intelligence). Will I be upset? No. Why not? Because I have been working as an on-camera talent in this profession for more than 3.5 decades and have also been educating actors about the “Business of Show Business”, since 1991. I understand the raw fear of A.I. It’s real, it’s here, and it can’t be ignored.
However, my focus is on what actors, both live action on-camera actors and voice, fear with A.I. To that end, I shall also avoid such quotes as: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” from Franklin D. Roosevelt, or one of my favorite acronyms, F.E.A.R. aka “False evidence appearing real.” This time there is a legitimate professional concern, and there’s nothing false about the A.I. invasion of entertainment and media. However, the actual A.I. effect on a non-celebrity actor’s career is far from known. A.I. technology will affect our global lives in many ways, but we must remain vigilant to address how A.I. will be interwoven into moving pictures, not everything else. To overcome the emotion of fear requires absolute clarity, otherwise, you wind up trying to catch the wind.
A common narrative throughout the Los Angeles acting community, since November 8th when the SAG-AFTRA Negotiating Committee approved this contract without objection, is how much “they” failed and caved regardless of the rest of the unparalleled contract gains and wins. The A.I. portion of the Memorandum of Agreement is approximately 16 pages, of a 128-page document, and yet it has garnered 99.9% of the attention since the National Board approval vote on Friday, November 10. Oddly, while it is “fair” to say that the SAG-AFTRA A.I. provisions for a human performer are the best in the world, it still doesn’t remove the emotion of fear.
Shadowboxing is defined as: “To spar with an imaginary opponent as a form of training or make a show of tackling a problem or opponent while avoiding any direct engagement.” What we, the non-star actors, cannot afford to do over the next 2.5 years, is avoid direct engagement. For many decades, a large percentage of the global acting community has been “let off the hook” in terms of knowing your business. No Mas.
Ironically, this will affect actor representatives as well. Why? Within the U.S., the Hollywood perception is only viewed through the prism of the stars we see when they only make up approximately 0.5% of SAG-AFTRA. Then you have 1.5 to 2.5% of highly established and well-known actors in various stages of their careers. This leaves approximately 97%, many of whom work all the time, without the power or clout to defend themselves.
From this day forward, both non-star actors and non-conglomerate representatives are going to have to really READ and LEARN their contracts or find themselves lost in fear or in weak professional position. If you sit back and just expect others to “take care of it for you” then you’ll find yourself sitting quietly in your mind trying to shadowbox the wind. My time spent educating and working with actors and parents alike has been both rewarding, and far too many times, disheartening. Why? Because there are a lot of blind dreams in the world and profession of acting. I promise, I’m not rambling off-topic from A.I. Technology, scares the living S**T out of people, whether it’s the car, the television, the computer, the DVD, digital streaming or now, A.I.
There is no, type of person, who wants to act or perform for a living. We are, without debate in my opinion, the most diverse professional community in the world, and it isn’t even close. Still, the attempt to build an actual career statistically, is less than 2% of those who try. That leaves a lot of unfettered dreams in the dust, which in turn, can create widespread depression and anxiety. Add to that what the U.S. has been through since round about 2015, and the FEAR of being “erased” by A.I. is very real for many actors.
Take a moment and think back on when the last time you were really scared. Is someone in your house, are you in the wrong place alone walking to your car or perhaps alone with someone you don’t know that well, and they’ve said something that has put you on edge? The key to this type of fear is being alone in your own mind.
We actors, self-included, spend a LOT of time in our heads either dreaming of the possibilities, hoping someone will “pick me” after an audition or hoping that “You like me – you really like me” which is an excerpt line from Sally Fields‘ 1985 Oscars acceptance speech, after you’ve done your 1-day role on a television show. Creative types, judge it or not, are commonly filled with both genius and a lot of built-in insecurity and A.I. is currently preying on that in ways never before seen amongst the acting profession, non-stars. Clearly the A-List stars are not concerned, or they would have been much louder towards the studios and networks of saying, “Hell no.”
In this moment, at this time, I’m once again reaching out to my community, in the loudest way I can, to scream: “Being a professional means that you KNOW your rights, your contract and your representatives do too.” Fear is emotional, sometimes fatally emotional, and the fear of being ERASED by technology is real for many. Yes, I was and am, a member of the 2023 SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee. I was “in the room,” and we all knew from the outset we wanted to make some big moves in many areas of our economic proposals coupled with the existential threat of achieving seriously tight provisions regarding A.I. Is every word in our provisions as I would, or many of us, would have wanted? No. Are there a few extra sentences that could have been gained to create an additional level of comfort? Yes. And yet, should I view the future of being an actor as futile? No.
Still, you are left with a decision whether you’re a long-time working veteran like me, a young teen just starting out and counting on your parents to guide you and know what is best, or you’re somewhere in between, out there in some city alone in your actor world hoping that the A.I. boogeyman doesn’t come for you. Even if you’re not a SAG-AFTRA member, or even in the U.S., try to get your hands on our Memorandum of Agreement. Read it, then read it again and read it again. Start to quell some of your fear with knowledge of the legal employment provisions, fences and language that protect union actors in America. Along with that, make sure you truly stop and THINK about what a digital replica of you means, as a physically moving actor. The level of expertise, A.I. tech staff and cost, required to build YOU as a “Broadcast quality” digital replica is somewhere between $10-20K at this time, not to mention the amount of time related to a TV production schedule. Real fear can only be resolved in your mind and emotions with knowledge, discovery and facts.
Does this mean that if/when you have all the facts, and the knowledge, and view your career juxtaposed with A.I. technology that all of your fear will just slowly dissipate into the ethers and disappear? Uh, not likely, and nor should it. We must become or remain “frosty professionals” who file claims, pay attention to our bookings and have a team of family and friends who view various types of moving picture entertainment always looking out for us at all times. Yes, that is the world we now live in, and with respect to those who think we could have just said “NO” to all A.I., that would have been an even worse decision by SAG-AFTRA. Does the union also bear current and future responsibilities per the additional hiring of claims and legal staff? Absolutely. Will the union likely have to consider creating ways, using A.I., to actually TRACK the A.I. usage of members? Yes. But that all comes post the contract ratification and with member engagement at its highest in history, its coming.
What I desire for you, me, and non-star actors globally is to defend your artistic mental health properly against the unknown future of A.I. We must avoid feeling lost, alone, powerless and avoid a degree of indifference. Will the studios, networks and some productions try to trick you on a contract? Probably. Will there be “Breaches of Contract” claims filed and likely A.I. legal cases coming? Probably. Will the threat of being caught keep some nefarious jerks from attempting to screw over a non-star or even star with A.I.? Probably not. But the worst thing we can do, as a professional community, filled with real humans… is just sit back and blindly hope. Just sit back and slip into a dark place of futility.
From one caring professional to another please know that trying to shadowbox A.I., in your mind, is even worse than shadowboxing, as the shadow itself, isn’t even real. What is real are the legal facts of what our contract now contains and the ability to enforce them on your behalf.
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. You can read more of Kevin’s “The Acting Biz” columns here.