SAG-AFTRA’s Duncan Crabtree-Ireland On The State Of Negotiations With Video Game Industry & Possible Strike: “We’re Getting To The End Of The Road”

Will Hollywood experience another actors strike in the coming months?

After more than a year of negotiating with the video game companies on a new Interactive Media Agreement, SAG-AFTRA National Executive Director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland indicated the guild might soon be walking away from the table due to sticking points regarding artificial intelligence.

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“We have strike authorization on that contract and it is, at this point, at least 50/50, if not more likely, that we end up going on strike…in the next four to six weeks because of the inability to get past these basic AI issues,” he said during a conversation with Brendan Vaughan, Editor-in-Chief of Fast Company, at SXSW focused on the intersection of Hollywood and AI.

In September, members overwhelmingly authorized a strike authorization on this current contract.

This is talk of another strike comes on the heels of the actors’ 118-day work stoppage last year to achieve the latest film and TV contract, which did manage several gains when it comes to language regulating artificial intelligence. Many of the issues between the two contracts are similar, including wages and AI.

Following the panel, Crabtree-Ireland spoke with Deadline about the state of negotiations on the Interactive Media Agreement and how imminent a strike may actually be.

DEADLINE: You mentioned that some “basic AI issues” were the current sticking points in the video game negotiations. Can you expand upon what those issues are?

DUNCAN CRABTREE-IRELAND: I think some of them are very similar [to the film and TV contract issues], but I think the one that I mentioned [that is different], is applying AI protections to creature performers and other types of movement performers that don’t have lines. They don’t speak but are creating a performance and really central to the action of the game. I think that is an area where we haven’t been able to achieve the results we need just yet. We’ve been in this bargaining for over a year. The results of the strike last year did move things a little bit in the right direction. A couple of the major video game companies are companies that are also part of the AMPTP, specifically Disney and Warner Brothers, for example. But I think what has to be recognized is that all performers should be entitled to the same type of AI protections and companies that are trying to distinguish performers from other performers and say, ‘Only some of them are gonna get protections and not the others…’ That’s not something we’re going to be able to go along with.

DEADLINE: I know you had hoped the Replica Studios agreement might move things along. Did that yield any progress in these negotiations?

CRABTREE-IRELAND: I mean, I think the movement that we see is really the pressure that comes from having other legit companies in the space saying, ‘We can work with this, and we’ve signed a deal that says we will work with this.’ So I think that creates pressure. On the other hand, these are very big companies, the ones that we’re talking about in this bargaining group. So they aren’t necessarily always as nimble as you might like. And of course, the acquisition of Activision Blizzard by Microsoft, it remains to be seen what impact that might have on the landscape.

DEADLINE: As you said, these negotiations have been ongoing for more than a year. You’ve had a strike authorization since September. What is indicating to you now that there could or should be a strike?

CRABTREE-IRELAND: I mean, a strike is always the last resort for us. So when we see that there is progress, or we see there’s movement, then we always want to explore how far we can take that before we pull the trigger on a strike. It just feels like we’re getting to the end of the road. Movement is sort of stopped. And if we’re not where we need to be, and we’re not getting indications from the companies that they are going to be prepared to move where we need to go, then that pretty much tells us what we need to know.

DEADLINE: So what indications would you need to know the companies are serious about moving forward?

CRABTREE-IRELAND: If the negotiating team on their side gives us some kind of concrete indications of new proposals or…new movement on the proposals that are on the table. That’d be the kind of thing that we would take into account, but this has been a really long process. So we also aren’t going to just let it drag on indefinitely. The reality is if the companies are not going to go there without us taking that step, then we’ll take that step.

DEADLINE: About how many SAG-AFTRA members would be affected by this strike?

CRABTREE-IRELAND: It would affect thousands in total. Not as many as the film and television strike obviously, but a substantial amount of our members are engaged in production work, whether it’s voice work or performance capture, or on camera performance work for these companies. So I expect it would affect quite a significant number of people fairly quickly.

DEADLINE: You are speaking on another panel about AI soon, and this panel is one of many you’ve participated in. How do these panels and conversations shape your perception of AI regulations as you look to the future of all SAG-AFTRA negotiations?

CRABTREE-IRELAND: It’s great to get the chance to hear from members everywhere about what their experiences are, because I don’t think everyone’s experience engaging with AI is the same. But I also think it’s part of our role to help to help prompt a dialogue in the industry about what AI ought to look like and how it ought to be implemented, and it would be wrong for us to let only the companies dominate that conversation. There’s too much of that already in the tech world and too much of it in our world. So I think what we need is the balance in that conversation. And whenever I get the chance to help balance that conversation out, I’ll take it. I know my colleagues from other unions are doing the same as well.

DEADLINE: Anything else you wanted to add?

CRABTREE-IRELAND: Our new tiered agreements for indie game developers [are] really gaining quickly traction in the indie industry, because they there’s a recognition that the permissions are really quite reasonable and not hard to work with. I’m going to be speaking on a panel at GDC, and we’ll also be there helping make sure that the entire indie game community is very well aware of our tiered agreements. I think that will — to your point — also provide work opportunities for our members in the event we go on strike, because, just like with interim agreements last year, any companies who are willing to have fair terms, we’re happy for our members to continue working with them during that process.

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