The Hollywood writers’ strike broke out this week over pay, and the refusal of top studios like Netflix and Disney to rule out artificial intelligence gradually replacing human writers in the future has only fueled anger and fear on the picket lines. AI programs like ChatGPT have recently spooked many industries with their rapidly advancing ability to eerily mimic human conversation. The potential risks of an AI takeover were discussed this week when the white house summoned Big Tech.
The Writers Guild of America requested binding agreements to regulate the use of AI as part of the weeks-long talks with studios and streamers that ended on Monday. Nothing written by AI can be considered “literary” or “source” material, which are industry terms used to determine who gets royalties, and scripts written by WGA members cannot “be used to train AI.”
According to the WGA, studios “rejected our proposal” and countered with an offer to meet once a year to “discuss technological advancements.”
“It’s nice for them to offer to have a meeting about how they’re exploiting it against us!”, joked WGA negotiating committee member Eric Heisserer, who wrote Netflix hit film Bird Box.
“Art cannot be created by a machine. You lose the heart and soul of the story… I mean, the first word is ‘artificial,'” he told AFP on the picket line outside the streaming giant’s Hollywood HQ Friday. While writers already know this, the danger is that “we have to watch tech companies destroy the business in an attempt to find out for themselves,” he said.
Not just scripts
While few television and film writers interviewed by AFP on the picket lines believe their work can be done by computers, the apparent conviction of studios and streamers that it can have been an additional slap in the face.
They are concerned that executives in Hollywood, where Silicon Valley firms have upended many traditional practices such as long-term contracts for writers, will try to cut costs even further by having computers write their next hit show.
Top Hollywood executives’ comments at this week’s Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills will have done nothing to assuage writers’ fears. “In the next three years, you’re going to see a movie that was written by AI made… a good one,” said movie producer Todd Lieberman.
“Not just scripts. Editing, all of it… storyboarding a movie, anything,” added Fox Entertainment CEO, Rob Wade. “AI in the future, maybe not next year or the year after, but if we’re talking 10 years? AI is going to be able to do absolutely all of these things.”
The studios’ account of the breakdown in WGA negotiations was more nuanced. According to a briefing note shared with AFP, writers do not want to outlaw AI and appear content to use it “as part of their creative process” as long as it does not affect their pay.
That scenario “requires a lot more discussion, which we’ve committed to doing,” according to the studios.
According to Leila Cohan, a 39-year-old writer on Netflix’s smash hit Bridgerton, the only use of AI for writers is for “busy work” like coming up with character names. She did, however, predict that studios “could start making incredibly bad first drafts with AI and then hiring writers to do a rewrite.”
“I think that’s certainly a very scary possibility… it’s very smart that we’re addressing this now,” she said.
Indeed, the last Hollywood strike, in 2007-08, gave writers the right to be paid for online viewing of their shows or films — a foreshadowing of things to come at a time when streaming was in its infancy. Back then, Netflix had only recently begun offering online viewing, and services like Disney+ and Apple TV+ were still more than a decade away.
Even sci-fi writer Ben Ripley, who believes AI has no place in writing, believes that introducing legislation now “to put guardrails up” is “very necessary.” Writers must be original,” he says. “Artificial intelligence is the antithesis of originality.”