When you’re writing a story about an issue that affects a large group of people, whether it’s for a news outlet or a television show, you often pick one person as the anecdotal lead of the tale. That character serves a purpose: to make a specific thesis feel less nebulous and more, dare I say, human. Right now in Hollywood there are some 11,500 humans who could be the lead of this particular story. Writers who have spent their careers holed up in writers rooms or coffee shops, figuring out plots and characters and dialogue and stuffing them into 30- or 60-page scripts. But this past week, those same screenwriters have woken up, donned blue T-shirts that say “Writers Guild of America,” grabbed a red-and-black picket sign, and descended on the sidewalks of one of the big Hollywood studios. Then, as gangly palm trees sway nearby and rivers of cars flow along Los Angeles’s concrete canals, these writers have trudged back and forth on the pavements in front of Paramount Studios and CBS and Disney and Netflix—on strike as screenwriters for television shows and movies for the first time in 15 years.
But in reality, it isn’t just the 11,500 people wearing those blue T-shirts and chanting, “No contract! No content!”—or my personal favorite, “Here’s a pitch: Pay us, Bitch!”—who could be the lead of this story. It’s actually a much larger group; an estimated 375 million people worldwide, to be precise. “What?!” you’re saying. “There aren’t that many writers in Hollywood!” No, there are not. But there are many people who will be affected by what happens with one of the issues at stake between the writers and the studios. (This is where we cue the scary music.)
I’m referring to artificial intelligence. No, no…I know what you’re thinking, not another AI story, but wait! Stop! Keep reading, I promise you this will all make sense momentarily. AI in Hollywood could be a harbinger of what’s to come to everyone—and I mean everyone. It could be the issue that signals what will happen to almost all creative jobs (and many other kinds of white-collar vocations) in the not-too-distant future. That’s because, among the lists of demands the WGA is asking for, which include better pay and larger writers rooms, the most important topic (to me) is the demand that the studios agree not to use AI to write or rewrite stories (though the guild has said it’s okay for writers to use it as a tool). The AMPTP, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the studios and networks, rejected this proposal, saying that the group representing the studios would be open to offering an annual meeting to discuss advancements in technology.
“The writers strike is too easily dismissed as coastal elites protecting their cushy gigs. Instead it should be seen as the first skirmish in a new war, one where more than half of all jobs are at risk as we lose control of language itself—and thus of being human—to large language models,” Paul Kedrosky, an investor and prominent thinker on how AI is going to change society over the next few years, told me when I asked if this is the first true battle in the humans-versus-artificial-intelligence war. “Too many people are trapped in the past, arguing that we have always had to adapt to new technologies. Yes, but we have never been chased by an all-encompassing technology whose DNA is evolving in real time so quickly. Our attempts to stay ahead are charmingly vestigial, like buying expensive carbon plate running shoes to out-run a rocket-powered steamroller.”
The irony of the AI debate is that six months ago, when the WGA and AMPTP were gearing up for these talks and negotiations, AI wasn’t even something they were discussing as part of the demands. ChatGPT was not released until November of last year, and it didn’t really show its true prowess until March 14 of this year—around 50 days ago—when GPT-4, the most advanced version of the platform, was released. And yet, at the end of the day, while all of the other negotiation topics by the WGA are incredibly important to writers—including being paid residuals for popular shows and the elimination of “mini” rooms, where shows are created with a skeleton staff—the requisition to put AI-written scripts at bay could prove to be the most important battle not just for screenwriters, but hundreds of millions around the world—which (most ironically) includes the hundreds of thousands of people who work for the studios the AMPTP is representing.
It isn’t that AI will simply write scripts in the future—it will do everything, and do it in real time. You can imagine a scenario a few years from now, you walk into your living room after a long day (not working because you’re out of a job), plop on the couch, and say to your TV, “Hey, Netflix, make me a 20-minute comedy set in New York in the 1980s starring Marilyn Monroe, The Rock, and Dave Chappelle. Oh, and throw in a few zombies and make one of them my ex-wife.” Your TV will go beepedy-beep-beep-beep and your customized show will begin. An AI has written the script, created AI actors (that look completely real), created an AI score (which sounds like it was written by Max Richter or Hans Zimmer and performed by the Vienna Philharmonic), and generated AI sound effects (you don’t think an AI can fake a broken bone?), and it’s edited, directed, and produced by the same software. (Cue even scarier music…this time, made by an AI.)
Then when you factor in the next era of televisions, which are starting to come with built-in cameras (like the ones in your phone and iPad) which will be able to watch you as you watch them. They’ll see if you’re laughing, or crying, or bored, and will be able to change the content in real time to make sure the show is all you ever asked for.
Now I know what you’re thinking: There’s no way AI could do that. Humans, with their human foibles and human creativity, are the only people capable of telling stories. But what people fail to realize is that AI is using human-written content, with all of its human-backed suffering and empathy, to tell new stories. An AI doesn’t need to have abandonment issues because its parents got divorced when it was 12 years old after its dad cheated on its mom in order to read and analyze every great script, novel, and story ever written about that specific human experience. And if you think an AI couldn’t make the next formulaic largely garbage Marvel movie, or John Wick 17, The Fast and the Furious 839,123, or most recently, The Super Mario Bros. Movie—which, let’s be honest, may have made $1 billion and counting at the box office, but was excruciatingly mimetic of every other video game turned movie—then you may have missed what’s been happening to culture and content over the past 40 years.
But there is a way to stop this from happening. The Directors Guild of America, which represents more than 19,000 directors and directorial team members in Hollywood, is starting its own negotiations with the AMPTP on May 10, which will be followed by the Screen Actors Guild, which represents approximately 160,000 actors, radio hosts, recording artists, singers, and more and begins its own negotiations on June 7. It is especially worth noting that, like the studios themselves, these two unions also risk their representatives being replaced by AI—if you don’t believe me, go and watch AI Mark Zuckerberg talking about scrunching his nose or the completely AI-generated Great Catspy trailer, or even the AI-created RNC attack ad against Biden. There were no directors, actors, grips, or directors of photography used to create that content. Just a few lines of text that an AI turned into video. In other words, everyone is fucked if they don’t all team up and give this story a Hollywood ending.
There are countless companies currently working in the video and film space, and what they are capable of today is astounding (and frankly, for a creative person, terrifying). Some of these startups are simply tools, while others are aiming to completely replace people in all forms of storytelling. And their company taglines say it. Synthesia.io, a text-to-video service bills itself as the tool that allows you to “say goodbye to cameras, microphones, and actors” because it can create all of that for you. Runway, a generative AI company that has an incredible text-to-video product—the company’s tagline is “No lights. No camera. All action”—is a place where you can create content from scratch in seconds. At the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills last week, this was the topic du jour, with Todd Lieberman, a movie producer, saying that in three years, a “good” movie will come out that will have been written and created by an AI, which was echoed by Fox Entertainment CEO Rob Wade, who noted that it won’t just be screenwriting, but it will be everything, from editing to storyboarding to directing. “AI in the future, maybe not next year or the year after, but if we’re talking 10 years? AI is [absolutely] going to be able to do all of these things,” Wade said.