Could This AI Loophole Be the Existential Threat to Filmmaking We’ve All Feared? (Commentary)

Writer-director Daniel Adams can’t help but wonder how profit-seeking studios may side-step new union restrictions

Human vs. Robot: Robot and young woman face to face.
Credit: Getty Images

I proudly voted “yes” for the new WGA Minimum Basic Agreement. It is an immense achievement, and Ellen Stutzman, Chris Keyser, David Goodman and the rest of the negotiating committee should take well-deserved bows. 

Regarding artificial intelligence, the WGA negotiated a smart, forward-thinking set of guardrails for guild members even though the technology is still sorting  itself out and very few can predict its ultimate manifestation. 

But given the powerful nature of AI and its potential to save the studios countless millions, I can’t help but wonder how these profit-seeking monoliths will side-step the new restrictions in the years to come as the technology improves. 

By looking back at a particular experience of my own, I think I know of one way they can. 

I cite this story as a warning to both my guilds, the WGA and DGA, as well as IATSE and Teamsters as they negotiate future contracts and SAG-AFTRA as the actors union is hopefully nearing a deal of its own after over 100 days on strike. Thirty years ago, I was making my second movie, which I wrote and directed. I was young, guileless and trusting — and not yet a member of any guild. But I wanted to be. 

I made my intentions known to the producers, and — stop me, my fellow indie filmmakers, if you’ve heard this knee-jerk reaction before — they said they couldn’t afford to pay guild rates and fees, and if I insisted on joining, I would be replaced. And so, I meekly agreed to put off my guild memberships for another day. 

That film was financed through a “negative pick-up deal” and was consequently distributed through a major studio. That studio was, of course, a signatory to the guilds, but because of my nonunion status at the time, I was excluded from future residuals, health and other benefits afforded guild members. That’s because the studio was not the producer. It was simply buying a finished “product” and no WGA and DGA “assumption” agreement was necessary because it was, apart from SAG, a nonunion film. 

All the production company had to do was indemnify the studio against future guild claims, which it was more than willing to do. 

Many indie films are still made this way, and they get distributed through companies that if they had been produced by those companies themselves, would have otherwise been subject to guild rules.

Let’s now assume that sometime in the future, when the technology is advanced enough, an independent production company, that is not a signatory to any guild, makes a film that is wholly generated by an AI. And let’s say the AI is an “ethical” AI that can source the works from which it derived its new creation, and the proper royalties are paid accordingly to avoid copyright issues. They haven’t employed any writers, actors, crew or a director. And they are not in violation of any MBA from any guild because they never signed one. 

What is to stop a distributor from buying that film after it is completed, or even in advance through a negative pick-up? 

I put the question to a very well-respected and well-known entertainment attorney who wishes to remain anonymous because his client list includes both corporate and creative types. His answer, though, was plain: Nothing can stop them. 

Currently, semi-nonunion films are an exception in our business, a cottage industry at best. That’s because if a producer wants a great film, it needs talented people. And those individuals are, more than likely, guild members. 

But why can’t this tiny subclass in the movie business be exploited such that it becomes a giant loophole through which the majors can distribute AI generated films without having to deal with those annoying guilds and all the added expenses that come with them? I can’t think of a solution to this existential threat to filmmakers other than, in future negotiations, the guilds insist that the companies be prohibited from purchasing wholly AI-generated films from independent, non-signatory producers. 

But that’s a heavy lift, even for the likes of the mighty negotiators currently at the WGA and SAG-AFTRA. 

In my opinion, it’s something we should all be thinking about. Now. Because the longer we wait, the more irrelevant will be the guilds to the companies.

Comments

One response to “Could This AI Loophole Be the Existential Threat to Filmmaking We’ve All Feared? (Commentary)”

  1. Pay your crew Avatar
    Pay your crew

    Dan is a convicted felon for film incentive violations and has numerous union violations for mistreatment and failing to pay the crew. Why is he given any voice here? 

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