SAG-AFTRA Strike: Studios’ AI Proposal Sounds Like Black Mirror, Right?

The world of Black Mirror might feel like a dystopian alternate reality. But Hollywood, it turns out, is a lot closer to becoming an episode of the Netflix anthology series than anyone—except maybe creator Charlie Brooker—could have realized.

In a press conference announcing SAG-AFTRA’s plans to send its actor members out on strike, the union’s chief negotiator, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, suggested that if they had accepted the Hollywood studio’s proposal around the use of artificial intelligence, actors could have ended up suffering the same fate as Salma Hayek in the Black Mirror episode “Joan is Awful.”

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents producers, studios, and streamers, said in a statement that it had offered SAG-AFTRA a “groundbreaking AI proposal which protects performers’ digital likenesses, including a requirement for performer’s consent for the creation and use of digital replicas or for digital alterations of a performance.” But Crabtree-Ireland countered, “in that groundbreaking AI proposal, they proposed that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get paid for one day’s pay, and their company should own that scan, their image, their likeness, and to be able to use it for the rest of eternity in any project they want, with no consent and no compensation. If you think that’s a groundbreaking proposal, I suggest you think again.”

Major spoiler alert for Black Mirror season six: in the twisty episode “Joan is Awful,” viewers learn that the actress on a new show on a service called Streamberry is, in fact, an AI-generated digital likeness of Hayek. (There’s a lot more going on too; just watch it.) Brooker recently told Vanity Fair that the prospect of having your likeness used for storytelling “must be terrifying for the next generation of actors coming up. Are you suddenly going to be competing against all the Golden Age actors that have ever been popular?”

AI has become a hot-button issue for both actors and writers in their contract negotiations with the AMPTP. “AI’s not going anywhere, not with Silicon Valley desperate for the Next Big Thing,” John Lopez, a member of the Writers Guild of America’s AI working group (an internal committee), wrote for VF. “You can’t put handcuffs on the digital monster after it’s left Dr. Frankenstein’s AI lab.” During its negotiations with the studios, the WGA released a statement explaining that it wanted to prevent AI-generated material from being used as source material, or from writing or rewriting scripts. After writers put down their pens and took to the picket lines, WGA said that the AMPTP rejected its proposal, instead offering “annual meetings to discuss advancements in technology.”

“Joan is Awful” plays like a comedy, but Brooker isn’t actually laughing. As he told VF, “it’s quite an existential nightmare.”

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