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Are Hollywood’s Writers Right to Worry About Generative AI?
How Artificial Intelligence Became a Show-Stopping Reason for the Strike
Artificial intelligence has become a surprisingly large concern amid the writers’ strike, and it’s a tension rooted in Hollywood’s tendency to cut corners to save a buck.
In many ways, the latest strike by the Writers Guild of America reflects something that’s all too rare in our modern culture—creative people sticking up for themselves.
The strike, which began at the beginning of May, is Hollywood’s largest strike in about 15 years, when the WGA shut down production for more than three months in late 2007 and early 2008.
Both strikes, in many ways, break down to very similar issues—writers, who are responsible for the content that we watch, want to ensure that, as technology evolves, they’re not left behind from a compensation and quality-of-work standpoint.
Mostly, this discussion has centered on royalties offered by Netflix, Peacock, and similar services, which have flourished in the years since the prior agreement was made—along with some practices which highlighted just how little control writers can sometimes have in this new climate. When Warner Bros. Discovery removed numerous programs from its HBO Max service (which is changing its name to Max) to save money after a huge merger, it raised serious concerns among Hollywood’s creative community that haven’t gone away in the months since.
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And the studios’ hardball tactics, which have discouraged show-runners from taking part in the strike, haven’t done much to thaw the relationship. Even famed writers, like The Wire creator David Simon, found themselves losing major contracts as a result of their public support of the strike.
The writers have a weapon of their own—by staying on the picket lines and away from their productions, they are creating a hard-to-ignore economic impact that could cost the California economy, and by extension the major studios, billions of dollars. (It will take time to break the record for the longest strike in the entertainment field, though—that honor goes to the American Federation of Musicians’ 1942 strike against the record industry, which lasted for roughly two years, in part because of World War II.)
But this strike has one factor that previous strikes haven’t had: The specter of artificial intelligence. And that’s a variable that could make this a much more complicated debate than it seems.
How generative AI became a writers’ strike talking point
In the weeks before the strike, artificial intelligence emerged as an unexpected pain point in contract negotiations with the studios. The WGA took something of a principled stand on the issue, making the case that generative AI shouldn’t be used as source material or to rewrite literary material, it did potentially make sense as an additional tool for WGA members. However, the WGA emphasized that it was important for members to maintain ownership of the final product.
The studios, represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, pushed back on this idea, hoping to leverage the technology’s possible effects as a cost-cutting tool, considering the complicated copyright issues around AI ownership, and not wanting to undermine future use cases for generative AI that have yet to emerge.
“Writers want to be able to use this technology as part of their creative process, without changing how credits are determined, which is complicated given AI material can’t be copyrighted,” AMPTP noted in comments to The Hollywood Reporter. “So it’s something that requires a lot more discussion, which we’ve committed to doing.”
John Rodgers, a WGA West board member, said that one of the biggest concerns was that executives would attempt to use AI as a money-saving measure.
“I don’t know if writers should be afraid of the capabilities of large language models and AI because they don’t really write, they’re basically plagiarism machines,” he told ABC7 earlier this month. “What we’re afraid of is some executives will have the brilliant idea to disrupt the industry with AI, and leave us to pick up the wreckage after a couple years.”
It can be easy to dismiss these concerns as the thoughts of someone who is non-technical, but it’s worth keeping in mind (unusual plot points aside) that the film industry is very technical both behind and in front of the camera, and are early adopters in areas like 3D graphics, audio, and high-end photography. And many writers often take on different tasks within film production, including acting, directing, and editing.
Critics among the pool of writers are not approaching this from a position of technical illiteracy. WGA member and Family Ties actress Justine Bateman, a film director who has a computer science degree from UCLA, warned in a recent Twitter thread that studios someday could leverage artificial intelligence in ways that leave writers, actors, and creators off to the side. She suggested the possibility of an AI-generated eighth season of Family Ties, a show that ended nearly 35 years ago, could be generated from past footage that was used as a training model. With many long-running sitcoms shooting hundreds of hours of footage, there’s plenty of source material to work with.
“AI has to be [addressed] now or never,” she wrote in a tweet. “I believe this is the last time any labor action will be effective in our business. If we don’t make strong rules now, they simply won’t notice if we strike in three years, because at that point they won’t need us.”
While Bateman’s concerns may be theoretical at this time, you can see evidence that her comments aren’t just scaremongering. Deepfakes are growing in uptake, and YouTube has been flooded with fake commercials and alternate takes on television universes—for example, a live-action teaser for South Park built with Midjourney. While these certainly can’t compete with the real thing now, it’s a lot closer than it was just a year ago.
And it’s not just writers that have a reason to be concerned. Screen legend Tom Hanks recently noted that actors are concerned about their digital identities outliving them on screen, and are taking steps to protect their rights.
In an era when residuals are often one of the most important ways writers pay the bills, there is a real concern that this medium could get cut off in the long run. When HBO Max started removing shows, it cut off revenue avenues that writers relied on. Artificial intelligence could further accelerate it if used in a way that doesn’t meet the needs of the creators.
Are there benefits to generative AI in the writers’ room or in the director’s chair? Sure. It can be a great way to brainstorm unusual or interesting ideas that might not have surfaced through traditional means. Generative visuals can inspire artists to reach new heights.
And sure, it can help low-budget projects reach beyond their means by helping manage parts of the process that are more time-consuming than creative. As a recent Variety piece explained, tools like Runway have already seen use in Oscar-winning films like Everything Everywhere All at Once.
But there’s a line between extending skill sets and replacing creators, and in many ways, the strike is looking to quantify the difference in a meaningful way. The labor battle will likely have an impact beyond the writers.
“Taste clusters”: The ways AI has already changed Hollywood
If there’s a single scene from a recent film or television show that properly describes the tensions that writers face about artificial intelligence in the streaming era, it’s a scene from the third season of the HBO show Barry, in which the character Sally learns that her well-reviewed semi-autobiographical television show Joplin has been cancelled less than 12 hours after release, despite a strong Rotten Tomatoes score.
What was the problem? “The algorithm felt that it wasn’t hitting the right taste clusters,” an executive informs her, not a tinge of irony in their voice.
The sad part is that it’s not particularly far from the truth. Direct-to-Netflix films like The Gray Man and The Man from Toronto, both massive productions with huge budgets, drew millions of algorithm-driven viewers upon release, only to disappear from the front page within days, seemingly forever. Smaller shows face even tougher odds—appearing for a single season, often with limited promotion, facing their own version of Sally Reed’s personal nightmare.
Algorithms, driven by the whims of the consumer, are already reshaping Hollywood for many writers. And that was before those algorithms were at risk of doing any of the writing. Add to that the traditional climate of mistrust between the union and the studios—ask the animation community how they feel about the disappearance of Infinity Train—and it’s not hard to see things degrading from here.
Lessons from the 2008 strike
During the last strike, the major studios doubled down on reality television content, and forced late-night hosts to run their shows without writers.
While Conan O’Brien is an excellent improviser, that shouldn’t necessarily be his job.
And then, as now, the striking writers weren’t Luddites about new tech. Striking writers drew online buzz through live in-person renditions of popular shows, and tested the waters of internet-based content, with their most notable contribution to that genre being Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.
In the end, the writers mostly got what they wanted out of that strike—compensation that adapted with the times, basically the same thing they’re asking for now. But one has to wonder if there’s a studio executive out there looking at ChatGPT longingly, thinking that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to generate a Seinfeld script, give it to a bot, let a renderer spit something out, and put it on the air.
This tendency has already emerged in related fields, and it’s already led to fresh unionization. The longtime technology hub CNET unionized last week in direct response to a controversial attempt to introduce AI-generated content to the publication. (They’re represented by WGA East, one of the parties to the strike.)
Generative AI may have a place in Hollywood, just like so many other disruptive technologies before it. But the people don’t deserve to be lost in the equation.
And in many ways, that’s what the union battle is destined to underline.