The Writers Strike Back

I stand with the WGA, not least because although not a member, I hope to be one day.

Writer’s picket line signs are the best.

Here is to a side-by-side comparison of the WGA members’ proposals and the counter offers or stance of the AMPTP on each issue.

Smarter people than me have run the exact numbers and determined these different percentages for fee and wage increases that fit with cost-of-living increases. I have no comment on these. I trust that they are reasonable as a starting point for bargaining.

Some of the disputes are the same old stuff – residuals. Look, residuals are a concept that was agreed upon long ago, time out of mind. Every time residuals come up, the management side wants to relitigate their existence for a new medium or new distribution model. Give it up – as an industry we have accepted residuals, little as they may be, as something that the creative forces involved in the ideation and success of any show deserve as part of their basic compensation. Or to put it another way, precedent. This horse has bolted – let it go. As someone whose primary job – production design – doesn’t ever get them (no horse in the race, to continue the metaphor), I say just pay the residuals.

I also note what is literally the bottom line in the document:

“WGA proposals would gain writers approximately $429 million per year.”

That is about the budget of one big tentpole superhero movie. Just one.

That is about the budget of two or three episodes of one of the big FX driven popular streaming series – you know the kind I’m thinking of.

These projects aren’t spending giant chunks of their budgets on the writers. In this mind-bogglingly profitable worldwide industry, your pay is a signifier of the respect in which you are held. For writers, it’s a relatively tiny amount – just pay them.

Writers picket in front of Netflix on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, California, on May 2, 2023 as the Writers Guild of America (WGA) goes on strike. – More than 11,000 Hollywood television and movie writers went on their first strike in 15 years, after talks with studios and streamers over pay and working conditions failed to clinch a deal. The strike means late-night shows are expected to grind to a halt immediately, while television series and movies scheduled for release later this year and beyond could face major delays. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

Instead, I draw your attention to one section.

“Regulate use of artificial intelligence on MBA 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”

The producers have rejected this entirely and propose annual meetings to “discuss” advances in technology.

My thoughts on this:

  • Annual meetings will not be sufficient to keep pace with the changes – the enhanced sophistication of AI’s ability. Please consider Moore’s Law which proposed that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit would double every two years. The point is that this is a geometric projection over a finite time frame. It is taken to mean that the pace of technological development is constantly accelerating. We’ve seen this movie. “Skynet became self-aware…”
  • Each of these points is different – the first two relate to existing and new projects to address the problems of living, breathing writers being replaced as workers. At this time, writers – human intelligences with the creative ability to make evaluations and judgement calls – are still needed even if AI is being used to generate material. The WGA wants to protect workers as the right people to perform the initial creative ideation – or to express it in the language of AI use that is making its inexorable way into the lexicon – to write the prompts.
  • The final point is something else – and something far more insidious and probably harder to enforce or regulate – the concept of AI being trained on existing work that is out there in the digital universe, whose contents are constantly increasing as more and more historical literature is scanned and uploaded. Public Domain is one thing. This is about the uncompensated use of someone else’s copyright, in the cause of eventually replacing that same person as a worker. This is part of a wider discussion about the ethics of AI generated art forms in all areas of artistic practice, and more broadly industrial creativity – any industry where innovation is key to solving problems.

I don’t have any answers. AI is a tool that has arrived. It is being used by people who don’t think they can write themselves to produce lowest-common-denominator standardized blog posts and marketing copy. It is being used for research discovery, and for first drafts of all kinds of storytelling by people who use it as a time-saver.

AI can’t evaluate artistically yet. It still produces clunky writing – unlike the visual/graphic art results I see that seem to be ranging ahead of the pedestrian informative AI-generated writing I read. It does seem to be a question of starting with good prompts.

LOS ANGELES, CA – MAY 04: People picket outside of Paramount Pictures studios during the Hollywood writers strike on May 4, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. Scripted TV series, late-night talk shows, film and streaming productions are being interrupted by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike. In 2007 and 2008, a WGA strike shut down Hollywood productions for 100 days, costing the local economy between $2 billion and $3 billion. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

All over the socials, people offering training on how to write effective prompts are popping up like weeds amongst the wildflowers. This could well end up a skill that AI eventually will be teaching us. So I guess these teachers had better make hay while they can, before they are smothered by their own irony. I plan to set aside some time in June to learn more about using it for marketing help. I haven’t yet – this post is entirely personally written out of my head.

But clunky AI writing – what about the readers? Will AI slowly train the audience to accept less, just when audiences have reached a high level of sophistication in their acceptance what constitutes good TV (in which I include streaming series)? There are standard plots and relatively rigid conventions, (prediction is part of the fun for me) but they are dressed up in subtexts and long-term B-plots these days.   

Ultimately this is a battle for the mind and heart of the movie-going, media-consuming, story-loving public. Writers already walk the tightrope of the balance between originality – enough to intrigue – and familiarity – enough to maintain accessibility. Comfort versus Challenge. Reassurance versus Apprehension.

To end on a happier note, I offer the example of an episode of The Mandalorian. It’s the one with Lizzo and Jack Black. They live on a planet where droids have taken over pretty much all work. There is a whole sub-culture of droids themselves, pleased to be welcomed on this planet, even military bots repurposed with updated programming, and concerned about losing this cushy existence – but that’s not my point. My point is that rather than producing a familiar apocalyptic terror scape of misery or boredom for the people, with roving gangs of resentful displaced poor folk, this planet is a near utopia with everyone free of grunt work happily engaging in activities they enjoy. Let’s hope for that outcome.

Here’s a Montage of Writers’ signs.

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