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The Threat of A.I. to Hollywood 4 min read
Artificial Intelligence

The Threat of A.I. to Hollywood

Even if you're not a writer, you should still be worried; A.I. could come for the things you love—your shows and movies.

By Cary Littlejohn

I recently wrote about my personal disdain for the rapid rise of A.I. chatbots because of the threat they pose to knowledge workers' jobs, mine included.

It was specific to me and my niche interests. But there's reason for wider alarm, despite my preference not to be a Chicken Little with calls that the sky is falling.

Alissa Wilkinson wrote an explainer for Vox on how the ongoing WGA writers' strike is really a fight over A.I.

AI should scare Hollywood writers — and everyone else
Artificial intelligence could be the most important part of a writers strike, for reasons bigger than show business.

The piece was published a month ago, but with the strike still going, it remains relevant. And honestly, it will remain relevant for a long time, as long as A.I. promises to do what humans can do but faster and cheaper.

It's particularly resonant in the days after the series finale of Succession, which is widely considered one of the best shows of recent TV history for, among other things, its impeccable writing. (Before the finale, I wrote about Succession and its writing's power to make us feel.)

Wilkinson doesn't believe that type of writing can be created by our soon-to-be machine overlords. But her concern mirrors mine: Those in power won't mind the inevitable slide toward mediocrity, the lowest common denominator being the majority of their output. As long as it can be done cheaply.

Wilkinson writes:

Fair enough. As a writer (and a member of the WGA myself, though not the division that works for the MBA), I am concerned about AI’s potential. Maybe it’s my philosophical commitments, but I don’t expect the tools to ever turn out something as good as what a real human writer can achieve. I don’t think AI is going to be able to write Everything Everywhere All at Once, or Tar, or Succession. At best, it will be an okay imitation of things that humans have already written.
But here is the thing: Cheap imitations of good things are what power the entertainment industry. Audiences have shown themselves more than happy to gobble up the same dreck over and over, and get big mad when presented with something confusing or challenging. And labor agreements are only as good as the people who keep them. [emphasis added]

So the WGA is seeking protections from the encroachment of A.I.

The WGA has two main stipulations. First, the guild wants to make sure that “literary material” — the MBA term for screenplays, teleplays, outlines, treatments, and other things that people write — can’t be generated by an AI. In other words, ChatGPT and its cousins can’t be credited with writing a screenplay. ...
Second, the WGA says it’s imperative that “source material” can’t be something generated by an AI, either. This is especially important because studios frequently hire writers to adapt source material (like a novel, an article, or other IP) into new work to be produced as TV or films. However, the payment terms, particularly residual payouts, are different for an adaptation than for “literary material.” It’s very easy to imagine a situation in which a studio uses AI to generate ideas or drafts, claims those ideas are “source material,” and hires a writer to polish it up for a lower rate.

So much of the writing these days about A.I. is the call-and-response nature of doomsayers and their critics. The worst-case scenarios are colossal and dystopian, and it's easy to eye-roll the threat to something as low-stakes as our entertainment.

But two points that Wilkinson's piece makes clear: 1) There is something lost when one of our greatest cultural exports—our TV shows and movies—are watered down to the point of nothingness, and 2) It's not a huge leap of the imagination for Hollywood to go down this road.

As a closing thought, consider this from Wilkinson's piece:

This is all extra important because the appeal of AI to Hollywood, in particular to replace writers, is obvious. For one, the industry is sitting atop a pile of data that tells them not just what people want in the aggregate, but what, precisely, individual consumers want. For now, the industry’s method for making money requires making a product that’s as broadly appealing as possible. But suppose you could flip that: Netflix could use your viewing data to not just generate weirdly specific suggestions for you but create on-the-fly entertainment that matches your interests. Sure, it might seem like the results would be repetitive. But consider the extraordinary popularity of highly formulaic entertainment — procedurals, sitcoms, action flicks, Hallmark movies — and you can start to see the appeal for platforms whose main goal is to keep you watching.
Of course, that can’t be replicated (yet) in a theater, and there’s plenty of evidence that people like to see the same movie as their friends. AI can help with that, too. Hollywood’s other huge problem since its inception is that making movies requires employing a lot of people, and those people want to be compensated fairly for their labor and treated like humans — sleeping, eating, getting some vacation time. If you were faced with the possibility of removing some humans from the equation, employing instead a tireless machine that doesn’t need a salary and won’t go on strike when it’s being exploited, wouldn’t that be tempting?