When the union that represents TV and movie actors announced its plans to strike last week, chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland talked about concerns relating to the use of artificial intelligence. This is what the studios proposed, he said: “That our background actors 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.”
A studio owning and profiting from a person’s image and likeness for the rest of eternity? It sounds dystopian. Talk about eliminating the need for pesky, annoying, expensive humans altogether, be they actors, writers or anyone else other than C-suite executives.
Something like that outcome is mentioned by a fictional studio executive played by Tim Robbins in 1992′s “The Player,” a scathing Hollywood satire from writer Michael Tolkin and director Robert Altman:
“I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we can just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we’ve got something here.”
Over the past two decades, occasionally a work of science fiction has grappled with some of these concerns as they pertain to actors. The 2002 film “Simone” — or “S1m0ne,” as the title is sometimes styled — stars Al Pacino as a film director whose lead actress refuses to finish work on a movie. So he reshoots it with a virtual (computer-generated) actress instead. He dubs his nonhuman actor Simone, who gives him the exact performance he wants because Simone is not a person with their own ideas but the equivalent of a digital puppet.
The themes in “Simone” center on issues of control. The desire to control others and control outcomes. But control isn’t always a negative; it’s reasonable to want to control your name, especially if someone else stands to profit from it.
Nearly a decade ago, the comedian Cristela Alonzo created and starred in a sitcom for ABC called “Cristela” that was based on her life. She recently tweeted that her lawyers suggested she trademark her name “because the studio would try to own it because of the show. They tried doing it with Reba McEntire, but she owned hers. So I paid money I didn’t have to do it. A week later … the studio tried! I beat them by a week!”
What if studios didn’t need actors on a day-to-day basis at all?
The 2013 sci-fi drama “The Congress” stars Robin Wright playing a version of herself. She’s called into a meeting with a studio head played by Danny Huston, who waxes on about her talents and charms. “You were the future, Robin. You were the promise. The answer. You were the whole package.
“And now I’m in this situation of offering you the last contract you’ll ever have.”
What do you mean, she asks?
“We want to scan you. All of you. Your body, your face, your emotions, your laughter, your tears, your climaxing, your happiness, your depressions, your fears, your longings. We want to sample you. We want to preserve you. And we want to own this thing called ‘Robin Wright’.”
She’ll be paid a lump sum. And in exchange, she can never act again. Not even obscure dinner theater somewhere, because the studio will now own Robin Wright, the actor, to do with as they please.
Harvey Keitel plays her agent and he merely shrugs: You were always their puppet, so what’s the difference?
You’d think making a movie like “The Congress” might say something about Wright’s own wariness about AI. And yet earlier this year it was announced that she and Tom Hanks are starring in a new film from Robert Zemeckis that will use AI to de-age them with photorealistic face swaps.
Nobody’s pure. That shouldn’t be the bar anyway.
But you can understand why people who aren’t household names and faces like Wright and Hanks are concerned about having far less say about how AI affects their ability to be working actors.
Or imagine if questions of diversity become simply a matter of tinkering with technology that adjusts skin tone or body shape or facial features. As it is, we’re not getting a “full spectrum of humanity,” researcher Sydette Harry told me a few years ago. Why should we expect otherwise if AI becomes the default?
“BoJack Horseman,” the animated Hollywood satire on Netflix, had some choice words about AI in one of its episodes. Sitting in his trailer, BoJack is 3D scanned and casually informed by a producer that “one day that’s going to be the actor’s whole job, just sitting in a room for five seconds while a machine scans his face — and then six months later plugging a movie on Kimmel.”
What does this mean for the rest of us?
Season 6 of the surrealist anthology series “Black Mirror” premiered on Netflix last month and it includes an episode called “Joan Is Awful” that ponders this question.
A young woman named Joan (Annie Murphy of “Schitt’s Creek”) is a midlevel manager at a tech company. One night, on the couch at home with her boyfriend, they pull up a Netflix-like streaming platform called Streamberry and come across a show called “Joan Is Awful.” The thumbnail image shows a woman with Joan’s exact hairstyle: dark and parted in the middle, with twin blond streaks framing her face.
The series is a replay of her previous day, starring Salma Hayek as Joan — or rather, it’s actually an AI version of Salma Hayek, who has licensed her image to Streamberry.
Joan is livid, but a meeting with her lawyer gets her nowhere. “It’s my name! It’s my career! It’s me! They’re using me,” she says. And you assigned them the right to exploit all that, the lawyer calmly tells her. “What? When?” Terms and conditions, comes the reply.
In fact, Streamberry has even bigger ambitions: Eventually, everybody will get their own show: “(Insert name) Is Awful.”
That doesn’t sound far-fetched to actor, writer and director Justine Bateman, who became a household name on the ‘80s sitcom “Family Ties,” She has warned of an eventuality whereby viewers are offered a premium tier of entertainment: Get scanned and you can be inserted into custom films — or even “licensing deals made with studios so that viewers can order up older films like ‘Star Wars’ and put their face on Luke Skywalker’s body and their wife’s face on Darth Vader’s body.”
It’s the digital march to dehumanizing us all in the name of entertainment — and somebody else’s profits.
The irony that “Black Mirror” streams on Netflix — itself the subject of viewer and talent ire — should not be lost on anyone.
I don’t know if Netflix thinks it’s being cheeky or subversive by carrying this episode.
But maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe the goal is to get viewers to spend more and more of our free time streaming just about anything on the app — even if it’s a harbinger of our doom.
(Nina Metz is a Chicago Tribune critic who covers TV and film.)