The Writers Guild Of America, and the artificial intelligence in screenwriting debate

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As the Writers Guild of America begins negotiations with the Hollywood studios, just how much of a sticking point will AI be?


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Last week saw the first day of bargaining between representatives of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and TV Producers (AMPTP). The wider narrative that will dominate the headlines over the coming weeks will be about the possibility of strike action, as the real possibility looms where writers may down tools and withdraw their labour, with the chief aim of securing a fairer slice of streaming residuals.

However, one interesting subplot to these negotiations is the WGA’s demands regarding artificial intelligence.

2023 has already been positioned as ‘The Year of AI’ and we’re seeing the technology float to the forefront of many areas of life. The same is true in the screen industry where almost every facet of the business is in flux, whether it’s actors having to protect themselves from deepfake duplicates or concept artists fearing they’ll be replaced by machines.

On the writing front at least, the WGA has historically done a pretty good job of safeguarding the interests of its members. It forced the studios to give up a slice of home formats revenue when that exploded in the early 1980s and went for it again during the DVD boom of the mid-2000s, eventually settling on securing residuals from the then-nascent streaming market instead.

AI certainly isn’t top of the agenda this time, but determining its future usage in the screenwriting process could prove to be far more crucial than a tussle over streaming residual payments. As with other sectors, there’s a possibility, (however unlikely it may seem right now) that deep learning technology could one day be used to replace human writers. The conventional wisdom was that the WGA would go into these talks with the intent of regulating or even banning the use of AI, but as Variety reports, that seems not to be the case.

Instead, rather than haggle over what a machine can and cannot do within the screenwriting process, the guild has neatly sidestepped that by instead proposing that anything produced by AI technology can not classed as intellectual property, or to use the guild’s terms, ‘literary’ or ‘source’ material.

The wording is key here as it pertains directly to the basic agreement that the WGA signs with the AMPTP. By demanding that AI contributions can not be recognised as ‘literary material’, an agreement of this sort would mean that anything produced by an AI – it’s bizarre we’re even having this chat, in truth – could not be counted as having been produced by a writer. In short, the AI would not count as a writer on a project, even if it had produced one hundred percent of the work.

Laptop keyboard

It’s a neat approach from the guild that effectively kills off any chance of AI contributions affecting the earnings, the credits and the residual payments of human writers. To give you an example, were this proposal to be agreed, a studio executive could hand a human writer a script fully-written by an AI. The human writer could fully redraft it, amend it slightly or make zero changes but either way, that human writer would count as the first writer on the project and retain sole credit.

Will the AMPTP go for it? It’s a far-reaching proposal that stands to set a mighty, mighty precedent. If it does, it’ll be because the AMPTP will expect the WGA to relinquish a different demand.

If you look at the last time writers walked out back in 2007, the strike lasted for 100 days and yet still the WGA didn’t get most of what it wanted. Yes, it got a crucial agreement on ‘new media’ residuals ahead of the streaming boom, but it formally removed its demands on reality TV and animation and didn’t get its proposed bump in DVD residuals, the issue that most people remember the about the strike.

That proved to be a shrewd bait and switch from the WGA’s negotiators: did they foresee that the DVD era was drawing to a close and that streaming was the future? I think it did, and it’s a deal that worked out handsomely for it. As with any negotiation, foresight is everything and once again the WGA seems to have seized the initiative, setting a precedent that will preclude AI from impinging on human writers in any practical or meaningful way.

But is the AMPTP likely to be led up the garden path twice? The alliance of producers is only too aware that the WGA brokered a good deal back in 2007, but with the viability of the streaming model currently in real doubt, the media landscape is not as rich a feast for studios as it was back in the mid-2000s, not yet at least as the ‘gold rush’ over the streaming model has very much dried up. All of which is to say that yeah, maybe the AMPTP might find itself willing to give up on the lucrative potential of AI-augmented screenwriting, if only to negotiate a more favourable short-term deal on the subject of streaming residuals.

A deal of that ilk wouldn’t entirely preclude the AMPTP from pursuing AI-written projects of course: any screenplay written entirely by an AI would not fall under the purview of WGA’s basic agreement with the AMPTP. Perhaps the alliance of producers will be happy to cede this hand to the WGA in favour of other short-term gains, whilst keeping one eye on the longer game, the one where AIs can eventually write an entire screenplay without the aid of a human.

We can imagine that this might be the cagiest aspect of a negotiating process that is already primed to be somewhat… testy. After all, neither side is going to want to acquiesce to the other, when a potential concession could prove to be worth billions of dollars years down the line. The WGA isn’t the only union set to make proposals regarding the use of AI in the screen industry either, but its demands might illuminate what we can expect from the representing bodies for directors and actors when they step up to the negotiating table later this year.

SAG-AFTRA, the guild of  screen actors has already indicated that it will be tabling proposals, having previously expressed concerns about performers losing control over their image. One of our favourite human beings, Keanu Reeves spoke recently about being disconcerted upon finding that one of his performances was significantly altered by a machine in post-production. With advances in AI having developing exponentially, unless SAG-AFTRA acts, stories like that could become far more commonplace, all of which points to the consequences at stake in the WGA’s negotiations. Historically, whichever organisation agrees terms with the AMPTP first, sets the tone for the unions that follow, meaning that the outcome that the writers guild manages to secure will shape the use of AI in other key parts of the industry.

Artificial Intelligence

What is true however, is that this is one areas of the negotiations where the AMPTP can’t plead poverty. As alluded to above, some of the WGA’s other demands such as increased residual payments and limiting the use of mini-writer rooms will hit the pockets of producers, they very place they feel losses the hardest. Increasing residual payments – especially for straight-to-streaming projects – will bite into business models that outside of Netflix, aren’t yet profitable. Likewise, ending what the WGA has called the ‘abuse’ of mini-writer rooms means hiring more writers which in turn means yet more cost.

AI though? It’s debatable as to how much money the studios are making/saving as of right now thanks to AI screenwriting processes, but it probably isn’t much.

Maybe Universal does have a server farm somewhere in Utah churning out billions of story treatments a day, created by AI writers, which are then proofed and quality-checked down by AI editors before being greenlit or discarded by a human executive. And yes, a Skynet-style facility like that would be expensive to research, design, build and maintain but it probably isn’t happening, not as of right now anyway. If the alliance of producers does claim that it can’t cede to the WGA’s demands regarding AI because it can’t afford to, it’s a smokescreen and one that the writers guild will see right through, understanding that the AMPTP has future designs on AI use that might one day have dire ramifications for human writers.

If the WGA does get a whiff of that? Well that’s when things could get turn really ugly and a strike could become a reality.

Is AI a real-enough fear for writers to strike? Does the AMPTP see enough future value in AI to risk a Hollywood shutdown that would do more damage following years of pandemic woes? Would a heat map of Utah show us that Universal AI writing factory that I just made up? We’ll find out the answer to at least some of those questions in a few short weeks and it will offer a glimpse into the long-term future of the industry…

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