May 24, 2024

It’s jarring 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 hadn’t yet crossed over from Silicon Valley to Hollywood, and streaming as we know it didn’t exist. Now there’s more content being produced than ever, with the streamers and legacy players like Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery spending well into the billions each year. 

Once again, a strike is happening during a period of widespread economic uncertainty spurred by inflation, concerns of a recession, and mass layoffs in media and entertainment. But this time around, there’s a twist: the ascension of generative artificial intelligence. If half the internet can be tricked by an AI-created Drake and The Weeknd collab, could that same tech write scripts and enable studios to create more content for less money?

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Initially, as ChatGPT emerged in late 2022 and early 2023, writers who spoke with The Hollywood Reporter weren’t particularly scared by the chatbots that could generate movie or TV pitches on command, viewing them more as collaborative tools that can help spur ideas rather than ways to replace humans entirely. But that has changed as the technology has advanced and AI has become a key deal point in the ongoing writers union 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 writers rooms that are convened before a project is greenlit), wage floors and residuals — experts say Hollywood shouldn’t ignore the 800-pound robot in the room.

“The challenge is we want to make sure that 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 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 Amy Webb, founder and CEO of Future Today Institute, which does long-range scenario planning and consultation for Fortune 500 companies and Hollywood creatives. She notes, “I’ve had a couple of higher-level people ask, if a strike does happen, how quickly could they spin up an AI system to just write the scripts? And they’re serious.”

That taps into the fear from the WGA that, as the union outlined May 1, producers “opened the door to writing as an entirely freelance profession.” According to WGA negotiating committee co-chair Chris Keyser, before talks abruptly concluded that day and the guild went on strike, the AMPTP “would not deal with us on AI” as the guild sought to block literary material from being written or rewritten by the technology, and to prevent AI from creating 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. “This is existential for us,” said writer Vinnie Wilhelm (Penny Dreadful: City of Angels) as he picketed Netflix’s Hollywood offices. “We need to have a seat at the table. 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.” Adds WGA negotiating committee member Adam Conover (The G Word With Adam Conover), who was also demonstrating in front of the streamer, “AI can’t and won’t replace us. But the fantasy of the technology will be used to devalue us, to pay us less.”

A writer and executive producer on a streaming show, on the picket line in front of Warner Bros. Discovery’s lot, noted one conundrum for writers: How much of the fear over AI is hype, and how much is reality? “In the last strike, [the WGA was] fighting to get internet covered despite not knowing that [the] internet would soon be the entire industry. So, could AI be crypto, or could it be the internet?” this person asks. “We don’t know if it’s going to, you know, shit the bed and become nothing — or replace all of us.”

Webb doesn’t think AI could cross the picket line effectively on most projects, but an exception might be a long-running procedural like Law & Order. “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?percent 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.” 

Adds talent lawyer Leigh Brecheen, “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.” 

August says writers want to make sure AI-generated scripts can’t be considered literary material, which is anything from a treatment to a screenplay that a WGA member would be hired to write, or as source material, which includes existing IP like books and video games that are adapted. “We don’t want to be handed something and [be told], ‘Oh, hey, base what you’re supposed to be writing off of this short story generated by AI.’?” That raises questions about not only authorship, he says, but also pay rates — because adaptations and rewrites tend to be less lucrative than original works. August says AI output should be treated as research, “the same way that an executive could print out a Wikipedia article on the invention of the steam engine” as background for a potential movie premise.

“At the end of the day, the script needs to be written by a writer, and the writer needs to be a human being who is a member of the Writers Guild of America. That’s all we’re saying,” says Sasha Stewart, a member of the WGA East Council who most recently worked on the Netflix docuseries Amend: The Fight for America. “And the AMPTP, instead of saying like, ‘Oh, that makes sense.’ They’re saying, ‘Oh, no, no, no. Maybe we’ll have a conversation about it once every few years.”

Talent lawyer Darren Trattner notes that “a writer is defined in the basic agreement as a ‘person,’” and the WGA could theoretically forbid AI from working on guild projects — but functionally it might not be possible.

“The reality is even if you have the strength in numbers, and you have the whole guild saying, ‘If you want a WGA project and WGA writers, you can’t use AI,’ we may never know if AI was involved or not,” says Trattner. “Sometimes a script is revised by a producer, a studio executive or a director and that person doesn’t take or want credit or a fee. What if that individual revises a script with AI and then just tells the writer, ‘Here are some revisions.’ It is possible no one will know the notes were AI-generated.”

The WGA is the first labor organization to take on AI, but it won’t be the last. “I don’t think it is an existential threat today, but the use of AI in the production process is inevitable,” says Brecheen. “All the guilds need to keep their eye on how to protect their members while not standing squarely in the way of progress.”

Webb says this strike could push AI into the mainstream and sees potential for streamlining production schedules and narrowing down locations to scout — and there’s already a generally positive consensus about its potential for use in dubbing. 

“Every conversation about AI at this point is polarized. It’s binary. AI is going to usher in apocalyptic hellscape doom or total utopia,” says Webb. “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?’” 

As for writers, there may be room for compromise between letting AI generate entire projects and banning it, as Trattner notes: “When using AI, there is an ‘input’ and an ‘output.’ The input could be: ‘Write a screenplay about a boy who meets a girl, they break up and get back together. Turn that into a romantic comedy.’ The output is what AI generates from the input. If we cannot prevent AI, maybe the input always must be done by a WGA member.”

Gary Baum, Lesley Goldberg and Alex Weprin contributed reporting.

A version of this story appears in the May 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.