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Cultural Capital

Actors Join the Writers on the Picket Line: ‘I Don’t Want to Be Replaced by Artificial Intelligence’

A roiling hot summer of labor action has basically shut down the entertainment industry.

SAG-AFTRA New York Local President Ezra Knight rallies the crowd on Friday, July 14th. (Hell Gate)

For nearly three months, the sidewalks of New York City and Los Angeles have been filled with striking writers, who have been fighting for a living wage as studios rake in more money from streaming services.

On Friday, the actors joined the writers on the picket lines—for the first time in 63 years, both the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild are now on strike, grinding the production of TV shows and movies to a halt.

The stakes are much higher than just deciding who will reap the benefits of the streaming revolution. (We'll note here that the author of this piece belongs to SAG-AFTRA, albeit its American Federation of Television and Radio Artists wing, as a radio reporter, and so is not on strike.) While media companies have shifted much of their content to streaming platforms, payment for work on those platforms doesn't come close to matching the rates once paid for network television or theatrical releases, even as some of those companies post record profits. On top of that, entertainment companies are now eager to begin incorporating more artificial intelligence-generated work into television and film—in both writing and dramatic capacities.

On Thursday afternoon, SAG-AFTRA leadership went public with one of the demands by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which appears to have led to the historic strike vote: Management wants to scan the images of background actors and insert them digitally into future films

"We are all going to be in jeopardy of being replaced by machines," SAG-AFTRA president and  Queens County legend Fran Drescher said on Thursday, laying down the justification for why an industry-wide strike was needed. 

"I don't want to be replaced by artificial intelligence, I think it's creepy that they want to scan my image and own me forever," Alroy Mellor, a background actor and SAG-AFTRA member, told Hell Gate on Friday afternoon, while they were walking the picket line outside of Amazon and HBO's offices on Manhattan's West Side. "That's kind of bleak. And I don't want you to be replaced by an artificial intelligence robot either!"

Actual Hollywood stars are now on the picket line, but a lot of this fight is over the livelihoods of the rest of the union—the thousands of supporting actors and background actors who used to be able to turn a recurring character or association with a long-running TV show into an actual career. Over the past few years, with the advent of streaming, the residual paychecks that made that all possible have essentially disappeared, the actors say. 

"They deserve so much better. What AMPTP is proposing is horrifying," said Chiara Mazzanti, a casting assistant for shows like "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," who was walking the picket line in solidarity with the people she helps find work. "All of the people that are doing the work, spending twelve to fourteen hours on set, they're not seeing a penny. They're struggling to make rent living in cities like New York and Los Angeles, where they have to live for work. It's not fair."

The strike comes during the same week in which a Hollywood executive was quoted as saying that the game plan for the producers was to hold off on talks "until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses." Officially, the AMPTP believes that they treated the union fairly during negotations, and wanted to reach a "deal that offered historic pay and residual increases, substantially higher caps on pension and health contributions, audition protections, shortened series option periods, and a groundbreaking AI proposal that protects actors’ digital likenesses for SAG-AFTRA members."

SAG-AFTRA members didn't buy it.

"We're not asking for much, we're asking for the minimum, really," said Claudio Laniado, a SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild member who said he's on "double strike."

"We're here to entertain people, and the people need that entertainment. This is therapy for a lot of people," Laniado added. "People are going to be depressed. People love going to the movies!"

The time for a strike was right, said Lecy Goranson, an actor who has portrayed the character "Becky" on the hit shows "Roseanne" and now "The Conners," and has been a SAG-AFTRA member since 1988. She wondered why it took so long for her union to finally go on strike, and was relieved to see the union not compromise with the studios.

"Technology has advanced very quickly, and there's been casualties to that—people's monetary rights and being compensated for their work. The corporations are sitting on way more money than they're dishing out, and we all deserve a piece of this pie," Goranson said. 

She added, "This is a template for what's been going on across a lot of sectors, a lot of industries. Technology increases profit, but there's as big an economic divide as ever." 

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