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As Writers Strike, AI Could Covertly Cross the Picket Line


It’s shocking how much the entertainment landscape has changed since the last writer’s strike: in 2007, Netflix was still primarily a DVD-by-mail company, Amazon Studios and Apple hadn’t yet crossed over from Silicon Valley to Hollywood, and streaming as we know it didn’t exist. More content is being produced now than ever, with streamers and legacy players such as Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery spending billions every year.

Another strike comes amid widespread economic uncertainty, spurred by inflation, recession concerns and mass layoffs in media and entertainment. But this time there’s a twist: the rise of generative artificial intelligence. If half the internet can be fooled by an AI-created collaboration between Drake and The Weeknd, could that same technology write scripts and enable studios to create more content for less money?

Initially, when ChatGPT emerged in late 2022 and early 2023, writers spoke to The Hollywood Reporter weren’t particularly afraid of the chatbots that could generate movie or TV pitches on command, seeing them more as collaboration tools that could help spark ideas than ways to completely replace humans. But that has changed as technology has progressed and AI has become a major deal point in the ongoing negotiations with the writers’ union. While AI is one of the more abstract issues on the table during this strike — alongside the regulation of so-called minirooms (little writers’ rooms that are convened before a project is greenlit), pay floors, and residuals — experts say Hollywood should. Don’t ignore the 800-pound robot in the room.

“The challenge is we want to make sure these technologies are tools used by writers and not tools used to replace writers,” says Big fish And Aladdin writer John August, who also serves on the WGA’s 2023 negotiating committee. “The concern is that along the way, you might see a producer or manager trying to use one of these tools to do a job that really makes a writer has to do.”

That’s already happening, according to Amy Webb, founder and CEO of Future Today Institute, which does long-term scenario planning and consultation for Fortune 500 companies and Hollywood creatives. She notes: “I have a few higher level people asking, if a strike does happen, how soon can they fire up an AI system to just write the scripts? And they are serious.”

That addresses the WGA’s fear that, as the union outlined on May 1, producers were “opening the door to writing as a wholly freelance profession.” According to WGA negotiating committee co-chair Chris Keyser, before talks came to an abrupt halt that day and the guild went on strike, the AMPTP “didn’t want to deal with us on AI” as the guild tried to prevent literary materials from being written or rewritten by the technology, and to avoid using AI as source material.

Thanks to the WGA’s account of how their proposal on AI was received, the issue became a lightning rod on the picket lines on the first day of the strike. “This is existential for us,” says writer Vinnie Wilhelm (Penny Dreadful: City of Angels) while visiting Netflix’s Hollywood offices. “We have to sit down at the table. You can easily see the job becoming AI script polishing. It fits perfectly with what companies do: everything they can turn into gig work.” Adds WGA negotiating committee member Adam Conover (The G Word with Adam Conover), which was also demonstrated for the streamer factory, “AI cannot and will not replace us. But the fantasy of technology will be used to devalue us, to pay us less.”

A writer and executive producer on a streaming show, on the picket line in front of the Warner Bros. lot. Discovery, notes a conundrum for writers: How many of the fears about AI are hype and how many are reality? “During the last strike, they (the WGA) fought to get the internet covered, despite the fact that they didn’t know that (the) internet would soon be the whole industry. So, could AI be crypto or could it be the internet?” this person asks. “We don’t know if it’s going to, you know, shit in bed and become nothing or replace us all.”

Webb doesn’t think AI can effectively cross the picket line on most projects, but an exception might be a long-running procedure like Law & authority. “You have a huge corpus, it’s formal, and a lot of the storylines have been ripped out of the headlines. So you have the data sources you need,” says Webb. To be clear, she doesn’t think writers can be replaced by machines. “What I’m saying is the conditions are right in certain cases for an AI to get the script potentially 80 percent and then have writers who would cross the picket line do that last 20 percent of the polishing and shaping. That is possible for certain types of content.”

Adds talent advocate Leigh Brecheen, “I absolutely promise you that some people are already moving into getting scripts written by AI, and the longer the strike lasts, the more resources will be poured into that effort.”

August says writers want to make sure AI-generated scripts can’t be considered literary material, which is anything from a treatment to a screenplay that a WGA member would be hired to write, or source material, including existing IP-like books and video games that have been adapted. “We don’t want to be handed something and[to be told]’Oh, hey, base yourself on what you’re supposed to write based on this AI-generated short story.’ That raises questions not only about authorship, he says, but also about rates, as adaptations and rewrites tend to be less lucrative than original works. August says AI output should be treated as research, “in the same way an executive could print a Wikipedia entry on the invention of the steam engine”, as the backdrop for a possible movie premise.

“Ultimately, the script must be written by a writer and the writer must be a human who is a member of the Writers Guild of America. That’s all we’re saying,” says Sasha Stewart, a member of the WGA East Council who has recently worked on the Netflix docuseries. Edit: The Fight for America. “And the AMPTP instead of saying like ‘Oh, that makes sense.’ They say, “Oh, no, no, no. Maybe we’ll talk about it once every few years.”

Talent attorney Darren Trattner notes that “a writer is defined in the basic agreement as a ‘person'” and that the WGA could theoretically prohibit AI from working on guild projects – but functionally this may not be possible.

“The reality is that even if you have the power in numbers, and you have the whole guild saying ‘if you want a WGA project and WGA writers, you can’t use AI’, we may never know if AI is involved. was or wasn’t,” says Trattner. “Sometimes a script is revised by a producer, a studio executive or a director and that person doesn’t take or don’t want credit or a fee. What if that person revises a script with AI and then says to the writer, “Here are some revisions.” It is possible that no one knows that the notes are AI generated.

The WGA is the first labor organization to tackle AI, but it won’t be the last. “I don’t think it’s an existential threat today, but the use of AI in the manufacturing process is inevitable,” says Brecheen. “All guilds need to keep an eye on how to protect their members without hindering progress.”

Webb says this attack could push AI into the mainstream and sees opportunities for streamlining production schedules and limiting locations to explore – and there’s already a generally positive consensus about its potential for use in dubbing.

“Any conversation about AI right now is polarized. It’s binary. AI is going to herald apocalyptic hellscape doom or it’s total utopia,” says Webb. “Which would be better to manage the strike and also talk about ‘Is this an opportunity for us to rethink our approach to how we’re going to use technology?'”

As far as writers are concerned, there may be room for a compromise between letting AI generate entire projects and banning them, as Trattner points out: “In using AI there is an ‘input’ and an ‘output.’ The input could be: ‘Write a screenplay about a boy meeting a girl, they break up and get back together. Turn that into a romantic comedy.’ The output is what AI generates from the input. If we cannot prevent AI, perhaps the input should always be done by a WGA member.”

Gary Baum, Lesley Goldberg and Alex Weprin contributed reporting.

A version of this story first appears in the May 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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