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Why striking Hollywood writers fear an AI future

The WGA strike is now underway, and a key reason negotiations fell apart is the film and TV industries’ refusal to budge on the potential use of AI

By Krystie Lee Yandoli & Miles Klee

(Picture: Pexels)

For the first time since 2007, before streaming giants like Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, and Max existed, members of the Writers Guild of America went on strike May 1 after failing to negotiate a deal with Hollywood studios.

The Writers Guild of America (WGA) entered into contract discussions with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents Hollywood studios and streamers, on March 20 and failed to agree on negotiations by the May 1 deadline. The WGA argues that in an already tumultuous atmosphere with layoffs across media companies, writers’ compensation in the entertainment industry has been negatively impacted by streaming, their Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA) protections are being ignored, and they also say studios and streamers created a “gig economy inside a union workforce” with writers relying on work from project to project. 

Included in the WGA demands are an increase in the minimum compensation in all areas of media for writers, an increase in contributions to pension and healthcare plans, an increase in residuals, and an overall improvement and strengthening in professional standards and protections for writers. Alex O’Keefe, a writer for FX series The Beartold The New Yorker that he had a negative amount of money in his bank account when the show won Best Comedy Series at the WGA Awards.

Another major sticking point in the two sides’ inability to come to an agreement is a stipulation about studios’ potential use of artificial intelligence. The WGA requested that “AI can’t write or rewrite literary material,” “can’t be used as source material,” and that “MBA-covered material can’t be used to train AI,” the fear being that AI could create drafts of screenplays and then hire writers at day rates to punch up those scripts. The AMPTP rejected that proposal, instead offering merely to hold “annual meetings to discuss advancements in technology.” 

Adam Conover, the creator and star of Adam Ruins Everything and Netflix’s The G Word docuseries, says it’s disappointing that studios refused to budge on that stipulation even though he thinks the idea of using AI in Hollywood writing “is a fad that’s going to disappear in a year and a half.” Conover, who’s also a board member of the Writers Guild of America West and is on the negotiating committee, says that even though he doesn’t think AI can do the work of a writer, he believes these companies are still going to try to exploit this new form of technology.

“In terms of companies using AI in order to break the strike, I’d like to see them try. It’s not going to work,” Conover says. “It’s not easier to replace us with AI than it is to find someone to write the scripts, and that’s not possible for them to do because it’s an extremely skilled profession.”

Recent months have seen explosive growth in AI systems and tools, including chatbots, or large language models, which are trained on vast amounts of existing text and can respond to human input as if in conversation with the user. Experts have warned that this technology may be advancing at a dangerous pace — much faster than standards and practices around it can be established. Hollywood is weighing the potential creative applications for film and TV, with some in the industry fearing studios will try to use automation as a shortcut in the screenwriting process. 

Sarah Myers West, managing director of the AI Now Institute, a research nonprofit that studies the social consequences of AI and the industry behind it, says that “writers in particular are among the most likely to be affected” by the widespread use of generative AI. 

“This is a critical moment to be asking who benefits from the use of these systems and who is harmed,” West says. “[WGA’s] desire to institute strong curbs on the use of AI to protect their intellectual property and creative work is well-founded, particularly given the rapid rollout and commercialization of this technology even as it’s a poor substitute for their craft. Too often the need to ‘study the effects’ of technologies is used as a way to avert stronger regulation; we should learn from the last decade of tech-enabled crises and listen to organizers’ demands.”

While Conover is skeptical of what AI can accomplish on the page, in the tech world, some see machines as a genuine threat to creatives. “The writers are very right to be spooked by this,” says programmer and AI consultant Dylan Budnick. “Studios can save a buck, wrangle creative control away from the writers to please advertisers/funders, and focus on editing a pre-written script instead of dealing with a range of voices and takes from a writers’ room.”

Most elements of a screenplay “can all be easily spit out by the models used by OpenAI,” Budnick claims. “The job then becomes reading and editing, which is easily done by whoever has creative control.” Given a prompt such as: “Write me a movie about Spider-Man meeting Batman, include stage directions, suggest actors, soundtrack, etc. Write it in the style of a detective noir film,” the model can generate a roughly 50-page script.   

Back in 2007, the Writers Guild went on strike from November until February 2008, halting productions for a little more than three months. As a result, popular shows at the time like 30 RockGrey’s Anatomy, and How I Met Your Mother had shortened seasons while shows like Entourage and 24 postponed their filming and release schedules. 

There’s not a lot of clarity about how long this strike is expected to last, but the industry is sure to feel the immediate effects with late-night talk shows already going dark this week, as well as Saturday Night Live and daytime shows like The Talk. Other scripted shows that were in development like Yellowjackets Season 3 and Netflix’s Cobra Kai have also come to a stop. 

But there’s a lot more that goes into the screenwriting process than simply putting words together, Conover explains. Television and film writers are expected to have an expansive skill set beyond the simple notion of forming sentences; they’re required to understand the actual filming process, consider the overall budget and think about which scenes are more expensive to make compared to others, communicate with line producers about edits, rewrite scenes if an actor doesn’t like their character, talk to costume designers and people in the prop department to figure out if they can or can’t bring elements of the script to life, and think about the economics of filming locations, among other details.

“These are all important parts of the job of writing that are inseparable from one another and it’s simply not possible for a text generator, a computer algorithm that just predicts what word comes next in a sentence, to do that for you,” Conover says. “They need people to do that work and those people are writers.”

Even a sophisticated bot needs plenty of human guidance to write anything approaching a decent movie. In an experiment with Open AI’s ChatGPT software, for instance, filmmaker Noam Kroll learned that it needed inputs for genre, protagonist, antagonist, conflict, setting, and plot developments in order to even get started on a script. When he instructed it to come up with its own pitch, he still had to feed it a string of specific story “beats” — events driving the narrative — that the chatbot could then flesh out as actual scenes. The overall result, he found, was fairly generic. “It can write in clichés and tropes, but sorely lacks the emotional depth and originality that a great screenplay needs,” Kroll concluded.  

Vincent Conitzer, director of the Foundations of Cooperative AI Lab at Carnegie Mellon University and head of technical AI engagement at the University of Oxford’s Institute for Ethics in AI, says recent assertions about how this technology would be deployed in Hollywood may oversimplify the issue. “It’s not clear to me that either side has given this a whole lot of thought at this point,” he observes.  

“Probably the first thing that everyone thinks about is the AI writing the entire screenplay from scratch,” Conitzer says. “For now, I don’t think that would be competitive with the best human-produced screenplays.” But, he adds, there are other potential uses: writers could ask software for suggested plot advancements, or to produce several rewrites of a particular scene. “Where’s the line for what uses should be prohibited, and how could this be enforced?” he asks.

He notes the complicating factor of the Guild’s demand that studios limit any AI’s access to written material covered by their Minimum Basic Agreement. “This wades into the broader issue of how AI systems today are trained on lots of copyrighted material — and it’s sometimes hard to know what they base their writing on,” he says, pointing out that we don’t know “to what extent the AMPTP would even be in control of this.”

“So, I come down on the side that more research and discussion is needed,” Conitzer says. “But I think the AMPTP offer of ‘annual meetings’ falls far short given the pace at which the technology is developing. Addressing these issues in earnest would require intense, immediate, and ongoing study.”

Conover also says the copyright issues around using AI-generated screenplays is not yet clear, making it a legal gray area. He finds it hard to believe that a major studio is going to financially commit tens of millions of dollars to productions that they may or may not even own the rights to.

“People who think we can be replaced with AI today are living in a true science-fiction fantasy,” Conover says.

Abbott Elementary writer and producer Brittani Nichols says they’re not shocked studio heads are considering using AI technology as a loophole to possibly create content without actual writers during the strike. 

“It would not surprise me if they exploit it because they don’t care about us,” Nichols offers. “They don’t care about art. All they care about is themselves and their bottom line and they are willing to throw workers under the bus any chance that they get to keep things profitable.”

Not only are writers unconvinced that AI technology will be able to flesh out comprehensive and unique screenplays nor provide thoughtful notes and feedback in the editing process, but they’re also wary that a product like ChatGPT can accomplish all of these logistics involved in writing for TV and movies. According to Nichols, the AI issue in particular is reflective of the larger issue at hand regarding Hollywood studios not having a grasp on what it means to be a writer in a technical sense.

“It’s not just the act of putting the words into a document. There’s so much that goes on before and after that,” Nichols says. “To think that a machine would spit something out that’s even close to what writers do is so belittling and indicative of the disrespect they have shown us throughout this entire fight. It’s insulting, and anyone who thinks that a machine can do what we do is incredibly out of touch with what a highly-skilled profession being a writer is.”

Screenwriter Tyler Hisel, who’s worked in the entertainment industry for more than 15 years, says he sees AI generators as “the unifying existential issue” in the Writers Guild’s recent negotiations with the studios. 

“A lot of writers are looking at that and saying, ‘We don’t want this profession to just be cleaning up drafts written by ChatGPT in the future,’” Hisel says. “There’s something to be said for protecting the business of this profession and for these studios to protect the value of human expression. A good screenplay is more than just a logical plot, it’s something that strikes at those intangible things within us.”

Hisel, who’s currently developing a film for Paramount with director Ron Howard called The Fixer, doesn’t view AI as an immediate threat but he thinks it’s important to consider what the possibility of this technology can look like in the entertainment industry over the next five to 10 years. 

“I think with the exponential growth we’re seeing, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that this thing can spit out a screenplay in a couple of years and the question will become: Do you need to hire a writer at their quote to do that first draft or do you give them the rough draft from ChatGPT and tell them to clean it up?” Hisel says. “Hopefully that doesn’t become a reality, but better to get a handle on it now than to regret it years from now.”

From Rolling Stone US.