Five months ago, when the Writers Guild of America (WGA) initiated their strike, the Hollywood studios seemed to believe they held the upper hand. They outright ignored the majority of the demands, offering no response. They even went as far as taunting writers with anonymous threats regarding an admittedly evil plan to impoverish the writers and force them out of their homes. Additionally, they proudly talked about the financial gains they expected to achieve as entertainment companies by ceasing the production of entertainment. They confidently assured investors they possessed vast libraries of film and television content already stockpiled. One CEO insisted, “We have a lot of content that’s been produced,” while another boasted, “We’ve been planning for this…consumers really won’t notice anything for a while.”
In May, merely a week into the Writers Guild of America’s (WGA) strike, John August, a member of the union’s negotiating committee and the writer behind Charlie’s Angels, coined the term ‘the Nora Ephron problem.’ This concept envisions a scenario where artificial intelligence (AI) advances to the point where it can emulate the writing style of a highly successful author, creating a world he found personally dystopian. “We don’t want our material feeding them, and we also don’t want to be fixing their sloppy first drafts,” he said, in an interview with National Post.
While this is still a major fear that may come to pass at some point down the line, the WGA has come to terms with Hollywood studios, putting an end to the writers’ strike nearly five months in. While the actors’ strike still continues, the writers’ campaign has struck a deal and put forth a summarised version of the tentative Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers on a three-year basis.
A Summary of the Campaign: What Changed?
Commencing on May 2, the writers’ strike saw around 11,500 WGA members cease work in a demonstration demanding improved pay, larger show staff, and restrictions on the use of AI in scripting. This strike represents the first screenwriters’ strike since 2007 and stands as the longest one since 1988. Initially, when news emerged that the end of the writers’ strike was anticipated, specific details of the three-year agreement remained undisclosed. However, as more information has since emerged, here is what the brief of the agreement says:
- An increase in future residual earnings, ranging from 3.5% to 5%, for writers across a spectrum of shows. Increase in the health and pension rates as well.
- Provision of residual pay for writers involved in “the most popular shows on Netflix, Max, and similar services.”
- Implementation of regulations on the use of artificial intelligence (AI), with the assurance that writers will not be compelled to utilise AI technology, and must be informed whether their scripts have been written with AI assistance in advance. Moreover, they reserve the right to assert exploitation if their written material is used as ‘training’ for AI models.
- Mandating that shows with a minimum of 13 episodes must employ at least six writers on their staff.
- Ensuring a minimum guarantee of 10 weeks of employment for writers engaged in the initial development phase of shows.
The WGA has released a complete version of their MOA as well, which can be found here. According to Fox Business, WGA members will have the opportunity to cast their ratification votes between October 2 and October 9. If approved, the terms of the new agreement will be effective from September 25, 2023, through May 1, 2026.
A Strike Against AI
The emergence of AI has prominently framed the writers’ argument as a conflict between humans and machines, carrying far-reaching implications for other sectors grappling with a fundamentally different form of automation. The strike occurred just five months after OpenAI introduced ChatGPT, the AI chatbot capable of composing essays, engaging in advanced conversations, and creating narratives with minimal prompts. The studios argued that addressing AI in these negotiations was premature and opted to defer the discussion until 2026. This unfiltered and unmanaged factor has been a major reason lending to a feeling of defeat and dehumanization within the workforce. Despite arguments that AI can make things easier and more efficient, when it comes to the craft, only a ‘person’ can be considered a writer, and this impasse over AI technology holds implications for other professional sectors as well.
Watch this #WGA strike carefully.— Justine Bateman (@JustineBateman) May 2, 2023
Understand that our fight is the same fight that is coming to your professional sector next: it’s the devaluing of human effort, skill, and talent in favor of automation and profits. @WGAWest @WGAEast #Humanism #AI
“Whether it’s music, photography, whatever the medium, there are creatives who are understandably and justifiably worried about the displacement of their livelihoods,” said Ash Kernen, a legal expert specializing in emerging technologies within the entertainment and intellectual property domain told NBC News.
Now all that remains to be seen is how things progress from here, and what this means for the actors’ strike as they resume negotiations with the Hollywood studios.