If news about Hollywood and screenwriting passes your inbox on a regular basis, you probably heard about the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) strike that’s been going on since early May of this year.
While this is not the first such strike to happen in our generation (there was another one back in 1988, and more recently in 2007), it’s certainly the most unique of the three where its demands are concerned.
Some of the demands are standard grievances – a desire for greater compensation for writers, particularly when the residuals from streamers are involved – but the big sticking point this time around seems to be about something else: AI.
Why are writers from the WGA striking about AI?
In March of this year, OpenAI (the folks behind ChatGPT), published a study looking at potential labour market impacts with the adoption of AI. Writers were placed in the category of most likely to be impacted.
In other words, AI will not only greatly impact the way writers do their work but also whether they continue to do their work at all.
These developments haven’t gone unnoticed by the WGA.
It’s not that everyone is worried that screenwriters will be wholesale replaced by AI either (at least not this week).
In it’s current state, Ai cannot produce a workable, original, or even engaging screenplay. Sure, if you prompt it correctly, it can produce something that looks like it, but with about as much life and inventiveness as something a fifth grader might produce for a school play.
Rather, the real sticking point is that writers want to have more say and agency in deciding how and when AI is used in the writing process.
Specifically, the WGA wants a claus in their contract that stipulates that no writer will be required to adapt anything that been output by AI. In other words, that they cannot be contractually obligated to complete or revise some partial screenplay produced by an AI.
What does this mean in practical terms?
Well, take for one that it’s not uncommon for screenwriters to get called in as either ghostwriters or as script doctors to polish up an already or mostly finished piece before it goes to production.
It’s not inconceivable that some unscrupulous studios might try to write the proverbial Shakespeare play out of a room of monkeys – only in this case the monkeys are ChatGPT.
It’s worth noting, therefore, that the WGA isn’t saying they refuse to work with any AI in the writing process – but rather, that the screenwriter can continue to control the production process of their work. Sometimes that might involve using an AI to clean a phrase, find synonyms, or just generate ideas – but it will be the writer’s discretion, and not the studios to decide in what capacity.
How much of a threat is AI to writers?
When this round of negotiations first began, there were clauses about AI brought to the table. However, because of how rapidly these tools advance, the initial concerns seem like the distance past – and because of this, it’s most likely going to be difficult to nail something down on writing that is future proof.
And speaking of the future, how much time do we have before AI has advanced to the point of either doing the bulk of the work or becoming a necessity in any creative process?
Well, it’s hard to say.
A quick Google search for “can AI replace screenwriters” turned up about a million and a half results, showing that it’s a topic a lot of people are wondering (and worrying about).
However, the results are anything but in agreement.
The first place result was from Wired UK, titled “Hollywood’s Screenwriters Are Right to Fear AI“.
Immediately after it, was a piece from TechCrunch titled “AI can’t replace human writers.”
If you only read one headline, you might walk away convinced of one side or the other – but the presence of all these differing viewpoints (not to mention Reddit debates) suggests its very much uncertain.
So what are the facts on AI at this point in time?
- AI cannot at present write a workable screenplay (except maybe as a curiosity … I wouldn’t be surprised if someone produces an AI screenplay as a sort of art house experiment).
- When used as a tool, AI can cut down on the work and hours that go into producing a screenplay.
- It’s also not clear who owns the rights to a script produced by an AI. If ChatGPT turns some prompt into a workable script, would that mean ChatGPT and its owners receive credit and ownership of it when it goes into production?
This might look like screenwriters are safe for the time being, but I suspect looks are deceiving.
Technology advances more rapidly than we suspect. Just look at the image generating apps like Midjourney. A year ago, it took sometimes a dozen rolls to get a workable image. Now, it often produces exactly what you need on the first go.
When ChatGPT and Bard become more fully integrated with the internet and live content, they will only learn so much faster. The time when an AI can produce a workable script might be closer than when we think.
And let’s not forget that studio heads – and the ones holding the wallets for the film and movie industries – are also pushing for this. It’s no secret that most writers are already undervalued for their time and contributions. If writing rooms across the room are already staffed by underpaid and overworked folks, how much greater will their woes be when AI starts sitting at the table?
As a writer myself, I’m not expecting to be competition free any time soon. The web is already filled with bots writing blogs, answering threads on socia media, and producing content that people read daily. I can’t help but feel it’s only a matter of time before we start reading books and watching TV that’s largely produced by AI.
And in case you’re curious what that could be like, an entirely AI driven show already exists on Twitch called Nothing, Forever, as a sort of insanity take on Seinfeld.