The Hollywood Writers’ Strike May Actually Be Aiding AI’s Takeover

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Studios are already experimenting with tools to generate text. And with human scribes on the picket lines, they have little to lose

AI vs writers' strike
How close is AI to replacing Hollywood writers? (Christopher Smith/TheWrap)

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Artificial intelligence isn’t coming for Hollywood: It’s already here.

Striking writers have their bot replacements clearly in sight, with signs saying “AI could never,” “AI has no soul” and “AI this sign wrote.” The studios, for their part, have shown little willingness to negotiate, offering only annual discussions about emerging technology in their counterproposals to the Writers Guild. But AI is already being incorporated into some entertainment processes. And while some believe its best use is as a tool for writers, experts say the longer the writers’ strike lasts, the more studios will be tempted to expand the use of AI into the writing process.

“A failure to reach some kind of agreement right now about the AI elephant in the room doubly decimates writers,” said Peter Csathy, chairman of advisory firm Creative Media. “Not only are they out of work right now, but the strike likely will accelerate AI’s adoption in Hollywood.”

Csathy, who writes a column for TheWrap, pointed out that studio executives are at once “tempted by the headlines of AI’s power and squeezed by Wall Street’s downward cost pressures.”

That’s not speculation, that’s reality. Disney CEO Bob Iger told analysts Wednesday that his company was “starting to use AI to create some efficiencies.” Paramount CFO Naveen Chopra got more specific, saying on that company’s quarterly earnings call this month that the company was using AI for “content localization.” BuzzFeed got a stock bump when CEO Jonah Peretti announced its AI plans this spring.

Chatbots aren’t quite spitting up scripts from scratch yet, though DeepMind’s Dramatron comes close. But they are streamlining some aspects of the creative process, like boiling down a script into a pitch or logline.

Some writers are less concerned about using AI and more about being used by AI. The large language models used by generative AI systems train themselves by ingesting massive amounts of content, analyzing it and then attempting to replicate the patterns they detect in it. That means elements of copyrighted works could easily get mixed into the output.

“Currently, there is nothing protecting copyrighted material from being analyzed,” said Daril Fannin, a WGA member and founder of the Web3 film-financing startup Kino. He suggested that a producer could feed copyrighted material into a system, change the name of the show and the characters, and “pass the AI spinoff as a completely original work.”

Yet AI and copyright is a legal frontier where little is settled: Right now, the U.S. Copyright Office won’t accept purely AI-generated works and is asking copyright registrants to disclose any use of AI in a work’s creation. Without the protection of copyright, it’s not clear studios will want to back IP of questionable provenance, a point writers have raised in their protests.

Fannin said he knew a producer who’d tinkered with ChatGPT to produce a pitch, spawning a complete pitch deck with sample episodes and all the garnishes in just a few hours. Screenwriter Marc Guggenheim recently told TheWrap he’d heard a similar anecdote about a studio executive using AI to generate a pitch for a franchise sequel.

Lots of growing pains

The striking writers aren’t just concerned about the prospect of wholesale replacement. They also worry about getting AI “assistance,” which some think will mean getting pulled in to rewrite rough drafts spat out by a computer, leaving them both financially and creatively poorer.

Gartner analyst Whit Andrews, however, thinks AI-generated scripts are inevitable: “We are now at a place where the million monkeys with a typewriter are getting good at it.”

He cited a recent positive experience with AI when he was trying to write a museum label: The AI failed to write it for him, but excelled at giving him a template with the correct formatting, allowing him to fill in the blanks.

Andrews believes AI will never be a full-on substitute for creative minds, but will instead become another tool in the writer’s toolbox. The increased productivity brought on by AI may mean some writers end up leaving the business, but that’s the result of any radical shift to an occupation. For those who remain, AI could very well be a helpful assistant.

Fannin brought up a similar point. “Of course, it takes a creative individual to interface with the AI, so perhaps there is some merit to the idea that AI will become a tool for writers,” he said.

An inevitable development

Is AI friend or foe, tool or weapon? Experts say it’s better to just think of it as a reality, not a hypothetical, that’s already reshuffling the nature of creative work.

Andrews said the writers’ strike could well fuel the ChatGPT fire. If studio execs have no writers and need scripts this month, or next, what’s the game plan? Better to see what the tech can produce (and hope the lawyers sign off). Csathy agreed that the longer the strike lasts, the more attractive a silent, uncontentious robot alternative will look to executives.

AI’s already infiltrated the localization and dubbing spaces, with companies like Deepdub an indication of a growing trend. And some projects are openly embracing AI’s arrival on a creative level, such as OneDoor Studios’ crowdfunded film series that promises to use ChatGPT and other tools for steps like storyboarding and previsualization.

With writers’ rooms empty, AI implementation may move even faster in the short term, driven by relentless advances in technology and increasing cost pressures on Wall Street. It’s understandable that writers might resist AI — but they ultimately might be better off engaging with the new technology to see if they can capture its productivity gains before the suits do.

For all of TheWrap’s WGA Strike coverage, click here.