Hollywood Strike: Writers Demand More Pay, New Limits on ChatGPT
Their last strike previewed the struggles of the streaming era. This one might be giving us an early taste of the age of artificial intelligence.
Thousands of television and movie writers represented by the union Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike yesterday. It's the first big Hollywood walkout since 2007, when some 12,000 members stopped working for 100 days.
Today's strikers are demanding higher pay, plus minimum numbers of writers staffing writers' rooms (called "mandatory staffing" by studios and "preserving the writers' room" by the union). On a less familiar note, they're demanding that use of artificial intelligence in the production of "literary materials"—scripts, treatments, outlines—be restricted, whether that A.I. is used to write works or to generate story ideas.
Though WGA writers make, on average, an eye-popping $250,000 a year, the structure of writers' rooms is such that most creatives go through boom and bust times. Those checks that come in while working on a 10-episode TV season must also sustain them during long droughts.
Residuals—payments from reuse of material, be that syndicated reruns or in-flight entertainment—used to help writers withstand those droughts. But in the streaming era, which pays residuals at a much lower rate, many writers say they're feeling a squeeze. (The WGA secured residuals from streaming in the 2007 negotiations, but not at the same rate they were used to from cable and network TV.)
"I do worry that some of my fellow writers—especially younger ones who joined during the streaming-driven boom years, when the number of writers in the W.G.A. reporting earnings grew from 4,500 to more than 6,000—have unrealistic ideas about what a successful negotiation can accomplish," writes Zack Stentz, Thor and X-Men screenwriter, in The New York Times. "No contract can bring back the 1990s model of shows that ran 22-episode seasons for eight years, or fully reinflate the 2010s streaming bubble. Whether we win concessions from the studios at the bargaining table or even through a strike, the brutal reality remains that, going forward, there will likely be fewer well-paying jobs in a volatile industry that may force us to hustle for work more than ever."
The WGA strike will likely have far-reaching consequences, possibly even beyond the unthinkably awful storylines that came out of '07. Whether the union can secure its A.I. moratorium or not, ChatGPT and its kin are likely to change the industry in some way—if not wholly replacing writers then becoming subsidiary to them, to be used as a tool for generating ideas or sketching out a first draft.
"Early on in the conversations with the guild, we talked about what I call the Nora Ephron problem," John August, a screenwriter who is on the union negotiating committee, told The New York Times. "Which is basically: What happens if you feed all of Nora Ephron's scripts into a system and generate an A.I. that can create a Nora Ephron-sounding script?"
What happens, of course, is that then you have more Nora Ephron–esque movies, of varying quality (just as Ephron's existing ones are). Not everything can be When Harry Met Sally, after all; some have to be Heartburn.
"I'm not against writers using A.I. on their own as a tool, like any number of screenwriting tools in the past. If a writer wants to put something into an A.I. to break writers block or experiment with the shape of a scene, that's their choice," says C. Robert Cargill, who wrote Doctor Strange and Sinister. "What I don't want to see is producers or executive using an A.I. to replace a writer, then pay previously negotiated rewrite or polish rates for what will amount to the real heavy lifting to make it sound like a human wrote it."
It's an open question whether A.I. will be used to break writers' rooms or will be more of a work-enhancement tool available for the taking. When Reason needs a voiceover from me for a video, for example, we use an A.I. version as a placeholder during the editing process, which allows me to save time by recording fewer versions. My colleagues use the synthetic voice early on, while I record a higher-quality one later on, after any kinks have been worked out. I have also asked ChatGPT to generate headlines, which I use as a jumping-off point to yield better ones. Even if WGA can secure the protection from artificial intelligence its members say they need, new non-union competitors will surely enter the marketplace at some point, using A.I. tools to their advantage. The initial product might be bad, but it's not destined to stay subpar forever.
For now, ChatGPT is, as Ted Chiang put it in The New Yorker, a "blurry JPEG of the web," prone to hallucinating facts. It's "like a puppy" that "wants to make you happy," venture capitalist Marc Andreessen told Reason in February. "It will start making up names and dates and historical events that never happened." For the time being at least, it needs a high degree of human supervision.
But there's no stopping it, just as there was no stopping the switch to streaming during the '07 strike. Though some industries have used unions to fight for human supervision of technology—three pilots are still needed for long-haul flights, even though planes mostly fly themselves—artificially locking in an incumbent industry won't work in the long run.
"The issue with A.I. is that the real heavy lifting in writing isn't the time to write a basic scene," says Cargill. "It's all the magic you find in that scene that doesn't happen by accident or weaves together with the rest of the story."
Cargill supports the strike, and he worries that ChatGPT will replace not just bad writers but talented writers who are young and just trying to break into a highly competitive industry.
"We're a very small group as is. Cutting that down further will only lead to a more monotone voice coming out of Hollywood, rather than fresh, interesting, and diverse voices," he says. "You think Hollywood feels samey now? Wait until it's just the same 100 people rewriting ChatGPT."
If the big studios go too far in that direction, of course, it could open up more space for upstart competitors who might use A.I. sometimes but make sure to keep a creative human being in the driver's seat.