Stranger Things star Matthew Modine will vote no on new actors contract over AI fears

STRANGER THINGS. Matthew Modine as Dr. Martin Brenner in STRANGER THINGS. Cr. Tina Rowden/Netflix © 2022
STRANGER THINGS. Matthew Modine as Dr. Martin Brenner in STRANGER THINGS. Cr. Tina Rowden/Netflix © 2022 /

After a months-long strike, Hollywood actors union SAG-AFTRA came to an agreement with the Hollywood studios represented by the AMPTP. SAG released a summary of the agreement, but hasn’t released the full text. Under this new contract, actors would get, among other things increased pay for streaming shows and protections from the threat posted to their jobs by artificial intelligence.

The SAG-AFTRA board approved the contract with 86% of board members voting in favor, according to Forbes. However, the rank and file of the union’s membership — SAG-AFTRA includes some 160,000 members — have to ratify the contract by December 5, and there are signs the vote might not go the way leadership wants it to.

That’s because several actors aren’t happy with the language regarding AI. That includes Matthew Modine, who played Dr. Brenner on Stranger Things. “While there are improvements and gains, I will not vote to ratify the contract,” Modine said in a statement posted on X. “Members should vote their conscience. I cannot endorse a contract that compromises the independence and financial futures of the performers. As a National Board Member, it’s morally mandatory to stand beside and provide protection for fellow members. Especially those beginning their careers, those unable to defend themselves, and in this case, their identities, their voices, and their physicality, from being taken away by a technology that no one fully understands.”

"It demands a warning to members that says do not consent to the terms of employment defined by the terms within this contract. Consenting to these terms is a pre-negotiation that will take control of the financial and creative future of every working member of SAG-AFTRA. Consent is surrender…Agreeing to consent means contractually giving a go-ahead to our employers to digitally capture and reconstruct our physicality and our voices using artificial intelligence. Once this information is collected, a member can be regenerated whenever and however the contract holder chooses forever."

Matthew Modine won’t approve new actors contract: “Consent is surrender”

Modine is far from the only actor to express concerns, although he is one of the highest-profile performers.

So what are these performers upset about? Well, one thing they’re concerned about is that they don’t have the full text of the contract, only the summary. That seems fair. Modine summed up that complaint with a somewhat awkward analogy about McDonald’s chicken nuggets:

"Not being fully informed about this contract is like being told that Chicken McNuggets are only made of chicken meat. Imagine how disappointed members would be if they learned what they were actually being fed. Not sharing the entire contract is irresponsible. Spinning the benefits of the contract as “historic” and “seminal” is as disingenuous as McDonald’s saying McNuggets are not grey goop balls filled with chemicals, antibiotics, beaks, ligaments, and chicken butts."

Beyond that, there are lots of things in the summary that give actors pause. For instance, the contract allows for studios to create digital doubles of performers made after scanning their faces, or independently created digital replicas (ICDR) made from scratch. They can also use AI to digitally alter a performance after a fact. In all of these cases, they have to get consent from the performers, but sometimes there is an exception “when the photography or sound track of the performer remains substantially as scripted, performed and/or recorded.”

So basically, studios have to get performers’ consent to use AI to replace or alter them except when they’re not making substantial changes. But it would be up to the studios to decide what “substantial” means. And if actors are unhappy with the changes the studios made, it’ll be too late.

Another provisions says that studios must get consent to use ICDRs of performers, except in the case of projects that “would be protected by the First Amendment (e.g., comment, criticism, scholarship, satire or parody, use in a docudrama, or historical or biographical work).” Under a pessimistic reading, a studio could feasibly pack a movie or TV show full of digital recreations of actors, living and dead, without having to get consent so long as it could argue that the project is a satire or parody.

There are other issues. Modine worries that consenting to all of these terms ahead of time will be a pre-requisite to get any work. As he says, “Consent is surrender.” If studios are allowed to make digital doubles, will actors have to compete with machines during auditions now? Where will that leave hair and makeup specialists whose job it is to work with human actors? Unlike with the writers strike, which resolved in a way that convinced the rank and file members they were not in danger from AI, actors remain unsure.

“We must continue to demand financial participation in the work we collectively create,” Modine concludes. “Going back to the negotiation room and continuing to work on the issues surrounding AI and consent does not negate nor will it dismantle the benefits the contract now holds. Going back into the negotiating room with a sincere effort to further protect members and to more accurately interpret the rules of ‘consent’ and the uses of AI is the necessary next step we must make.”

So is the actors strike officially over? It may still be too soon to say.

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