Screenwriters and AI – fear and loathing in Hollywood

Screenwriters and AI – fear and loathing in Hollywood
(Image:, prompted by the author)

While artificial intelligence (AI) might get close - fool some or even most of the people, even make someone laugh or cry - it is not drawing on the same wealth of personal experience as we are. That must count for something.

Most people who have an interest in these things are aware that the Writers Guild of America (WGA) is on strike, mostly about pay. The dispute is about the new-ish world of streaming and how that pie is sliced, as well as some other employment matters. These strikes, which flare up now and again, are usually of little consequence to anyone other than the writers and their employers, until the rest of us notice that only reruns and junk are available on our screens, and then we bitch and moan. 

Your faithful correspondent is a writer, although not in the world of TV or movies. Even so, I have more than a passing interest in these matters. I like writers, I think they are undervalued. I want them (and me) to be very, very well paid. And I want the best writers to be remunerated like, I dunno, like sports stars. So, my bias leads me to think that the union is on the side of the gods here.

In any event, I read the WGA negotiation position paper and was struck by a short paragraph nestled deep in the WGA’s demands. 

“Regulate use of artificial intelligence on MBA [minimum basic agreement] covered projects: AI can’t write or rewrite literary material; can’t be used as source material; and MBA-covered material can’t be used to train AI.”

It seems to me that the wording is a bit weak, easily batted away by any good lawyer. In any event this clause was rejected by management who basically argued that they don’t know where AI is going and they should have “annual meetings” to discuss it. This fight is still unfolding, my bet is that these words will not end up being incorporated.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Actors go on strike in new blow to struggling Hollywood studios

We now jump to 12 July, when a very public street demonstration took place in London, organised by the Writers Guild of Great Britain (WGGB). In this case, objections to AI were not an afterthought, they were front and central.

Writers – including Frank Spotnitz, Sandi Toksvig OBE and Gail Renard – begin the march as the Writers Guild Of Great Britain joins a global strike in solidarity with the Writers Guild of America West and Writers Guild of America East at Leicester Square on 14 Jun 2023 in London, England. (Photo: Tristan Fewings / Getty Images)

In fact, the union has gone so far as to have written a policy paper about it called Writers and AI.

Here is the gist:

A good percentage of union members are, to put it mildly, very worried about the reduction of their value in the face of AI. There are a number of stats, including “61% of respondents to a recent WGGB survey on AI ‘somewhat agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ that the increased use of AI could replace writers in their craft area”.

There are two main positions laid out in the paper. Firstly, writers are worried about their work being used in AI training data without any permission, accreditation or payment. Then, there are concerns that AI may eventually take their jobs. They set out a list of demands (including government intervention) to mitigate their discomfort. 

The first set of concerns, which is basically about copyright infringement and IP theft, is playing out elsewhere too, in the visual arts, for instance, where a number of AI companies are being sued for inhaling artists’ work as part of their corpus of training data for text-to-image apps like Dall-E and Midjourney. I have written previously that these lawsuits are unlikely to be won – the output of these sorts of systems is generally derived from an amalgam of billions of images (or words) plus some statistical magic – so it would be difficult, in most cases, to identify exactly where in the AI’s output lay the work of a particular writer’s or artist’s IP.  

The second concern, that an AI might actually replace a TV or film writer is where it gets interesting. David Simon is one of the creators of the TV shows Homicide and The Wire. In a recent podcast here, he mused that some future AI might reasonably be expected to create some formulaic show such as The A-Team, but doubted it would ever understand the human nuance and societal context needed to write Succession or White Lotus.


That’s a big statement. Anyone who claims that AI will never, ever be able to do this or that is shooting in the dark, especially someone like Simon who fully admits the likelihood of an A-Team-like effort. If AI can do that, how far behind is the great stuff? AI technology can learn at an exponential rate, which makes it very difficult to predict its capability. Which means any hopes and fears about its future achievements are not evidence-based. 

And yet, as a writer who occasionally dredges up a sentence of which I am proud, I am attracted to the view that in order to create ‘great’ writing, a pre-condition would be that one must be a human being whose every second since birth (and before, I suppose) has cumulatively led up to the moment where the perfect phrase flows from their pen. So, while AI might get close, might fool some or even most of the people, might even make someone laugh or cry, it is not drawing on the same wealth of personal experience as we are. That must count for something.

Read more in Daily Maverick: New species of employment: Artificial Intelligence spawns the emergence of the prompt engineer

And as for the strike? Media personality and podcaster Professor Scott Galloway commented in a recent Pivot podcast that no productivity technology in history has ever been thrown aside at the request of workers, no matter how reasonable or emotive the plea. I suspect that this will be true in this case as well, and that AI-related demands will not be met. DM

(Postscript – the Screen Actors Guild has now joined the strike. It has much to worry about when it comes to AI, especially AI voice-overs and extras, both already being deployed.)

Steven Boykey Sidley is a Professor of Practice at JBS, University of Johannesburg. His new book – It’s Mine: How the crypto economy is redefining ownership – will be published in August 2023.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Sean Wessels says:

    Great article. As someone who uses AI nearly daily now, the rate of progress can not be understated. Whats more, the AI that the general public gets to play with is usually a year or so behind what the developers already have.

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