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Film unions in B.C. face a deadline this week to approve contract extensions that some actors and directors fear could inadvertently turn the province into a destination for studios to replace background actors using AI – which could send job losses rippling through the sector just as major U.S. unions strike for better protections.

The film workers are voting on June proposals to their unions from studios that would boost wages by 5 per cent and extend their existing contract for a year. But the extensions sidestep artificial intelligence protections and other crucial matters that pushed the U.S. actors’ guild SAG-AFTRA to join the Writers Guild of America in striking last week.

While the American unions seek guarantees that their members won’t see their work replaced by AI, some film workers in British Columbia say that the extensions they must vote on by Friday contain insufficient protections around the rapidly maturing phenomenon.

They fear that studios might use this discrepancy to their advantage, rushing to the Lower Mainland to produce movies and shows that would bypass any protections gained in the U.S. – and using AI to replace background actors.

With the rapid advances in generative AI models and services in the past year, many in the sector fear that AI-created background actors could soon be indistinguishable from real humans. And some of those concerned union members believe they’re rushing into a contract vote without addressing the threat.

“To lose the background jobs means you’re going to lose other jobs as well,” said writer-director Michelle Muldoon, an apprentice member of the Union of British Columbia Performers, or UBCP, who has taken many background roles. The jobs affected by reduced background performers would range, she pointed out, “from background co-ordinators, to the number of production assistants you need on set, to the costume department.”

Props teams, hair and makeup teams, and assistant directors could be rendered useless without background actors, too, her union colleagues say. “Background performers would be the canary in the coal mine,” said Steve Kammerer, a filmmaker and member of the Directors Guild of Canada. His B.C. local, alongside UBCP, and locals from Teamsters and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, are all expected to decide on the contract extension in the coming days.

The offer was put on the table by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, or AMPTP, which represents major studios ranging from Paramount to Apple, and the B.C. branch of the Canadian Media Producers Association, in late June, and would extend their existing B.C. labour contracts by a year to March, 2025.

Despite a promise by studios to raise salaries by 5 per cent for the year, there has been a growing push for members to vote against the extension, including those pay terms, out of solidarity with their U.S. counterparts.

Numerous prominent members of the 28,000-member Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists – of which the UBCP is a local – began signing an open letter last week asking their colleagues to vote down the proposal. The signees include Elliot Page, Tatiana Maslany, Martin Short, Patrick Adams and Devon Sawa. The letter calls the extension offer a “flagrant attempt by the AMPTP to offer us less than we deserve” that undercuts negotiations with the U.S. actors’ and writers’ unions.

The 5-per-cent wage increase is in line with one secured by the Director’s Guild of America in June. The American directors also secured new language around AI, guaranteeing that “generative AI cannot replace the duties performed by members.”

By contrast, the existing contracts that the Canadian unions are voting to extend were written before generative AI software became a threat. The UBCP website acknowledges that the extension proposal “means we are unable to bargain any other terms and conditions for another year, such as artificial intelligence.”

In an e-mail, UBCP president Ellie Harvie elaborated that “the rapid advancement in generative AI is a concern for all our members and one that we will certainly address when it’s our turn at the bargaining table. … Our current agreements have some protections for the reuse of a performer’s likeness or voice.”

The Directors Guild of Canada did not respond to multiple comment requests.

The perils of AI-created video ramped up last week when a YouTube user posted a fake trailer for a movie called Heidi, purportedly generated by AI, whose foreground characters looked horrifyingly absurd, but whose background characters looked slightly more realistic. With AI models maturing rapidly across the internet as they ingest more data, the prospect of replacing real humans with AI generations in the coming months and years has become more real.

As SAG-AFTRA prepared to strike last week over its dispute with AMPTP, the union’s chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland issued a stern warning about the studios’ AI proposals.

“They proposed that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get one day’s pay, and their companies should own that scan, their image, their likeness and should be able to use it for the rest of eternity on any project they want, with no consent and no compensation,” he said at a press conference.

(In response, an AMPTP spokesperson told U.S. media that its 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.”)

Jason Lee, vice-president of B.C. industrial relations with the Canadian Media Producers Association, said in an e-mailed statement that “the limited one-year extension will provide workers with a substantial wage increase that addresses very real inflationary concerns, while allowing the parties ample time to negotiate their next agreement.”

In an interview last week, John Lewis, director of Canadian affairs and international vice-president with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, said that he believed extending the B.C. unions’ contracts might assist their goals. By March, 2025, when the one-year extensions would expire, he said that the major U.S. negotiations could have set precedents around matters such as AI.

“Then we could look at extending those provisions, Canadianizing them where they have to be, and making them applicable in Canada,” Lewis said.

But some B.C. film workers don’t think they can wait that long. “That’s a big what-if,” said Lee Shorten, a dual UBCP and SAG-AFTRA member whose credits include The Man in the High Castle. The studios, he said, “are coming to us and making this offer that’s better than usual and seems great. How is our initial reaction that this is going to be good for us? That seems like a willfully naïve stance.”

Jeremy Leroux, a UBCP member who is also a low-code web developer, said the time to negotiate terms around AI is now. With the contract extension the union is set to vote on, “for 18 months, we’re not going to talk about AI – we’re not going to be in the discussion,” he said. “Given how fast it’s gone in six months – the conversation will be over by the time we get there. It’s settled by that point.”

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