’Stealing machines’: Hollywood writers and studios grapple with AI’s future

LOS ANGELES, May 3 (Reuters) – Hollywood writers have been writing science fiction scripts featuring machines that take over the world for decades. Now, they’re fighting to make sure robots don’t take their jobs.

The Writers Guild of America seeks to regulate the use of artificial intelligence in writing film and television scripts. Hollywood studios, struggling to make streaming services profitable and dealing with declining advertising revenue, rejected the idea, saying they were willing to discuss new technologies once a year, according to the guild.

A spokesman for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which is negotiating the deal on behalf of the studios, did not comment.

The dispute over AI was one of several issues that led Hollywood’s film and television writers to strike on Monday, marking the first walkout in 15 years.

While the issue was one of the last items detailed in the WGA summary of talking points, many of which focused on improving compensation in the streaming era, the debate over the role of AI in the creative process will determine the future of entertainment for decades to come.

Screenwriter John August, a member of the WGA negotiating team, said writers have two concerns regarding AI.

„We don’t want our material to feed them, and we don’t want to correct their poor first drafts,” he said.

A fast-growing, multifaceted technology is at stake throughout the global industry.

In Hollywood, AI helps erase wrinkles from an aging actor’s face, clean up an actor’s liberal use of f-bombs, and draw animated shorts with the help of OpenAI’s Dall-E, which can create realistic images. Some writers are also trying to create scripts.

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’The Last Castle’

„The problem here is that creativity is the last line, the line in the sand, that stops machines from replacing one’s work,” said Mike Seymour, co-founder of the university’s Motus Lab. Sydney has a background in visual effects and artificial intelligence and has consulted with several studios. „I would argue that it was kind of a spontaneous concept that caught people’s imagination.”

Members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) picket outside the Peacock Newfront streaming service offices on the East Side, in New York City, May 2, 2023. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Seymour said AI could help writers break the „blank paper phenomenon” and create what he describes as „pantomime,” or straight-forward, blunt dialogue that’s better, though lacking subtlety.

„I’m not saying AI is going to become super-intelligent and create 'Citizen Kane,’ because that’s not right,” Seymour said.

Writers fear that they will be marginalized or at least interrupted.

“What can (AI) do?

„Instead of hiring you to do the first draft, (studios) hire you to do the second draft, which pays less. You want to shave it off.”

The union proposed that material generated by an AI system like ChatGPT cannot be considered „literary material” or „source material”, which is already defined in the contract.

As a practical matter, if a studio executive assigns an AI-generated script to a writer to edit, the writer cannot be given a lower rewrite or polishing rate.

The union argues that existing scripts should not be trained on artificial intelligence, which opens the door to intellectual property theft.

„We call it the 'Nora Ephron problem,'” said August, who has written romantic comedy hits including „When Harry Met Sally” and „You’ve Got Mail.”

„One could imagine a studio training an AI on all of Nora Ephron’s scripts and writing a comedy in her voice. Our proposals would prevent that.”

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WGA chief negotiator Ellen Stutzman says some members have another term for AI: „stealth machines.”

„We have put forward a reasonable proposal that the company should keep AI out of the business of writing TV and movies and not try to replace writers,” he said.

Reporting by Dan Chmielewski and Lisa Rich in Los Angeles, Additional reporting by Rollo Rose and Daniel Broadway in Los Angeles. Editing by Kenneth Lee and Lincoln Feist

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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