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TV and film writers are fighting to save their jobs from AI. They won’t be the last

<i>Stephanie Elam/CNN</i><br/>TV and film writers are fighting to save their jobs from AI. They won't be the last. Picketing has begun in front of Netflix in Hollywood
Stephanie Elam/CNN
TV and film writers are fighting to save their jobs from AI. They won't be the last. Picketing has begun in front of Netflix in Hollywood

By Samantha Murphy Kelly, CNN Business

By any standard, John August is a successful screenwriter. He’s written such films as “Big Fish,” “Charlie’s Angels” and “Go.” But even he is concerned about the impact AI could have on his work.

A powerful new crop of AI tools, trained on vast troves of data online, can now generate essays, song lyrics and other written work in response to user prompts. While there are clearly limits for how well AI tools can produce compelling creative stories, these tools are only getting more advanced, putting writers like August on guard.

“Screenwriters are concerned about our scripts being the feeder material that is going into these systems to generate other scripts, treatments, and write story ideas,” August, a Writers Guild of America (WGA) committee member, told CNN. “The work that we do can’t be replaced by these systems.”

August is one of the more than 11,000 members of the WGA who went on strike Tuesday morning, bringing an immediate halt to the production of some television shows and possibly delaying the start of new seasons of others later this year.

WGA is demanding a host of changes from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), from an increase in pay to receiving clear guidelines around working with streaming services. But as part of their demands, the WGA is also fighting to protect their livelihoods from AI.

In a proposal published on WGA’s website this week, the labor union said AI should be regulated so it “can’t write or rewrite literary material, can’t be used as source material” and that writers’ work “can’t be used to train AI.”

August said the AI demand “was one of the last things” added to the WGA list, but that it’s “clearly an issue writers are concerned about” and need to address now rather than when their contact is up again in three years. By then, he said, “it may be too late.”

WGA said the proposal was rejected by AMPTP, which countered by offering annual meetings to discuss advancements in the technology. August said AMPTP’s response shows they want to keep their options open.

In a document sent to CNN responding to some of WGA’s asks, AMPTP said it values the work of creatives and “the best stories are original, insightful and often come from people’s own experiences.”

“AI raises hard, important creative and legal questions for everyone,” it wrote. “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. So it’s something that requires a lot more discussion, which we’ve committed to doing.”

It added that the current WGA agreement defines a “writer” as a “person,” and said “AI-generated material would not be eligible for writing credit.”

The writers’ attempt at bargaining over AI is perhaps the most high-profile labor battle yet to address concerns about the cutting-edge technology that has captivated the world’s attention in the six months since the public release of ChatGPT.

Goldman Sachs economists estimate that as many as 300 million full-job jobs globally could be automated in some way by the newest wave of AI. White-collar workers, including those in administrative and legal roles, are expected to be the most affected. And the impact may hit sooner than some think: IBM’s CEO recently suggested AI could eliminate the need for thousands of jobs at his company alone in the next five years.

David Gunkel, a professor at the department of communications at Northern Illinois University who tracks AI in media and entertainment, said screenwriters want clear guidelines around AI because “they can see the writing on the wall.”

“AI is already displacing human labor in many other areas of content creation—copywriting, journalism, SEO writing, and so on,” he said. “The WGA is simply trying to get out-in-front of and to protect their members against … ‘technological unemployment.'”

While film and TV writers in Hollywood may currently be leading the charge, professionals in other industries will almost certainly be paying attention.

“There’s certainly other industries that need to be paying close attention to this space,” said Rowan Curran, an analyst at Forrester Research who focuses on AI. He noted that digital artists, musicians, engineers, real estate professionals and customer service workers will all feel the impact of generative AI.

“Watch this #WGA strike carefully,” Justine Bateman, a writer, director and former actress, wrote in a tweet shortly after the strike kicked off. “Understand that our fight is the same fight that is coming to your professional sector next: it’s the devaluing of human effort, skill, and talent in favor of automation and profits.”

AI in film and TV

AI has had a place in Hollywood for years. In the 2018 “Marvel Avengers Infinity Wars” film, the face of Thanos — a character played by actor Josh Brolin — was created in part with the technology.

Crowd and battle scenes in films including the “Lord of the Rings” and “Meg” have utilized AI, and the most recent Indiana Jones used it to make Harrison Ford’s character appear younger. It’s also been used for color correction, finding footage more quickly during post production and making improvements such as removing scratches and dust from footage.

But AI in screenwriting is in its infancy. In March, a “South Park” episode called “Deep Learning,” was co-written by ChatGPT and the tool was highly focused on in the plot (the characters use ChatGPT to talk to girls and write school papers).

August said writers are largely willing to play ball with tools, as long as they’re used as launching pads or for research and writers are still credited and utilized throughout the production process.

“Screenwriters are not luddites, and we’ve been quick to use new technologies to help us tell our stories,” August said. “We went from typewriters to word processors happily and it increased productivity. …. But we don’t need a magical typewriter that types scripts all by itself.”

Because large language models are trained on text that humans have written before, and find patterns in words and sentences to create responses to prompts, concerns around intellectual property exist, too. “It is entirely possible for a [chatbot] to generate a script in the style of a particular kind of filmmaker or scriptwriter without prior consent of the original artist or the Hollywood studio that holds the IP for that material,” Gunkel said.

For example, one could prompt ChatGPT to generate a zombie apocalypse drama in the style of David Mamet. “Who should get credited for that?” August said. “What happens if we allow a producer or studio executive to come up with a treatment or pitch or something that looks like a screenplay that no writer has touched?”

For now, the legal landscape remains very much unsettled on the matter, with regulations lagging behind the rapid pace of AI development. In early April, the Biden administration said it is seeking public comments on how to hold artificial intelligence systems like ChatGPT accountable.

“We can’t protect studios from their own bad choices,” August said. “We can only protect writers from abuses.”

Can AI cross the picket line?

The strike, and the demands around AI specifically, come at a time when both the writers and the studios are feeling financial pain.

Many of the businesses represented by AMPTP have seen drops in their stock price, prompting deep cost cutting, including layoffs. The need to manage costs, combined with addressing the fallout from the strike, might only make the companies feel more pressure to turn to AI for scriptwriting.

“In the short term, this could be an effective way to circumvent the WGA strike, mainly because [large language models], which are considered property and not personnel, can be employed for this task without violating the picket line,” Gunkel said. Such an “experiment” could also show production studios whether it’s possible “to get by with less humans involved,” he said.

But Joshua Glick, a visiting professor of film and electronic arts at Bard University, believes such a move would be ill-advised.

“It would be a pretty aggressive and antagonistic move for studios to move forward with AI-generated scripts in terms of getting writers to come to the negotiating table because AI is such a crucial sticking point in the negotiations,” said Glick, who also co-created Deepfake: Unstable Evidence on Screen, an exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.

“At the same time, I think the result of those scripts would be pretty mediocre at best,” he said.

However the studios react, the issue is unlikely to go away in Hollywood. Film and TV actors’ contracts are up in June, and many are worried about how their faces, bodies and voices will be impacted by AI, August said.

“As writers, we don’t want tools to replace us but actors have the same concerns with AI, as do directors, editors and everyone else who does creative work in this industry,” he added.

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