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Hollywood moved toward automation long before AI

In the franchise era, viewers and studios alike favor formula over creativity—the exact sort of stuff that’s easiest for AI to write.

Writers vs. robots at Hollywood : Media coverage of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike comes primarily from the business press and the tech press, to the detriment of people who write about movies and television. It’s film critics, after all, who have an emotional, rather than financial, investment in the end product.

As a result, coverage of the strike ignores some aspects of current film and TV production that affect both viewers and the labor force. While writers strike for better working conditions, one thing the audience already understands is that a form of computerized “writing” took hold in the digital/franchise era about two decades ago. It has already eroded the relationship writers used to have to their work.

WGA members will have to take a very hard line on the future decay of this relationship if they want to improve working conditions rather than just return to business as usual. AI, such as ChatGPT, writes clumsily, but the history of computer-generated imagery since the 1990s proves that the studios are comfortable with, shall we say, awkward digital effects that lessen the quality of their products.

Just read any geeky online review of The Eternals (2021). Reviewers noticed subpar VFX work, but Marvel Studios did little to improve it over the following two years. When Thor: Love and Thunder (2022) and Ant-Man and the Wasp Quantumania (2023) came out to the same complaints, the studio continued to bank on audiences not minding, at least on opening weekend.

What Marvel and other studios are most concerned with is cheap effects done quickly by companies overseas. They have taken flak for that from viewers and reviewers, but it is unlikely that they will reshore this offshored labor anytime soon.   

Similarly, the studio and streaming bosses of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) have a different idea of what a writer is than the Guild does, and are actively working to change the definition in everyone else’s mind, too. In this era of content creation, the truism that movies and television shows “start with the writing” does not necessarily indicate the presence of an actual writer.

Content can be created in any way, by anything. Content, as opposed to the screenplay of a movie or TV show, does not imply the presence of a human being who starts the process by putting the proverbial pen to paper.

Studio CEOs are betting on several trends working in unison to make writers obsolete, or to at least lessen them as workers, creators, storytellers, and human beings. One of these developments is inherent in this idea of content itself. In the age of IP, the writing has already happened. The intellectual property already exists. And it is highly protected by copyright law and by contracts that secure sequel rights, remake rights, and every other kind of ancillary right.

The post-IP writer, under this system, becomes the equivalent of a machine with a semi-consciousness, because so much of the work of writing has already been done. There is a reason Marvel Studios sends their screenwriters to a “boot camp.” And after their work is done, those offshored VFX companies do a lot of the rest of the “writing,” just as they now do a lot of the rest of the “acting” once the stars have gone home.  

It is only a small step from that to ChatGPT and other AI systems writing scripts—ironic since “scripts” helped write AIs. You can bet that studios are at work on ChatGPT screenplays. If they have success with one, they won’t look back.

Writers will then be ruled a smaller part of the process and condemned to the gig economy. That’s the issue the AMPTP seems most reluctant to negotiate. As for real flesh-and-blood writers, one of the main tasks they will still be needed for is topical humor, the easiest kind of writing to gig-ify. But even in joke writing, there is difference between now and conditions during the 2007 strike. Today, months without late-night comedy is not something America dreads. Thanks to streaming, there is plenty of other “live” comedy to watch.

The paradox here is that even as the AMPTP CEOs assert that the biggest losers in the strike are viewers, they also note they have a huge backlog of content on hand that will allow them to weather a long work stoppage. More importantly, since there is no longer any accurate measurement of viewership in this post-Nielsen era, and because streamers don’t share viewer numbers, and because movie studios now buy up seats in movie theaters to increase box office figures, hurting viewers isn’t much of an issue. How many viewers are there, anyway? No one knows for sure. Or rather, no one who knows for sure is telling.  

In any case, as the studios have made it easier to lose writers, they have made it harder to lose viewers by switching the concept of the viewer—an average nobody who could be anyone and has some modicum of discerning taste—to the concept of the fan, someone with a particular hunger who must be super-served.

Last month Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos told investors that if there is a strike, “We could probably serve our members better than most,” and noted that the 2007 strike was “very, very, very bad for fans.” In the Marvelization-Disneyfication of viewership, the fans have plenty to watch, and the things that fans like are the easiest for AI to write.

Cancelling TV shows and pulling the plug on movies, often for obscure financial reasons, are two things CEOs such as Sarandos and Warner Bros. Discovery’s David Zaslav have no compunction about doing. In this era of rollercoaster subscriber numbers, the bosses are invested in the idea of prolonging the strike so that they can cancel deals they are about to have to shell out for, thereby fixing their bottom lines.

CEO pay is not related to the success of any one show, and CEOs have demonstrated a willingness to tolerate shoddy product. If quality product gets killed in the process, so what? Does that hurt them? The graveyard is filled with irreplaceable men. Ted Lasso could be one of them. Ted Lasso is not some super-valuable IP like The Mandalorian.  

The fact is that the studios have never had more power than they do now. In previous decades, strikes shut down the flow of product quickly and stopped any new stuff from coming out. That is no longer the case. This summer, Paramount has TransformersTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Paw Patrol movies all lined up—the kind of cheesy, repetitive content that writes itself and that audiences don’t really expect to be very good. (They also have Tom Cruise in a new Mission: Impossible movie, the second summer in a row that so much hangs on this one movie star and his commitment to non-computer-generated action.)  

As writers flocked to Hollywood in the 1930s at the beginning of the sound era, they fought hard to set up guilds that would lift them out of the arbitrary servitude the studios wanted to exploit. During the recent streaming boom, however, writers left behind the collapsing industries of publishing and journalism, which had already begun to proletarianize them.   

They have gone down a class, and despite the hard work of previous generations of screenwriters, they have entered an industry that no longer offers enticements like residuals and long-term contracts. There are a lot of screenwriters working today because streamers needed them to set up this new world of on-demand product, a necessity to keep subscribers coming in and stock prices high. This is another sad paradox—writers who were needed to keep stock prices up now must be shed and automated to keep the stocks high.

Cute picket signs mocking the total failure of Quibi, the awful new name “Max,” or signs imploring some authority figure or other to “please don’t make me move back to Ohio” will not win this strike. If it fails, it will destroy the power of labor in Hollywood for a very long time. The AMPTP will realize that every labor union is vulnerable under their new all-digital, all-streaming, part-AI green-screen regime. 

A better message for the strikers might be: “You have garbage without us.” They should drill that fact into social media and into the minds of the audience, rather than gently ribbing their bosses. It’s a better strategy if they don’t want to go from ChatGPT to ChatEBT. How ironic that the writers are on strike against Netflix when Netflix has provided them with a blueprint for how to win labor actions. While they probably shouldn’t hew too, too closely to the cautionary tale that is Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman, they will have to get very tough. No notes, no more notes.

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