Hollywood writers and studios battle over future of AI as US writers strike enters third week

CBS News reports writers and studios are both entrenched in their positions, making little headway in negotiations.

CBS News reports writers and studios are both entrenched in their positions, making little headway in negotiations. Photo: Getty

As the US writers strike over wages and conditions enters its third week, a crucial sticking point in negotiations for writers is how to prevent studios from using artificial intelligence (AI) to generate new scripts from their work.

Or, asking them to rewrite – or humanise – material created by AI.

“Everyone is playing with AI, from studio heads to PA’s [production assistants] … [and] the barriers to entry around training a large language model on existing scripts is super low,” says Queensland University of Technology senior creative industries lecturer Dr Ruari Elkington.

He cites a recent example of the hugely popular US sitcom Seinfeld, which has been transformed into an animated and AI-generation parody, Nothing Forever, and broadcast as a livestream.

And he questions whether the 236 episodes of Friends (across 10 seasons) haven’t fallen into the realm of a machine which doesn’t need a break.

“I don’t have access to those scripts, but I would be very surprised if someone has not done the work already of training an AI on them and seeing what’s pumped out.

“No doubt it’s not great! But the question we should be asking is, ‘is it good enough?’. Is it enough so that instead of staffing a writers room with 12 you can employ three staff writers who use AI generated scripts as a jumping-off point to polish and refine?”, he tells The New Daily.

Dr Ellkington, who raised the AI issue as a major concern ahead of the May 4 strike action by the Writers Guild of America, said “this scenario would be very alive in the minds of the WGA.

“But there’s several ethical and legal hurdles that stand in the way of that action being taken and scripts being produced in this way.”


Do we really want to mess with Friends? Photo: AAP

AI is already here

The AI dispute is one of several issues that led Hollywood’s film and TV writers to strike on May 4, marking the first work stoppage in 15 years.

In the Writers Guild of America’s summary of negotiating points, many of which focus on improving compensation in the streaming era, the debate over AI’s role in the creative process will determine the future of entertainment for decades to come.

One screenwriter, John Augus, who is also a member of the WGA negotiating committee, told Reuters writers have two concerns regarding AI.

“We don’t want our material feeding them, and we also don’t want to be fixing their sloppy first drafts,” he said.

The strike has hit Hollywood studios at a challenging time, with conglomerates under pressure from Wall Street to make their streaming services profitable after pumping billions of dollars into programming to attract subscribers.

The rise of streaming has eroded television ad revenue as traditional TV audiences shrink.

The last WGA strike in 2007 and 2008 lasted 100 days. The action cost the California economy an estimated $US2.1 billion ($3.1 billion) as productions shut down and out-of-work writers, actors and producers cut back spending.

AI is already here, but not everyone sees it as a clear and present danger.

It’s helping to erase wrinkles from an ageing performer’s face – think Harrison Ford and Robert de Niro – it’s helped clean up an actor’s liberal use of f-bombs and drawn animated short films with the aid of OpenAI’s Dall-E, which can create realistic images, notes Reuters.

And some writers are already experimenting with creating scripts.

The Wrap reported Disney boss Bob Iger as being “bullish” about AI prospects, and saying “developments represent some pretty interesting opportunities for us.”

“In fact, we’re already starting to use AI to create some efficiencies and ultimately to better serve consumers.”

The last episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s sitcom aired 25 years ago. He was in charge of writing, producing and directing. He acknowledged Nothing, Forever, in a since-deleted tweet. Photo: AAP

Hollywood studios on the other side of the negotiating table include companies such as Walt Disney Studios and Warner Bros. Studios, along with streaming services such as Netflix, Apple TV+ and Amazon Prime Video, according to New Scientist, which have offered “to hold annual meetings to discuss new technological changes”.

“This is a pretty weak commitment – the writers would have little power in those discussions to influence how the technologies are used,” says  says Virginia Doellgast of Cornell University in New York.

“The studios don’t want to negotiate hard limits on how they will use AI.”

Mike Seymour, co-founder of Motus Lab at University of Sydney’s School of Business, who has a background in visual effects and artificial intelligence and has consulted with several studios, tells TND the new frontier is already here.

“Of course studios are using AI,” he says.

“But this goes to the heart of the issue – there is not one ‘AI’ … we use machine learning – a common form of AI in many ways already in the film industry.

“It is widely used in visual effects and a host of other areas. It is not the dominant tool in VFX, editing or writing but it is absolutely being used, since it is already such a widely used technology.”

Even after AI pumps out a storyline, we still need humans. Photo: Getty

‘Plagiarism machines’

During the first week of the strike, WGA chief negotiator Ellen Stutzman said some members already had another term for AI: “plagiarism machines.”

“We have made a reasonable proposal that the company should keep AI out of the business of writing television and movies and not try and replace writers,” she said, as per the Reuters report.

“In the strict sense it is not plagiarism,” says Dr Seymour, “which is taking someone else’s work and passing them off as your own”.

“It is, however, derivative. It is something that the WGA should be concerned about and should be as a union fighting to have resolved for its members but it is not, in my opinion ‘plagiarism’”.

A tool, not an oracle

He explains that AI systems “work by inferring a new plausible version of something in the style of something it has trained on” and should be used as a tool, not seen as a writer: “It is not reproducing things, or directly quoting them”.

Adds Dr Elkington: “It’s a somewhat alarmist label, I’m not sure it’s helpful in his debate. Neither is it wholly accurate.

“Livelihoods are potentially at stake here, bearing in mind that only a small subset of the 20,000 members of the WGA will earn a full-time living from their writing, and people are scared.

“Add that fear to a lack of any deep understanding about AI, a deep misunderstanding nearly all of us share, and you have a good recipe for the kind of labels like ‘plagiarism machine’ which is clearly a loaded and negative term.

“AI is here to stay.

“The genie is out of the bottle and it’s not going back in. Writers can’t write it back in either, but they can stop thinking about AI as an active enemy machine and more a tool they can use to overcome the ‘tyranny of the blank page’, if they are willing to take the time and play with it.

“The fact that they need to work with, rather than ban AI from Hollywood, is to my mind incontrovertible.”

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