The Writers Guild of America, the union that bargains on behalf of Hollywood’s screenwriters, has called a strike after negotiations with major studios failed to produce a favorable contract this week. The strike, which is the first involving WGA to occur in 15 years, seeks to bring firms to the table on a host of issues, including higher pay and better working conditions. But some of the issues are quite unique in the annals of modern labor disputes and have to do with technological changes currently disrupting the entertainment industry—such as the role artificial intelligence may play in future screenwriting projects.
“Though our Negotiating Committee began this process intent on making a fair deal, the studios’ responses have been wholly insufficient given the existential crisis writers are facing,” the WGA tweeted late Monday evening. “Picketing will begin tomorrow afternoon.”
Negotiations between WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers—the trade organization that represents the movie and streaming studios in contract negotiations—have been ongoing for the past month but the deadline for a new contract was midnight on Tuesday morning. In its own statement, the AMPTP claimed that it had presented a “comprehensive package proposal” to the Guild and that it had been willing to “improve that offer” but claimed that the “magnitude of other proposals” that the union had made were untenable.
“The AMPTP member companies remain united in their desire to reach a deal that is mutually beneficial to writers and the health and longevity of the industry,” said the organization, which represents the likes of Netflix, Disney, Apple, Amazon, Sony and other entertainment giants.
It’s unclear how long the action could last but, until it ends, large parts of Hollywood are going to be put on pause. Nearly 12,000 writers could potentially join picket lines in the coming days, which means major disruptions to TV and streaming franchises as labor and management duke it out. A variety of issues are motivating the contentious negotiations, including AI and what WGA has called the creation of “a gig economy” due to the pressures of the streaming industry. Here’s some of what’s happening.
The Role of AI in Negotiations
One of the most interesting areas of dispute in the current negotiations is the role AI should or shouldn’t play in Hollywood’s writer’s rooms. In case you’ve missed it, new forms of automation are currently sweeping through the entertainment industry—leaving many creatives worried about how such shifts may displace or alter their roles. From deepfakes to AI-generated voices to screenwriting chatbots, new tools seem poised to disrupt the business in major ways. Some industry figures have suggested that TV and movies could soon be written largely by software—a development that has forced WGA to issue a response.
To protect its members, WGA has sought to carve out distinct guardrails for the use of AI, which would make such content generation tools less of an active threat to writers’ livelihoods.
- The Guild’s proposal is that AI should not be used as “source material” for contract-covered writing, nor can it be used to rewrite contract covered work. At the same time, AI-generated text should not be “considered in determining writing credits,” WGA has said—meaning, basically, that AI can’t be considered to the author of a particular script.
- AI also should not be used to generate “literary material”—which is defined as basically any creative content, including screenplays, outlines, teleplays, and other related material.
In short: WGA doesn’t want AI products to be deemed “writers,” nor does it want it to be used to generate original material for the development of TV shows and movies.
Is WGA in favor of any use of AI in the creative process? As it turns out, yes.
The union surprised a lot of people when it revealed in March that it wasn’t necessarily in favor of a blanket ban on AI use. Instead, the union has stated that the rules outlined above are designed to protect against companies using AI to “undermine writers’ working standards including compensation, residuals, separated rights and credits.” WGA has proposed that AI could potentially be used as a tool in the writer’s room—and that writers could use it as a reference point for further creative work. “In the same way that a studio may point to a Wikipedia article, or other research material, and ask the writer to refer to it, they can make the writer aware of AI-generated content,” WGA previously wrote. “But, like all research material, it has no role in guild-covered work, nor in the chain of title in the intellectual property. It is important to note that AI software does not create anything. It generates a regurgitation of what it’s fed.”
Clearly this is a conversation that is still evolving but the short version of the story is that WGA doesn’t want AI playing a major role in the Hollywood writer’s room.
Other issues at play
AI may be the most unique issue that WGA workers are striking over, but a majority of their grievances are more typical. Most of them have to do with better wages.
To put it simply, the restructuring of the entertainment industry around streaming has created problems for the writing vocation. Since the advent of TV programming, the writer has always been considered the king of content. But a glut of shows and the rise of Netflix and other streaming platforms has meant that writers—once the top dog—are not seeing the same returns that they once did. Previous forms of income for writers—like syndication—do not apply in the streaming world, and studios are deploying ever smaller writer’s rooms and lower entry pay. WGA argues that streaming has made the studios a lot of money, but most of that money hasn’t trickled down to the people powering the stories that are generating that cash.
“The companies’ behavior has created a gig economy inside a union workforce, and their immovable stance in this negotiation has betrayed a commitment to further devaluing the profession of writing,” the union said Monday. “From their refusal to guarantee any level of weekly employment in episodic television, to the creation of a “day rate” in comedy variety, to their stonewalling on free work for screenwriters and on AI for all writers, they have closed the door on their labor force and opened the door to writing as an entirely freelance profession. No such deal could ever be contemplated by this membership.”