Saturday, April 13, 2024

Actor Matthew Modine Makes a Case Against Approving SAG-AFTRA Contract with Studios


Actor Matthew Modine — who ran for president of the actors union and had a lot of support — has made a case for rejecting the current contract offer from the studios.

In a letter called “When Consent is Not Consensual,” Modine lays out his reasoning with a lot of serious points.

He says: “I cannot endorse a contract that compromises the independence and financial futures of the performers.”

While the deal will probably be affirmed, a little dissent is a good thing — especially when all this is revisited three years from now.

Here’s Modine’s statement: (bold facing is mine, just to make an easier read)

Happy holiday season. There’s so much to be grateful for. The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Radio and Television Artists (SAG-AFTRA) can be thankful that the prolonged strike is over. We appreciate the negotiation committee and their attempt to arrive at a fair and equitable deal. While there are improvements and gains, I will not vote to ratify the contract. 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.

Within the contract, the word ‘consent’ is evoked at least a dozen times. It is purposefully vague and demands union members to release their autonomy. 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.

In a recent 60 Minutes episode, a conversation between Scott Pelley and Geoffrey, “The Godfather of AI,” Hinton shared a salient warning regarding artificial intelligence.

Scott Pelley: The risks are what?
Geoffrey Hinton: Well, the risks are having a whole class of people who are unemployed and not valued much because what they–what they used to do is now done by machines.
Scott Pelley: What is a path forward that ensures safety?
Geoffrey Hinton: I don’t know. I — I can’t see a path that guarantees safety. We’re entering a period of great uncertainty where we’re dealing with things we’ve never dealt with before. And normally, the first time you deal with something totally novel, you get it wrong. And we can’t afford to get it wrong with these things.

The union’s marketing department is enthusiastically telling members to approve this contract. You should know that the expenses of making and mailing fliers, not to mention the salaries of the marketing department, are expenses paid for by members. It’s inappropriate for the union to tell a member how to vote without presenting the pluses and minuses of an issue. To do so is disingenuous at best and duplicitous at worst. Members need to understand what they’re signing away by consenting as written within this contract.

Consent means surrendering your physical and vocal identity to an employer. A Faustian bargain. If this contract is ratified, every contract moving forward may require, as a condition of employment, members to consent to the use of artificial intelligence as defined by an employer.

Last week, the SAG-AFTRA National Board gathered and sat through what should be described as a Readers Digest explanation of perhaps the most consequential contract in the merged union’s history. During that meeting, the National Executive Director (NED) explained that it wasn’t necessary to read or discuss the contract in its entirety. 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.

Yes, SAG-AFTRA members will have a right to say “No” when asked to consent. But doing so will no doubt create a three-tier division between members; there will be those members with the financial/career equity to say no and negotiate their own terms. Others will be forced, out of financial or career necessity, to relent and succumb. Surrendering their voices and unique physicality to be digitized and stored within an employer’s hard drive and forever owned. The third tier will be those union members who refuse to consent and lose employment opportunities to those who do consent. The fourth tier is the endgame. Tier four won’t necessitate consent. It won’t contribute any dues to the union. The studios won’t have to negotiate with anyone. They won’t need teamsters to pick up performers, send them to make up, costumes, or feed them lunch. Level four is the non-union synthesized scab performers digitally cobbled together from dead actors.

Consent, in the context of this agreement, is tyranny. It is submission. If ratified, SAG-AFTRA members who consent will be digitally exploited in ways not clearly defined and are currently beyond our individual abilities to control. The US Government, with all its resources, doesn’t know how to create AI guardrails to provide protections for citizens. SAG-AFTRA certainly doesn’t have the financial resources or technology to navigate the AI tsunami crashing upon the shores of the entertainment industry.

Ratification of this contract will result in greater job reductions — especially for background and stunt performers. This loss of SAG-AFTRA labor will negatively impact our sister unions, primarily IATSE tradespeople and the Teamsters. The use of AI has already financially impacted voice performers in film, television, advertising, and animated films. It’s wonderful having talented performers to voice animated films, but the industry has shown it has no qualms about replacing human actors with digitized “sound-alike” voices. Even monstrously resurrecting voices of performers who are no longer living.

Union means being joined together in cause and common interests. This was demonstrated by thousands of members over the course of the strike. We marched for a stronger union. We marched for a fair deal and protections. We stood together to ensure our work environments were safe. We must continue to demand financial participation in the work we collectively create. 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.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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