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The Best Part of the Actors Strike So Far
July 17, 2023

The Best Part of the Actors Strike So Far

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The Unlikely Stars of the Actors Strike (So Far), With a viral quote, extras are getting their moment in the spotlight., Actors strike: Could extras really be paid $182 for their image to be used forever?

On Thursday, Hollywood’s actors announced their intentions to strike in a press conference, in which Fran Drescher reminded us why she’s a star.

‘We are all going to be in jeopardy of being replaced by machines and big business who cares more about Wall Street than you and your family,’ Drescher, the president of SAG-AFTRA, said, quite convincingly.

The studios that actors had been negotiating with were greedy, she told us in lots of different ways. Then Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the chief negotiator for the actors union, offered the quote of the day: ‘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 should be able to use it for the rest of eternity in any project they want with no consent and no compensation.’

The standard pay for an eight-hour union background job? $187.

The idea that studios want actors to relinquish their digital doubles forever in exchange for a few tanks of gas (and that’s before taxes!) was just too deliciously infuriating not to retweet or Thread. The scenario transformed the studios into creative labor–devouring supervillains. Even if you hadn’t previously cared much about the looming strike, suddenly you were angry—the studios wanted to get away with replacing human actors for free. And who knew how they’d use those digital doubles! If you’ve watched the recent episode of Black Mirror in which a streaming site rationalizes all kinds of twisted uses of Salma Hayek’s digital double based on a legal agreement, it’s not hard to imagine the whole thing truly going off the rails.

The studios tried to deny that they want to use background actors’ likenesses in perpetuity. ‘The claim made today by SAG-AFTRA leadership that the digital replicas of background actors may be used in perpetuity with no consent or compensation is false,’ an Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers spokesman told me on Thursday afternoon. ‘In fact, the current AMPTP proposal only permits a company to use the digital replica of a background actor in the motion picture for which the background actor is employed. Any other use requires the background actor’s consent and bargaining for the use, subject to a minimum payment.’

But note here that the studios are not denying that they never requested more draconian terms over the course of the unsuccessful negotiations, which lasted for weeks. An undated draft of a proposal shared by New York Times reporter Noam Scheiber on Thursday backs up the idea that at one point, the studios requested consent to use background actors’ names, voices, likenesses, and biographies ‘with no additional compensation’ and ‘in any in all media’ forever and ever. (The studios declined to provide their own draft of the proposal, and SAG-AFTRA did not respond to a similar request.)

Regardless of where the studios landed before the strike began, the virality of the quote is actually kind of delightful. That’s because it means that, for once—at least briefly—the world seems to care about extras, the often overlooked canary in the coal mine of technological shifts in Hollywood. Any extra will tell you: Having the world acknowledge their importance is not the norm.

‘There are some productions that respect background actors, and in others, we’re just kinda tossed aside even though we help create the vision of the movie or TV show,’ Asucena Jimenez, an actor who makes about 90 percent of her income as an extra, told me.

Like many extras, she often finds her jobs through the Central Casting listings, a place that will remind you of the unique challenges of funding one’s life in this way.

A couple of highlights from recent job posts:

And no matter how many times that scene with that alien or cadaver appears in reruns or gets streamed, it’s unlikely the actor would get anything more than that initial payment. Most background actors don’t get residuals.

This has been true long before anyone was talking about A.I. And this is connected to why many background actors saw this day—when studios suggested owning their likenesses—coming. Background actors would be one of the first job categories to get hit by A.I., actor Devin Finley told me a few months ago, while I was reporting a piece on the way that commercials and movies are already using digital twins.

Finley had made a career move he knew would rub some the wrong way: He licensed his video twin out for reuse to an A.I. production company. If jobs were going to disappear because of A.I., he wanted to explore how he could use A.I. to make money. (He also works in voice acting, one of the first realms of media to see A.I. doubles replace humans.) Though Finley sometimes gets work as a background extra, he’s not in SAG-AFTRA, and the companies that might use his digital double are companies like Berlitz, a language-learning company, not Hollywood studios. He also got an initial payout of $500—over double the union day rate—with a potential for future payments if his digital clone received a flood of booking requests. Still, he told me that he welcomes SAG-AFTRA’s guidance on how people beyond unions should approach these contracts.

Interestingly, something I heard from quite a few people is that body doubles—a role some extras take on—may simultaneously, temporarily, become more important in the era of A.I. That’s because A.I. tools still have a ways to go before we reach the Black Mirror–esque moment when they can convincingly take an actor with speaking lines and have them perform in a new scene. But what studios can already do is get a body double—a person who share the speaking actor’s build, complexion, and perhaps even hairline— to show up, say the lines, and do the movements. Then a special-effects team uses A.I. to paint new features on top of that body double, sort of like an advanced Snapchat face swap. One can imagine a scenario in which body doubles act out, say, another season of The Golden Girls, with Betty White’s face painted in in postproduction. The folks who typically take on background acting work could, weirdly, be the real stars.

Eventually, though, the tools will likely advance beyond requiring body doubles—or perhaps even any actual reference person. At that point, background actors will need to worry about more than just not getting paid each time the studios use their digital doubles. The bigger concern will be whether the studios will be allowed to make a copy of someone that’s just different enough that they don’t have to credit them at all. And though audiences may push back when this happens with a near replica to a star like Salma Hayek, it will be far easier to get away with it when it’s just another extra.


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