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The AI Revolution Has Already Reached the Studios’ Gates & Disney’s Bob Iger May Be the Only CEO Who Can Stop It

For weeks, multiple studios and streamers have been planning to use AI to generate scripts based on books and other IP that is in the public domain, with lists of titles making the rounds among development executives, multiple insiders have told Above the Line.

I’m reliably told that nearly every studio has already explored this possibility, and that should those plans come to fruition over the weeks — and likely months — to come, the studios plan to hire writers to rewrite those scripts once the Writers Strike is over. That is, of course, a major sticking point in these negotiations, as the WGA is insistent that AI not be used to create any literary material whatsoever.

In case you haven’t been paying attention to headlines the last few days, AI has seemingly become the defining issue of this strike, as the very profession of film and television writing is at stake, as is the future of the guild itself.

While I’m firmly on the writers’ side here and believe that AI will never be capable of writing a truly great movie like The Social Network, or even a very good one, it can aid a writer, and also provide a framework that the writer can tweak and put their own stamp of humanity on, thereby speeding up the development process and saving the studio some shekels since it won’t have to pay writers to start from scratch — which is precisely why the guild is pushing back.

The writers are simply defending what little turf they have left, and I understand why the guild is fighting tooth and nail against this, but I can also see the studios’ perspective.

Folks on the studio side suggest that writers should not fear AI but rather embrace it, as its usage is inevitable and there are those (i.e. Joe Russo) who believe it can be a wonderful tool — both for writing and actual filmmaking. The fear surrounding AI is certainly understandable, as it is with any technology that is considered disruptive. To its supporters, though, it’s all about how you use it. Studios can use AI to “replace” writers or help them to improve their work — and let’s face it, there is room for improvement these days. How might it do the latter? It could deepen fan engagement, or identify things that fans want to see, that a writer would then, well, write. With proper training, AI can be another tool in a writer’s toolkit.

Geoffrey Hinton
Geoffrey Hinton image via CNN

On the other hand, you’ve got folks like Geoffrey Hinton, the so-called “Godfather of AI,” who just left his job at Google (which is developing an AI chatbot called Bard) so he could more freely speak about the dangers of the technology he helped create. He’s not the only one who has been sounding the alarm bells, and indeed, critics of AI warn of a Terminator-like future where Skynet is in charge.

I do think AI should remain an open conversation as opposed to a closed one, as change happens too fast in Hollywood these days for things to be closed-off. AI still needs to be fed prompts and asked the right questions, so perhaps those will become the job of a writer going forward, as opposed to an exec.

The uncomfortable truth is that real artists aren’t sweating AI, it’s the lower-level writers who worry that it could replace them. And don’t get me wrong, we have to look out for the lower-level writers too because if they aren’t allowed to learn and grow, they’ll never become upper-level writers. But trust me, Donald Glover and Noah Hawley aren’t lying awake at night worrying about being replaced by AI.

With all this doom and gloom, people have asked me why I’m uncharacteristically optimistic at the moment, and oddly enough, social media is one reason why. I look at public sentiment and aside from the blue-check losers trolling the writers behind their favorite content and calling them “whiny babies,” everyone is behind the WGA — the entire labor force, including the agencies — the only ones that can really make life difficult for studios — and even President Biden. I mean, not paying writers what they’re worth is downright un-American.

Bob Iger
Bob Iger image via Disney

But things have changed since the 2007-08 strike, and it’s my belief that the studios and their parent companies are very sensitive when it comes to bad publicity, which is why Disney fired James Gunn from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 all those years ago, only to come to their senses later. In general, studios don’t like negative social media, why is one reason why I think they’ll cave — good old peer pressure, or in this case, pressure from the public, who knows that it’s absolutely obscene for a CEO, no matter how good they are at their job, to pocket $308 million… a year!

$50 million a year? OK. Still an obscene amount. And that’s just for one year — more than 99.9 percent of people will make in their entire lifetimes. So for these companies to cry poverty while paying these largely interchangeable white men hundreds of millions of dollars a year is an utter slap in the face, and writers have every right to be pissed off.

But you know who isn’t necessarily interchangeable? Bob Iger. He’s the only CEO who may be worth every penny, and he’s the one who all the others look to with respect and admiration. If this Writers Strike is going to end sooner rather than later, and if AI is going to be banned or accommodated, could very well come down to Iger and his leadership. Disney is well-stocked with IP, so it doesn’t need AI to generate IP, though it may be the studio that would benefit most from its use.

At the end of the day, this strike comes down to corporate greed on the part of the AMPTP’s members, and as someone who has been negotiating with movie studios for more than a decade — over information, headlines, photos — let me tell you, they are next to impossible to deal with. So I feel the WGA’s pain and stand with them as they bravely fight for the future.

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