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Striking Hollywood scribes ponder AI in the writer's room

Hollywood writers are on their third week of a strike against major studios. Among their demands are higher wages, more residuals from the streaming platforms, and the regulation of artificial intelligence. Some writers are wondering what sort of AI they may be facing in the writer's rooms of the future: a kind that makes them redundant, or one that serves them as a useful tool.

This week, a small plane circled over the major Hollywood studios where writers were picketing. It flew a banner that read "Pay the writers, you AI-holes!" The stunt was organized by director/writer Jacob Reed, who paid for it with small donations from writers, actors, animators, talent agents, fans and others.

Down below, picketing outside Paramount Pictures, comedy writer Miranda Berman voiced a fear echoed by many others in her industry: that studio executives could eventually replace them with AI.

"This is only the beginning; if they take writer's jobs, they'll take everybody else's jobs too," said Berman. "And also in the movies, the robots kill everyone in the end."

In the movies and on TV, writers have envisioned AI as sinister, like in The Terminator, or traitorous, like in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, or even empathetic, like in the film Her.

On a different picket line outside Universal Studios, TV writer Lanett Tachel said she's worried studios will hire fewer writers to simply doctor up whatever machines come up with.

"We're out here fighting so that the Alexas and whatnot aren't writing our stories. We're not here to rewrite a machine," Tachel said. "We're not against the use, you know, if we can find a way to be reasonable. But they cannot be the genesis of any creation. We create these worlds."

Tachel said she recently read a script written by Chat GPT. She found it severely flawed. "They understand the structure of what to do, but it had no depth, it had no spirit. It didn't have nuance. It wouldn't understand how to handle race, certain jokes, things like that."

The regulations the WGA is pushing for would include bans on studios using AI to write or rewrite things like stories, treatments, and screenplays, or even to write the source material that human writers would adapt for the screen. The union also doesn't want the writer's work to be used to train AI.

Meanwhile the studios, represented by The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, say that the use of AI raises "hard, important creative and legal questions for everyone," and that it requires more discussion. They also point out that the current agreement already defines writers as people — so AI-generated material wouldn't be eligible for writing credits.

During a recent earnings call, Disney CEO Bob Iger told investors that AI development presents opportunities and benefits to the company. "We're already starting to use AI to create some efficiencies and ultimately to better serve consumers," Iger said. "But it's also clear that AI is going to be highly disruptive, and it could be extremely difficult to manage, particularly from an IP management perspective."

AI experts and writers say the new AI programs aren't yet able to write good scripts. "I've called them the king of pastiche" says Gary Marcus, a cognitive scientist who hosts the Audacy podcast Humans vs. Machines with Gary Marcus. "In a certain sense, what they're doing is regurgitating what they've seen before... it's a sophisticated sense of regurgitation, because they can put in synonyms and paraphrases. But they stick pretty close to what they've seen. It's pretty easy for them to come up with something that's, let's say, prototypical or stereotypical. They're also pretty good at basic wordplay and poetry style. But what makes a movie work is an interesting idea and interesting execution — I don't know if we'll get that anytime soon."

Even so, artificial intelligence is starting to crop up in Hollywood productions, and some writers are embracing it as a tool.

Writers from the show Mrs. Davis used algorithms to generate episode titles. And in video promotion for their show, co-creators Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof ran the Mrs. Davis premise through what's called an "AI visualizer program." Computer-generated images popped up when they typed prompts into a keyboard, like "nun," "epic adventure" and "resistance."

Other Hollywood writers say they're using AI in the form of language learning models to come up with ideas, or spin out potential plotlines, or to develop characters.

"I'm using it as a brainstorming tool and as a research aide," says TV writer Matt Nix, who tested several AI programs to give him episode ideas for his show True Lies.

He says he recently pitched a new show and needed to research how a particular government agency worked, which he could have done with a search engine. "But it's a lot easier to do it with a AI," he said, "because immediately after asking, 'okay, so what is the internal structure of this organization?' you can then start building on that and saying, 'okay, so let's say there's a character named Joe who has this position and let's say there's a character named Tina who has this position. How frequently would Joe and Tina be interacting?'"

Nix says when it comes to generating ideas, if you make a single request, an AI program is likely to spit out the most cliched version of what it's seen before. "But if you play with it and you say, 'no, no, I don't want just one idea for this. I want five ideas for this,' then it has to dig a little bit deeper and give you the less likely ideas."

Nix has been playing around with an AI app called Pickaxe, which was built by Mike Gioia and Ian Eck, who run a film and media production company. They presented their work this week at a summit called "AI On the Lot."

With Pickaxe, writers can generate written scenes by describing their plots and characters in a text box. Gioia says screenwriters have told them it's a helpful tool "to do 80 percent of the work for them, like get around writer's block, generate a B-minus version of a scene or conversation that they can then spruce up. It's far away from being able to write screenplays."

Gioia says he doesn't think many writers have to worry about losing their jobs to machines. Eck agrees, saying, "I see it's the creatives that are actually getting more empowered because you still need a creative mind. You need taste. You need to know what makes interesting drama, and interesting characters, what makes a story good, what makes it human. And that sensibility is not coming from the studio heads."

I tested out Pickaxe to see what it would come up with for the opening scene of a movie.... about an NPR reporter doing a story about how Hollywood writers are using A.I. Here's a condensed excerpt:


A young writer turns around and smiles.

YOUNG WRITER "We input data about what makes a successful movie - plot structure, genre conventions, character traits - and our algorithm generates a fully-formed screenplay."

Suddenly alarms blare. Red lights flash.

YOUNG WRITER "The algorithm! It's gone rogue!"

Panic ensues as Mandalit looks around in horror. The camera pans to show other workers screaming and running.

YOUNG WRITER "It's generating plotlines that make no sense, characters that contradict themselves. We have to stop it before it's too late."

The technology is still developing, but so far, even the AI generated script envisions the bots running amok... just like all those sci-fi movies we've seen before. [Copyright 2023 NPR]

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