Artwork by Greg Clarke
It’s shocking how much the entertainment landscape has changed since the last writers’ strike: in 2007, Netflix was still primarily a DVD-by-mail business, Amazon Studios and Apple had yet to move from Silicon Valley to Hollywood, and streaming as we know it didn’t exist. Today, there is more content being produced than ever, streamers and legacy players like Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery spending billions every year.
Once again, a strike comes during a time of widespread economic uncertainty spurred by inflation, fears of a recession 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 Drake and The Weeknd collaboration, could that same technology write scripts and allow studios to create more content for less money?
Initially, while ChatGPT appeared in late 2022 and early 2023, writers who spoke with The Hollywood Reporter weren’t particularly scared of chatbots that could generate movie or TV presentations on command, seeing them more as collaborative tools that can help spark ideas rather than ways to replace humans entirely. But that has changed as technology has advanced and AI has become a key point in the writers union’s ongoing negotiations. While AI is one of the more abstract issues on the table during this strike – alongside the regulation of so-called mini-rooms (small rooms of writers who are convened before a project is greenlit ), salary floors and residuals — pundits say Hollywood should ‘Don’t ignore the 800-pound robot in the room.
“The challenge is that 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 is also a member of the WGA’s 2023 negotiating committee. “The concern is that later on you may see a producer or an executive trying to use one of these tools to do a job that a writer really needs to do.”
It already is, according to Amy Webb, founder and CEO of Future Today Institute, which organizes long-term scripts and consultations for Fortune 500 companies and Hollywood creatives. She notes, “I asked a few upper-level people, if a strike happened, how fast could they run an AI system to just write the scripts? And they are serious.
This follows the WGA’s fear that, as the union pointed out on May 1, producers “have opened the door to writing as a fully independent profession.” According to WGA Bargaining Committee Co-Chair Chris Keyser, before talks ended abruptly that day and the guild went on strike, the AMPTP “wouldn’t be dealing with us on AI.” as the guild sought to prevent technology from writing or rewriting literary material, and to prevent the use of 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. “It’s existential for us,” says writer Vinnie Wilhelm (Penny Dreadful: City of Angels) while picketing the Netflix offices in Hollywood. “We have to have a seat at the table. You can easily see the work becoming polishing AI scripts. It fits right in with what the companies have been doing – turning everything they can into working together. Adds WGA Bargaining Committee Member Adam Conover (The G Word with Adam Conover), who also protested outside the streamer’s factory, “AI can’t and won’t replace us. But the fantasy of technology will serve to devalue us, pay us less.
A screenwriter and executive producer of a streaming show, on the picket line outside the Warner Bros. lot. Discovery, notes a conundrum for writers: how much of fear about AI is hype and how much is reality? “During the last strike, they (the WGA) were fighting to get internet coverage, even though they didn’t know the internet would soon be industry-wide. So, could AI be crypto or could it be the internet? asks this person. “We don’t know if it’s going to, you know, shit the 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 lengthy procedure like Law and order. “You have a massive corpus, it’s a formula, and a lot of storylines are taken from 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 that the conditions are in place in some cases for an AI to potentially get the script 80% of the way through and then the writers who would cross the picket line do the last 20% polishing and of shaping. This is possible for certain types of content.
Adds talented lawyer Leigh Brecheen, “I absolutely promise you that some people are already working on getting AI to write scripts, and the longer the strike lasts, the more resources will be invested in this effort.”
August says writers want to make sure AI-generated scripts can’t be considered literary material, whether it’s a treatment or a storyline a WGA member would. hired to write, or as source material, which includes existing intellectual property like adapted books and video games. “We don’t want to be given something and (being told) ‘Oh, hey, base it on what you’re supposed to write from this AI-generated short story.’ “This raises questions not just about authorship,” he says, “but also about pay rates — as adaptations and rewrites tend to be less lucrative than the original works. August says the AI release should be treated as research, “in the same way that an executive might print a Wikipedia article on the invention of the steam engine”, as the background for a potential film.
“Ultimately, the script has to be written by the writer, and the writer has to be a human being who is a member of the Writers Guild of America. That’s all we’re saying,” says WGA East member Sasha Stewart Council who recently worked on the Netflix docuseries. Edit: The fight for America. “And the AMPTP instead of saying ‘Oh, that makes sense.’ They say ‘Oh, no, no, no. Maybe we’ll have a conversation about this once every few years.
Talent attorney Darren Trattner notes that “a writer is defined in the Basic Agreement as a ‘person’” and the WGA could theoretically ban AI from working on guild projects – but functionally that might not. be possible.
“The reality is that even if you have strength in numbers, and the whole guild says ‘if you want a WGA project and WGA writers, you can’t use AI’, we may never know if whether the AI was involved or not,” says Trattner. “Sometimes a script is reviewed by a producer, studio head, or director and that person doesn’t take or want credit or fees. What if this individual is revising a script with AI and just telling the author “Here are some revisions”. It is possible that no one knows that the notes were generated by the AI.
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 production process is inevitable,” Brecheen says. “All guilds need to keep an eye on how to protect their members while not outright impeding progress.”
Webb says this strike could push AI into the mainstream and sees potential for streamlining production schedules and reducing locations to explore – and there’s already generally positive consensus about its potential for use in voice acting.
“Every conversation about AI at this point is polarized. It’s binary. AI is going to usher in an apocalyptic hellscape or it’s total utopia,” Webb says. “What would be better would be to manage the strike and also to discuss ‘Is this an opportunity for us to rethink our approach to how we’re going to use technology?'”
When it comes to writers, there can be a trade-off between letting AI generate entire projects and forbidding it, as Trattner notes: “When you use AI, there’s an ‘input’ and an exit’. The entry could be: “Write a screenplay about a boy who meets a girl, they break up and get back together”. Turn this into a romantic comedy. The output is what the AI generates from the input. If we can’t prevent the AI, maybe entry still needs to be done by a WGA member.
Gary Baum, Lesley Goldberg and Alex Weprin contributed reporting.
A version of this story first appeared in the May 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.