Hollywood Writers Fear That AI Might Replace Them. Tough!

The first Hollywood strike in 15 years began today, as talks with the studios broke down and the economic pressures of the streaming era sent unionized TV and film writers to picket for better pay. The strike has shut down most late-night talk shows, so it is already benefiting society. “No contracts, no content!” sign-carrying members of the Writers Guild of America chant outside various office buildings in Manhattan and L.A. The last writer’s strike shut down the industry for 100 days and helped send California into a recession.

As usual, the strike is about money. But far down the list of objectives for its contract negotiations under a section titled “Professional Standards and Protection in the Employment of Writers,” the union says it wants to “regulate use of material produced using artificial intelligence or similar technologies.”

In short, writers are worried that programs like the new rage, ChatGPT, can become skilled at mimicking the work of experienced writers. The Guild wants to prohibit scripts, treatments, outlines or scenes from being written or rewritten by chatbots. It also wants to ensure that studios can’t use chatbots to generate source material that is adapted to the screen by humans. Mike Schur, the creator of “The Good Place” and co-creator of “Parks and Recreation,” told the New York Times that writers like him fear being told, “We don’t need you. We have a bunch of A.I.s that are creating a bunch of entertainment that people are kind of OK with.”

Well, good luck with that fight: it’s a loser, and should be.

Banning technology that can do what humans do cheaper, faster and better has been a dead end since John Henry tried to beat that machine at laying down railroad tracks. The writers fear the competition, so they want to rig the game. Unethical.

I watch, as I’ve written here many times, too much TV and see too many movies. Most of them are saddled with scripts that already read like they have been written by chatbots—bad ones. The explosion of content created by streaming has resulted in a suffocating wave of formulaic crap. As for movies, I’m certain that a chatbot could digest any five Liam Neeson movies and spit out a “Taken 4” that would be indistinguishable from 1-3.

The solution to the writers’ Artificial Intelligence crisis is to stop submitting artificial scripts, lazy plots, derivative characters and dialogue suitable for a soap opera. Striking to try to stop technology is like Canute commanding the tides to recede—and the king did it to prove how futile it was. Even kings can’t control the tides, and even unions can’t stop the march of technological innovation.

Write better. Like it or not, that’s the challenge.

26 thoughts on “Hollywood Writers Fear That AI Might Replace Them. Tough!

  1. You’d think writers would be familiar with the term “Luddite”. (And John Henry was a “steel driver”. someone who hammered the long steel drill bits that cut the holes to pack with explosives to blast out rock blocking the railway path.)

      • As far as I remember, both from the songs and the stories he was always a “steel-driving man.” He actually beat the steam drill in competition when “John Henry drove his steel fifteen feet and the steam drill drove only nine.” However, in the moment of victory “he drove so hard that he broke his heart, and he laid down his hammer and he died.”

  2. Reminds me of when the city of newark’s cab drivers struck and protested to have Uber banned from the city because it was going to take away from their business at the airport. The mayor, of course, supported them, because they were his supporters and members of the community (read: people of color). Eventually Uber agreed to pay money to the city (at the bottom line this was a shakedown) and to some other concessions, years later, Newark cab drivers are becoming scarce because there are still too many other options. You can only hold the tide back for a while, you can’t stop it altogether.

    As an aside, the mayor has also said he does not want Newark to become like Brooklyn, where gentrification started to push all the low-income people out, so he is fighting development. I think it’s a race between the economic tide finally overwhelming him and him deciding that he doesn’t want to be there anymore. Of course he might try to run for governor in 2025, but I think that is a mistake, since he lacks statewide appeal. A defeat in the primaries would take away the myth of his invulnerability and probably send him into a downward spiral.

    The riders have no chance of winning this fight, because while they are out there ranting, these artificial intelligence programs are still working away. Even though the studios are run by liberal people who would get on the side of the unions in any other fight, they won’t hesitate to crush a union within their own business, so that they can keep making money and getting invited to all the right parties. Never reminds me of this law firm I used to deal with which represented a bunch of blue collar unions. They would get up there and talk about the working Man and how the union was his only protection from predatory and bullying bosses, but, when their own employees wanted a raise or better conditions, they looked at them like they had three heads. What could the employees do? They had to either accept it or move on. Most of them chose to eventually move on.

  3. I went to the source on this. I ask Chat GPT to respond to the Guide’s concerns. Respond to: “The Guild wants to prohibit scripts, treatments, outlines or scenes from being written or rewritten by chatbots.”

    The response:

    “I respect the WGA’s position and I understand their concerns. I do not intend to infringe on their rights or take their jobs. I think chatbots and human writers can coexist and collaborate in creative ways. In this context, a human might say that chatbots can offer new perspectives, generate ideas, or provide feedback, while human writers can bring their unique voice, vision, and experience to the writing process. I think chatbots and human writers can learn from each other and improve their skills. What do you think?”

    • Perfect! No wonder so many writers are afraid.

      I do think humans have the edge, if only they would use their humanity and insight to produce better products. Literature is an art. I believe that, though one doesn’t see many examples of it in film and other media.

      PS E2 is my chatbot!

  4. A couple of observations:
    1) Hollywood writers should be worried about AI; from the little I’ve seen current AI as left-biased and anti-conservative as those writers so it can easily replace them without missed a beat!
    2) I always held negative views about unions, and thought they were always means for the left, but it’s sad and pathetic that what once were mostly industrial workers’ organizations have now become limited to such professions as Hollywood writers and government workers (incl. “teachers”). It shows how de-industrialized our country has become and how much bloat and patronage there is in government jobs.

    • Pretty sure they weren’t actually writing new scripts–just changing names, small towns, and what ethnicity the best friend is.

    • Joel Mundt wrote, “The writers for the Hallmark Channel are toast.”

      Wait a minute, the Hallmark channel actually has paid “writers”? I thought they were just recycling the same scripts and outlines over and over again by changing a few of the minor details and sets and those minor changes can be made by any 7th or 8th grader on their phone note pad.

      Seriously; I think their scripts are submitted by amature viewers and not actual paid writers, there’s a predefined outline and every one of their movies follow that outline right down to the timing of significant events, the rest could very well be improved dialogue.

      • Funny story…there’s a HM movie called “Christmas in Homestead” that (supposedly) takes place in Homestead, Iowa. Well, Homestead is a real town in Iowa and I spent a bunch of time there (it’s twenty minutes from Cedar Rapids where I lived for half a decade). My wife and I watched the movie and Homestead, HM looked nothing like Homestead, IA.

        But yeah, Hallmark should receive a Climate-Change-Green-Seal-of-Approval award every year for as much recycling as they do.

  5. It was interesting to see the number of elected officials (Bernie Sanders, Schiff, Porter and others) align themselves with the Democratic Socialists of America which can be found under the solidarity and support tab of the WGA strike page. I have a hard time believing that most of Hollywood’s writers are having a difficult time putting food on the table.

    “Television & movie writers should not have to worry about how they’ll make rent or pay for groceries, period. ” Liz Schuler AFL-CIO President.

    If you cannot make the rent or pay for groceries, why are you paying union dues? Learn to prioritize or cut out the hyperbole. I would bet the average screenwriter has a substantially greater income than most people.

    I watch very little TV anymore because it sucks. I prefer talk radio instead. Talk radio is less scripted and you hear some really insightful commentary along with some really whacko perspectives. I have enough movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood that I can enjoy simply by selecting them from my hard drive. Whenever a movie gets accused of promoting racism such as Gone with the Wind, if I don’t have it in my library, I buy it. I have some recent productions which could be considered formulaic such as the Austin Powers, Indiana Jones, and Dirty Harry collections, but most were produced before 1970.

    I may miss some decent programs on cable or the premium streaming channels, but I decided several years ago it would be less expensive to wait and buy the DVD after its initial release. There is just too much other crap on cable that I am unwilling to pay for and after an initial trial of Netflix I found that there was an insufficient amount of interesting content (to me) to justify the cost.

  6. I think since the last writers strike broadcast TV viewership is significantly down because people are increasingly opting for the alternatives that streaming provides. For me, broadcast TV has become boring and predictable, and I can’t recall when I last watched any programming that required writers on any of the broadcast networks.

    • Funny that movies are all computer generated. Hollywood seems addicted to comic book movies. How can anyone take Hollywood seriously anymore? Ten Fast and Furious movies? And they’re anti gun violence but all I see in trailers shown on TV ads are people being punched in the face are waving pistols around like party favors. What a joke. Time for the writers to get real jobs. Maybe programming.

  7. I say let the chatbot-generated manuscripts be banned outright. Only, how can we tell if a chatbot generated it? I guess we would have to give the script to some reviewers who would then decide if it was so derivative only a chatbot could produce it. Let it be the Turning Test for Hollywood writers. Any script that fails is deemed a chatbot product and cannot be used.

    • RH – many generative AI models are trained using your approach. These are called adversarial generative training techniques. Effectively, you train the output of the generative model to be indistinguishable from the real thing using a discriminator. Math is a wonderful and scary thing.

      One can complain that Hollywood content is poor but until the public stops demanding a “Taken 4” or a new Marvel mash-up of the same superheros, Hollywood will chase those dollars anyway they can. Look at the big money winners this year – all are derivative.

      The more unique winner at the recent Oscars (R), “Everything, everywhere …” got great reviews for its creativity but I think the public wasn’t so impressed that they were willing spend on it.

  8. The writers can go on strike and I just don’t give a damn. There isn’t much worth watching on TV anymore including streaming services, almost all of it is completely ignorable background cladder to me now.

    Turn the one-eyed TV monster off and read a good book or listen to some of your old coveted albums while playing some speed solitaire. That’s exactly what I’ve been doing in the evenings lately and I’ve gotten my fastest winning game is down to two minutes and eleven seconds all while I thoroughly enjoying listening to some old albums. I had forgotten over the years how much I really enjoy listening to music.

    • I also spent a lot of time since March and April looking at the epidemic levels of absurdities that are infecting our society including the massive propaganda campaign related to atmospheric carbon and how the EPA and the Biden Administration are trying to ram electric vehicles down the throats of the American people and how completely absurd it is. I’ve got multiple blog posts on these topics.

      Speaking of my blog…

      An interesting observation about my blog since May of 2019, outside of my two and a half 😉 regular readers, it seems that almost no one is interested in how an insignificant peon like myself views anything and it’s become abundantly clear that I have absolutely no literary clout. Maybe what I write is simply too controversial for others to share but I have an opinion and I’m outspoken enough to share my opinion regardless of the fact that almost no one reads it. Maybe it’s time to figuratively step back and observe from afar.

    • I don’t understand why a late night talk show would need writers. You line up some comedians and singers to perform, have a couple of interesting guests, and the host riffs for ten minutes to start the show. Hell, I could do that—I’ve DONE that. A professional should be able to carry it off.

      • Yeah, you’d think it wouldn’t be all that hard, but maybe having to do it every day would start to take a toll.
        I wouldn’t be surprised if Guttfeld could do it if he had to. He’s pretty quick-witted, and has been a writer and editor for several magazines…even a contributor to HuffPo for a few years.

        • I’d love to know how many writers Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Merv Griffin, Arthur Godfrey, Mike Douglas and Dave Garroway had, if any. Rush Limbaugh managed without writers, as far as I know, except for those skits. Did Imus have writers? Howard Stern?

          • Lots of the old guard had good teams and they often stayed with them for years. And some, I recall, would go on to have separate careers as comics or others.

            Your question prompted a quick search for Paar and the “Television Academy” reports:
            ***Paar was given free rein to restore the show’s luster and assembled his own freewheeling staff, including writers Jack Douglas and Paul Keyes, to give the show an extemporaneous quality. The new creative team emphasized the importance of the opening monologue as a vehicle to transmit Paar’s singular, often emotional view of the world. Unlike any other host of The Tonight Show, Paar had no talent for sketches, so his writers created a persona through his words, always leaving space for the host to verbally improvise. ***

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