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Mike Reyes

Black Mirror Fans Have All The 'Joan Is Awful' Comments After Studios Tried To Get Actors To Give Away AI Likenesses For 'Eternity'

Salma Hayek standing looking out in Black Mirror.

Arguably one of the best shows on Netflix's digital library, creator Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror seems to have once again struck a relevant nerve in the consciousness of an ever watchful world. Thanks to claims of studios trying to get actors to sign away their likenesses for “eternity,” it appears that fans of the dystopian satire anthology have a lot of thoughts on the matter once again. 

It seems pretty reasonable, as this very subject was at the center of Season 6’s episode “Joan is Awful.” As that particular installment was already popular with viewers before its real-world counterpart started to rear its ughly head, the Annie Murphy/Salma Hayek starring tale has only grown more and more relevant as a result of reports stemming from negotiations and conversations between SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild) and the AMPTP (producers alliance).

(Image credit: Netflix)

The AI Proposal That Inspired “Joan Is Awful” Comparisons

The more specific scenario that’s been raised by the specific AMPTP stipulations (via Deadline) isn’t a total apples-to-apples translation of what Salma Hayek had to go through in Black Mirror, to be sure. If anything, the situation that’s been highlighted by SAG chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland is the usage of AI to replicate background extras, as opposed to featured speaking performers. 

Recalling the situation in his own words, Ireland laid out the proposal at hand, and why SAG-AFTRA is outraged by its implications: 

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.

It’s clear why an actor would be outraged by being asked to consider what is supposedly a “groundbreaking proposal,” though this isn’t a totally new concern. Most notably martial artist/actor Jet Li had similar worries, which led to Li turning down a role in The Matrix sequels, as he was afraid that his fighting style could be copied digitally if he had signed on to star in the films. 

Then of course, there was the Robin Wright starring 2013 film The Congress, which absolutely played into the notion that a headlining actor could see their likeness used for “eternity” throughout the entertainment landscape. So the moment A.I. proposals like this entered the conversation, it was bound to be a hot topic. 

Responding to Duncan Crabtree-Ireland's claims, Scott Rowe, spokesperson for the AMPTP, attempted to debunk those concerns. Rowe's statement read as follows: 

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. 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.

Ongoing negotiations for both the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes are, of course, more complicated than a pair of prepped statements could ever fully cover. Even with that in mind, the concern is that much like the world of Black Mirror’s Season 6 premiere, an actor could sign away their likeness rights to be used in perpetuity without any additional permissions required. And that very discussion is what fans have seized on through another somewhat feared phenomenon in Charlie Brooker’s worldview: social media!

(Image credit: Netflix)

How Social Media Reacted To This "Joan is Awful" Scenario

Viewers were almost instantly obsessed with this nightmarish story, as “Joan is Awful” reactions flooded Twitter not too long after Black Mirror Season 6 debuted. The fires surrounding Annie Murphy and Salma Hayek’s battle against the “quam-puta” that ruined their lives certainly haven’t died down, thanks to real life situations reflecting the show's bleak situation. 

Kicking off the recent round of discussion is screenwriter Seth M. Sherwood, who actually paid out some praise to a very specific party: 

To the Netflix creative/development exec who let Joan is Awful make it to the world— odds are high your corporate overlords have fired you… but you’re a hero.

Further feeding the discourse in our next example is, coincidentally enough, Luke Cage creator Cheo Hodari Coker. Coker’s response is even more interesting in that it also ropes in a recent box office release into the AI likeness debate, as follows: 

‘Joan Is Awful’ back to back with the first 20 minutes of Indiana Jones is when I was like ‘Oh Snap, if they're paying attention they have to strike.’

Considering how Indiana Jones 5’s de-aging process used countless hours of Harrison Ford footage, already licensed and owned by studio entities, this concern isn’t a bridge too far to cross for the estates of such big ticket talent to consider. In light of that thought, the comments made by Robert Balkovich below further refocus the concerns at hand:

This I think is a really important detail -- the studios are likely to hail their AI compromises when it comes to protecting actors' likenesses (aka Meryl Streep will not be in danger of being Joan is Awful'ed) but the union is pointing out how they still fail working actors.

While it doesn't seem that studios will be jumping into remakes of your favorite movies or shows with Meryl Streep now starring in the lead, the concern is for working actors blow the line. Just as it has been since day one of the SAG-AFTRA strike, the focus is mainly on those union members who don't have voices as powerful as their more instantly recognized peers. 

Closing out this sampling of the comments that Black Mirror’s “Joan is Awful” parable has inspired is Twitter user “Najeed.” Summing things up in a way that might even give Charlie Brooker a chill, this last note is probably part of the reason why this particular series still draws a crowd whenever new episodes are announced:

Joan Is Awful for real. We're truly living in our Black Mirror days.

Seeing as this AI driven quandary has been highly cited in two different union strikes and a subsection of social media, this topic definitely isn't going away anytime soon. So we can only hope that “Joan is Awful’s” twisty ending, which got pretty destructive, is the cautionary tale that everyone makes sure to avoid, so that life doesn't imitate art in such a way. 

While those repercussions are a more exaggerated reaction to this subject, it's a discussion that still needs severely serious rationalization. That fact is only further highlighted by public reaction to the events that played out on our screens. As the technology to more convincingly replicate actors and their likenesses continues to develop, this potential slippery slope will undoubtedly remain in view for all who are concerned.

The world will continue to monitor how negotiations between the WGA, SAG-AFTRA, and the AMPTP develop, over whatever span of time is required to bring an agreeable resolution for all. In the meantime, if you want to get some sharply pointed laughs in, along with some doses of chilling disbelief, Black Mirror Season 6 is currently available on Streamberry; I mean, Netflix. 

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