“I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process,” says Griffin Mill, the fictional studio executive in Robert Altman and Michael Tolkin’s 1992 satirical thriller, The Player. Tim Robbins, who plays Mill, delivers the line wistfully, imagining a Hollywood without all the creative mess of dealing with creative people. Mill, who might be the chairman of a streaming platform today (or ex-chairman, after a sexting scandal involving an employee he could not murder), and his real-life counterparts, are on the cusp of that dream.
Artificial intelligence, AI, is here: the technological tool that allows computers to collaborate with humans and generate a great deal of functional writing—now including scripts for movies and television. The fear—or hope, depending on side of the desk you sit on—is that AI can replace writers and undermine their fees. One of the key sticking points in the Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike that began on May 1 at midnight, when the prior contract ran out, is the WGA’s insistence on regulating AI. On the other side of the table, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) counters that any such demand is a nonstarter. Given that this is the age of the disappearing movie star and how close we are to having actors be replaced by animation, motion-capture, and deep-fake audio-voicing, it’s crucial for the WGA to stand its ground in support of human creative work performed by actual humans.
There are other issues worth going on strike for too. In the past decade, the television industry has gone through radical changes. As plenty of reports have shown, many of the so-called Hollywood elites who populate the industry’s writers’ rooms and create and perpetuate TV shows cannot afford a middle-class existence. The streamers also offer no viewer numbers—a practice that translates into the wage-suppressing collusion found in any industry cartel. Residuals for TV and movie writers are based on the success of the work, but if a streamer refuses to release those numbers, writers can’t fairly assess what they are fairly owed.
AI represents an existential threat to the entertainment industry as we know it, and the WGA is correct to insist on demanding control over its usage. Networks and studios have a terrible track record with tech. The studios had a $16.9 billion market in DVDs and home video in 2008, but lost 86 percent of it in the first decade of streaming because they did not understand this new technology. In the entertainment sector, change happens fast. Sound movies replaced silent film in the space of a few years; television did the same to network radio; and streaming has wiped out billions in artists’ income and studio financing for more movies.
Historically, in all of these tech transitions, the corporations pursued a scorched-earth policy that left in the dust whole generations of artists and technicians and the culture they created. It kept the companies in business—but only them. In the current tech reversal—which has streamers supplanting the older studio infrastructure—a prime casualty has been the mid-budget movie. That level of financing supported creative ambition and craftsmanship, while enabling filmmakers to make a living and studios to take risks in pursuit of new audiences—all because DVD sales provided these movies with a safety net.
Today, the mid-budget film has nearly gone the way of the silent movie and the radio drama. Bloated franchise product or tiny indies crafted largely for awards season are your main choices. The studios’ mismanagement of streaming lost themselves, the WGA, the Directors Guild of America, and the Screen Actors Guild billions in residuals and profits. Understandably, the WGA does not want to sit idly by while the producers Mr. Magoo their way through another tech revolution.
Within proposed WGA guidelines, writers on their own could use AI as a tool but studios could not. It’s not a surprise that studios want to cut down on the costly, sometimes years-long, process of developing a project until they feel comfortable filming it. It’s exhausting on this end, too. Discovery, research and development—the long creative avenues you wander down until there’s a script that comes to production—all take time and money, and often mean paying more than one writer. Writers talk back; writers miss deadlines; writers want lunch.
So do creative executives. The WGA will get some or total regulatory control of AI to protect its members. But who will keep AI from taking the jobs of the layers of studio employees? If ChatGPT can write a script, you can give it an industry algorithm to develop and edit one with typical studio notes. “The last three zombie movies lost money. Make it vampires.” “Don’t mention Tibet.” “Too many expensive French locations. Make it Calabasas.” “Make it funnier.” How will AI know if it’s actually funnier or not? Well, ask a comedy writer how many human executives can tell the difference now.
After a studio acquires a literary property, a human executive works with the writers to shape and structure the story to reach the point where a studio wants to film it. It can be a great collaboration or an ulcer-inducing struggle, but it’s not like making a script conform to past box office numbers, genre, or franchise fan expectations requires all that much human instinct. Network and movie studio models are often the most predictable aspect of writing. They had horror and war movies in the 1930s, and they have them now. AI’s replacing the development executive seems much more likely than a drive to fully automate Hollywood’s creative talent.
The writer will always be facing the same fundamental issue: How much of what the company wants do you want to put into the script? Considering the enormous stock options, severance packages, out-of-court harassment settlements, and exorbitant bonuses some executives get—not to mention lunches at far more expensive restaurants than writers can frequent—AI looks like a studio shareholder’s best friend.
Yes, it might mean that smart, nice people will get laid off. Too bad they didn’t have a union. But it’s like Griffin Mill says when his ex-girlfriend and studio mentee Bonnie gets fired. “You’ll land on your feet. I know it.”