- Artificial intelligence could be the most important part of the WGA strike, for reasons bigger than show business.
- 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.
- While many WGA members are skeptical of what AI can accomplish, others acknowledge that there are aspects of their work that could be assisted by automation.
The WGA is attempting a preemptive strike on generative AI but — ironically — the guild’s withdrawal of labor could accelerate studio attempts to push the tech further into production.
Other see AI as an existential threat for all crafts in Hollywood.
The bottom line for many striking screenwriters when it comes to studio use of AI is not that it will replace their jobs so much as that “the fantasy of the technology will be used to devalue us, to pay us less,” WGA negotiating committee member Adam Conover told Ashley Cullins and Katie Kilkenny at The Hollywood Reporter.
Writer Vinnie Wilhelm also told THR, “You can easily see the job becoming polishing AI scripts. It fits neatly into what companies have been doing — turning everything they can into gig work.”
WGA is the first labor organization to take on AI, but it won’t be the last. Talent lawyer Leigh Brecheen tells THR that the use of AI in production is inevitable. “All the guilds need to keep their eye on how to protect their members while not standing squarely in the way of progress.”
The major beef between the WGA and the studios (represented by AMPTP) when it comes to artificial intelligence is the inability to agree about studios’ potential use of AI.
The WGA requested that “AI can’t write or rewrite literary material,” “can’t be used as source material,” and that “Minimum Basic Agreement-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” which sent shivers down the spine of writers already fearful that the producers are using the strike to increase the use of AI scribes and to opened the door to writing as an entirely freelance profession.
“The challenge is we want to make sure that these technologies are tools used by writers and not tools used to replace writers,” explained screenwriter John August, who is also a member of the WGA’s 2023 negotiating committee. “The worry is that down the road you can see some producer or executive trying to use one of these tools to do a job that a writer really needs to be doing.”
That’s already happening, according to Breechen, “I absolutely promise you that some people are already working on getting scripts written by AI, and the longer the strike lasts, the more resources will be poured into that effort.”
After all, AIs don’t strike.
As WGA member Alissa Wilkinson explains at Vox, the idea that writers are dispensable is old news. But the attitude takes on a new dimension when you’re presented with a tool that could enable the studios to crop writers right out of the picture, or at least minimize the need to pay them, and an entertainment landscape that might not mind the results.
Few screenwriters say they expect AI to produce anything as good as a human writer can achieve.
“I don’t think AI is going to be able to write Everything Everywhere All at Once, or Tar, or Succession. At best, it will be an okay imitation of things that humans have already written,” says Wilkinson. “But cheap imitations of good things are what power the entertainment industry.”
Conover told Miles Klee and Krystie Lee Yandoli at Rolling Stone, “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. 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.”
WGA anger is expressed by writer and producer Brittani Nichols. She says Hollywood execs just don’t understand what a writer actually does.
“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.”
While WGA members like Conover and Nichols are skeptical of what AI can accomplish, others acknowledge that there are aspects of their work that could be assisted by automation.
Amy Webb, founder and CEO of the Future Today Institute, tells THR that a long-running procedural like Law & Order is so formulaic it could be penned by a machine.
“You’ve got a massive corpus, it’s formulaic, and a lot of the storylines are ripped from the headlines. So you’ve got the data sources that you need,” Webb says. To be clear, she doesn’t think writers can be replaced by machines. “What I am saying is the conditions are right in certain cases for an AI potentially to get the script 80% of the way there and then have writers who would cross the picket line do that last 20 percent of polishing and shaping. That’s possible for certain types of content.”
Others go further and say the writing is on the wall for the entire film industry.
Most elements of a screenplay “can all be easily spit out by the models used by OpenAI,” programmer and AI consultant Dylan Budnick tells Rolling Stone. “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.
Author Hugh Howey (whose sci-fi book Silo is adapted for Apple TV+) recently tweeted, “We are less than a year or two away from giving AI a film script and then watching that film the same day. Production costs are going to go to ZERO. Within 5 years, great-looking films will be made this way. Within 20 years, almost all films will be made this way.”
Perhaps the heat needs taking out of the debate. As Webb says, “Every conversation about AI at this point is polarized. It’s binary. AI is going to usher in apocalyptic hellscape doom or total utopia.
“What would be better would be to manage the strike and also talk through, ‘Is this an opportunity for us to rethink our approach to how we’re going to use tech?’”
Which is fine, except the screenwriters still retain the possibly romantic belief that a human is needed to guide the machine.
“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,’” screenwriter Tyler Hisel tells Rolling Stone. “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.”