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Hollywood writers went on strike Tuesday over a host of issues, but AI’s threat to scribes and to the entire creative community is high up top. Perhaps it’s not even high enough. AI’s threat to WGA members and all writers is downright existential. This is no hyperbole. I’m not the boy who cried bot. BuzzFeed’s cautionary tale tells us that.
Among the WGA’s demands was a stipulation that studios “regulate use of material produced using artificial intelligence or similar technologies.” More specifically, the WGA demanded that “literary material” can’t be generated by AI. Only its human members, not ChatGPT, can be credited with writing a screenplay, a position that’s consistent with the U.S. Copyright Office and its current view that AI-only generated works can’t be copyrighted. The studios brushed off this proposal, offering nonbinding annual talks about tech instead.
Geoffrey Hinton is one of AI’s foremost voices, widely known as “The Godfather of AI.” He just quit his post at Google. In a fresh interview with the New York Times, Hinton warned that entire categories of jobs would be upended. “Look at how [AI] was five years ago and how it is now,” he told the Times. “Take the difference and propagate it forwards. That’s scary.”
BuzzFeed’s writers, without the protections the WGA sought for its members, are living in that future. The company, which once sought a $1.5 billion public-market valuation but now trades at about $75 million, showed with its clumsy gyrations to embrace disruption exactly why the seismic new threat of AI should matter to creatives. In April, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti shuttered its entire Pulitzer Prize-winning news division, citing the continued transformation of digital media economics. Although undoubtedly true, hiding in plain sight was something more immediate — and that’s Peretti’s obsession with AI.
It was only this past January that Peretti jumped on that AI train and put it into full throttle. His embrace of AI temporarily boosted the company’s battered stock as he declared his ambition to transform the company into the “premier platform for AI-powered content.” Investors cheered the news, but BuzzFeed’s writers certainly did not, and they angrily sought clarification from Peretti about what this new artificially induced strategy would mean for their livelihoods.
In March, Peretti tried to calm those waters. “The place where I’m most excited about AI is not in news, but in entertainment,” he told TheWrap. He bristled at the notion that he had any intention of using AI to transform his human-powered news organization. In fact, he cautioned that AI-produced news, trained on the both real and fake news populating the internet, could lead to “writing articles about events that never happened.” And then fast forward to last week’s dismantling of the newsroom.
Of course, Peretti didn’t refer to AI as being the culprit when he announced that he could “no longer continue to fund BuzzFeed News as a standalone organization.” The layoff announcement dutifully insisted that “no jobs are being replaced by AI.” Instead, he linked the move to earlier “overinvestment” in the division and a strategic shift to BuzzFeed Inc.’s profitable HuffPost news brand “that is less dependent on social platforms.”
Nevertheless, the timing of all of these developments doesn’t require a writer on the level of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to have Sherlock Holmes proclaim, “Elementary, my dear Watson!”
Let’s return to Hollywood’s writers. It’s understandable that they would seek to reposition the economic pieces of Hollywood’s tech-transformed new world order. There are streaming payments and mini-rooms, both of which relate to the rise of new media that was barely imaginable around the time of the last strike in 2007-2008.
But it’s significant that AI is a major issue now. Writers understandably felt burned from the last strike, which ended with the WGA granting significant concessions to what was then called “new media.” This time, the guild aimed to get ahead of new technology. As TheWrap’s Jeremy Fuster recently wrote, “the WGA is looking to cut off any chance of a studio using ChatGPT or similar software to make a screenplay.”
In a very different world, BuzzFeed’s Peretti wrote that “news is the heart and soul of any great media company.”
BuzzFeed’s newsroom just lost that heart and soul. To be clear, I’m not painting Peretti as the villain here: New tech and new behaviors that emerge from it are what’s upended industry economics. But it definitely raises the question of whether human-generated Hollywood screenplays are next.
The final terms in any settlement will be crucial, since we are in the earliest innings of the AI revolution. Let’s not forget that ChatGPT was unleashed into a largely unsuspecting world only five months ago. Even the savviest of AI insiders don’t even know how exactly ChatGPT churns out the precise words it spits onto a page, or where human versus artificial creativity goes from here.
But when I ask my Magic 8-Ball whether AI will significantly impact, even transform Hollywood, it responds, “Signs point to yes.”
For all of TheWrap’s coverage of the 2023 WGA Strike, click here.