The Writers Guild of America (WGA) is striking against studios in pursuit of a new contract that lets writers participate more fully in the industry. The central disagreements are about economics, but the issue that has captured the most public attention is the threat posed by so-called artificial intelligence—products like ChatGPT—to the livelihood of creative professionals, including writers.
ChatGPT is a generative AI program that has been trained on a massive corpus of text to predict the word or words that should follow a text prompt or word string. It is not intelligent, though its user interface has been designed to create that illusion.
Studios perceive that generative AI is a tool they can use against writers. Some kinds of programming can be formulaic—awards shows and sitcoms, for example—which encourages writers to mimic scripts that have been successful in the past. In theory, a well-constructed generative AI could provide a first draft of such a script. But studio executives have gone one step further, imagining that products like ChatGPT will transform the writing process for everything from awards shows to feature films. Studios see this as both a potential cost savings and a way to convert script writing from copyrightable work to work for hire.
It is almost certain that they will embrace generative AI, even if it produces nothing but junk, which is what they will get. They have drunk the Kool-Aid poured by Silicon Valley’s hype merchants.
My experience working in Hollywood—as a consultant on Silicon Valley for five seasons and through involvement in documentaries like The Facebook Dilemma, The Social Dilemma, and The Great Hack—has led me to believe that if studios are smart, they will understand that their interests are aligned with those of writers, directors, and all creative people. Silicon Valley is coming for their profit margin.
CEOs believe that generative AI will reduce their labor costs. What they are missing is that Silicon Valley plans to use AI to do to Hollywood what it did to news and music. Silicon Valley’s bait-and-switch tactics follow a pattern that Cory Doctorow, writing about social media, refers to as “enshittification.” Social media platforms offer benefits to users until they are hooked, then they “enshittify” the product to appeal to advertisers. Once advertisers are on board, platforms “enshittify” their experience, as well as that of users, to extract maximum value. They perfected the game plan at Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, SnapChat, and TikTok and are now extending it outside of social media.
We see this in video streaming technology, the first step in a siege against Hollywood. As Big Tech always does, it baited the trap with short-term benefits, such as an increased investment in programming, which emerged in the form of a golden age of high-quality, limited run series. Streaming caused an explosion in the number of shows, but each show had many fewer episodes, which meant writers would only be employed for eight or 10 weeks at a time. In addition, streaming undercut television syndication, which had been a big source of income for writers. Streaming’s touted benefits have eroded rapidly over the past two years as studios have entered the streaming market, saturating consumer demand and forcing all involved to cut costs.
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Now, generative AI is the potential kill shot, the one that could cause copyright owners to surrender their library of scripts, created over decades, in exchange for promised benefits that will never arrive.
When it comes to generative AI and video, Silicon Valley only needs to hook one constituency— Hollywood executives. Once studios buy in, they will be at the mercy of the purveyors of that technology. It happened in journalism. It happened in music. Silicon Valley did not kill those industries, but it gained control of the audience and extracted a huge percentage of the potential profits. For studio executives, generative AI is an intelligence test.
The best path forward is for studios and writers to acknowledge four realities.
First, generative AI will eventually be a valuable tool in some creative realms, potentially including script writing, but only if the AI has been built from the ground up for that task.
Second, the flaws of today’s generative AIs make them unsuitable for serious work, especially in creative fields. General purpose AIs, like ChatGPT, are trained on whatever content the creator can steal on the internet, which means their output often consists of nonsense dressed up to appear authoritative. The best they can do is imitate their training set. These AIs will never be any good at creating draft scripts—even of the most formulaic programming—unless their training set includes a giant library of Hollywood scripts.
Third, Silicon Valley is the common enemy of studios and writers. It is an illusion that studios can partner with AI companies to squeeze writers without being harmed themselves. Silicon Valley is using a potential reduction in writer compensation as the bait in a trap where the target is studio profits.
Fourth, there is no reason Hollywood cannot create its own generative AI to compete with ChatGPT. Studios and writers control the intellectual property needed to make a great AI. A generative AI that is trained on every script contributed by a single studio or collection of studios would produce wildly better scripts than ChatGPT. Would it produce the next Casablanca? No. But it could produce an excellent first draft of an Emmy Awards show script. And it would safeguard the business model of Hollywood for the next generation.
If studios work separately or together to create AI they control, the future of Hollywood will be much brighter. Central to this fourth point is a legal strategy of copyright infringement litigation against the major players in generative AI. If copyright is to mean anything at all, Hollywood must challenge Silicon Valley’s assertion of the right to “permissionless innovation,” which has become a safe harbor for law-breaking in domains ranging from consumer safety to public health to copyright.
Some might say that Hollywood does not have the ability to “do technology.” That is ridiculous. Pixar, Weta Digital, and the CGI special effects industry demonstrate that Hollywood can not only master technology, but also innovate in it.
There are many open source architectures for generative AI. Studios and the WGA can license them cheaply and hire a handful of engineers to train their own AI. It will take many years, but copyright litigation will buy the industry the time it needs, and it may even become a giant profit center.
There are serious issues to be resolved between the writers and studios. AI is part of the negotiation, but it is substantively different from the other issues on the table. The tech industry wants to use generative AI to extract profits from film and television, just as it has done in other categories of media. The question is whether studios will repeat the mistakes of journalism and music.