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With writers on strike, would Hollywood call on AI to fill in? That day may not be far away.

By Jon Swartz

The strike by screenwriters is partially motivated by fears of being replaced by AI-powered systems. But the strike itself might increase studio interest in "chatbot" scripts.

With a Hollywood writers strike threatening to disrupt America's viewing habits, and AI technology advancing by leaps and bounds, could your favorite TV show or blockbuster movie be written by a chat bot before long?

The strike itself is partially motivated by the concerns of screenwriters over being replaced by AI-powered systems. The Writers Guild of America is demanding regulation of AI when it comes to the works of studios and networks. But the strike itself might increase studio interest in "chatbot" scripts.

A prolonged writers' strike could offer a path for studios and networks to consider leaving the creation of content -- say sitcoms and crime shows -- as well as franchise films to be replicated by generative AI. Some shows are, quite frankly, formulaic and could be produced fast and furious.

"The conversation has shifted from this is not possible to a pervasive fear of being replaced. 'But that's my job,'" said Monica Landers, founder and CEO of StoryFit, a software startup that educates hundreds of WGA members on how to use AI as a creative tool.

Hollywood has infamously treated some of its most iconic authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner with indifference -- even disdain. So, the notion of displacing some with bots isn't unfathomable. It's already happening with AI-produced music and AI-activated voices in cartoons, and it could spread to low-brow sitcoms and procedural crime shows. Even your run-of-the-mill franchise blockbuster. All the bots need is lots of data.

Take Marvel movies, which are based on loads of data for a long time. Longtime Marvel director Joe Russo believes AI will bring the stuff of comic book fantasy to life in a roughly "two years."

"Writers are the first to go and this AI game is just starting," Scott Page, a technologist and musician (saxophonist, rhythm guitar) known for his work with Pink Floyd, Supertramp, and Toto, said in an email message. "People don't realize they are designing themselves out by inputting data into AI. It's getting smarter and smarter by the minute. No question it will destroy the script writing process as we know it."

"Heart on my Sleeve" used AI to simulate a faux song from Drake and The Weeknd that sounded like the real thing. Another recent work sounded a lot like something the British alt-rock band Oasis.

When the last Hollywood strike took place in 2007-8, AI was still evolvingand the internet had not yet transformed the movie and TV industries via short-videos online, streaming, and mobile devices. That writers strike helped contribute to the ongoing growth of reality TV.

But with a writers strike under way, creative sorts are rattled while studios and technology companies aren't talking about how AI may fit in their future plans. Leading AI developers Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), Alphabet Inc.'s (GOOGL)(GOOGL) Google, IBM Corp. (IBM), and Adobe Inc. (ADBE) had no comment.

One voice did, however.

"Too much, too fast is a pretty good description of how we in AI feel about its exponential rate of development," DeepAI founder Kevin Baragona said in an interview. "Any type of knowledge work is being partially or fully automated with AI. We need a new cabinet-level position to regulate the usage and creation of AI, which is pushing us into a sci-fi world. We have NRC to regulate nuclear power."

'The Nora Ephron problem'

The writers' strike puts a microscope on the existential threat and impact of AI -- one that has alarmed industries ranging from media to manufacturing, according to Scott Purdy, KPMG's U.S. National Media Leader.

"Hopefully, there will be policies and a constructive framework in how the industry moves forward to work with AI," Purdy said in an interview. "But it moves to a certain point where you feel endangered."

Entertainment writers have grown increasingly anxious as ChatGPT has become adept at mimicking the style of prolific authors.

During the abortive negotiations, one WGA member told MarketWatch, the conversation turned to what some call the "Nora Ephron problem," which is essentially: What happens if you feed all of Nora Ephron's scripts into a system and generate an AI that can create a Nora Ephron-sounding script?

"Nobody falls in love with a line of code," Catherine Clinch, a member of the Writers Guild of America who wrote for network TV before transitioning to technology, said in an interview. "Nothing in coding can equate to what she [Ephron] wrote from the heart."

Under a section titled "Professional Standards and Protection in the Employment of Writers," the union wrote that it aimed to "regulate use of material produced using artificial intelligence or similar technologies."

Indeed, as talks unraveled, studios rejected WGA's proposals that studios not use AI to write or rewrite literary material, use AI for source material, and not use MBA-covered scripts to train AI. Those caveats were "non-starters" with the studios, several writers said, signaling to them that the studios might consider using AI as leverage in the near future.

For example, when the next contract renegotiation comes up in 2026, studios might take an even-harder line and opt to choose AI over writers.

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, executive director of SAG-AFTRA, did not return phone and email messages seeking comment.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which bargains with the various unions that represent writers, actors and directors on behalf of the major Hollywood studios, declined comment.

A few WGA members declined to comment on the record until an agreement is reached. They expressed a willingness to use AI as a complementary research tool as they do a search engine, but ruled it out as a original creative source. "It reads like a sophomoric, poorly written author," said one writer of TV shows on Netflix Inc. (NFLX), Inc. (AMZN), and others.

"We don't want to ban AI, but use it as a good tool," said Christine Roum, whose writing credits include 'Castle' and 'Big Sky.' "More important, what is AI's place in how writers are compensated?"

Undoubtedly, there are inherent limits to the machines that purport to do their jobs. Some writers and actors speak of a so-called uncanny valley that algorithms may never entirely escape.

"A lot of the AI stuff will seem to be regurgitation of what we've seen previously, almost like a sequel," Clinch said. "It can't do the subtext or twists and turns of a 'Succession.'"

"Generative AI does not look like an immediate threat. I tried using GPT-4 to create scenes and they were not at the Hollywood standards," Tom Taulli, author of a forthcoming book on generative AI, said in an interview. "But the technology is progressing quickly, so the writers should definitely take gen AI into consideration."

Taulli used an experiment to prove his point. He asked a bot to write a scene based on the following premise: "You are one of the top screenwriters in Hollywood. You are writing a script called 'Delicious Desires,'" he told the bot. "It's a steamy romcom that takes place in New York City."

What he got from ChatGPT -- and shared with MarketWatch -- were "a couple good lines" but far from top-notch work.

The threat of technology has often cast a shadow on the entertainment industry and the arts, eliciting paranoia and dread. But some writers see an eventual upside to AI as a deep research tool, with a nod to history.

The current strike is a manifestation of streaming's impact over the past decade on pay and residuals.

"The voice of a creator and the stories writers craft in a room are still the difference between a piece of content and a breakout success," Tricia Biggio, CEO of Invisible Universe, an internet-based animation studio, said in an email message. "AI has democratized creative tools, not creativity."

Adds Landers: "When cameras were invented, painters thought this is the end for us in painting portraits. And that wasn't true. People are putting up protective walls, which can block them from using technology."

-Jon Swartz

This content was created by MarketWatch, which is operated by Dow Jones & Co. MarketWatch is published independently from Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal.


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05-03-23 1231ET

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