AI for Hollywood: pay attention to the strike, because you’re next

This year, get ready for the greatest story Hollywood ever told. No, not Barbie, Indiana Jones 5 or Mission: Impossible 7. I’m talking about the labour dispute currently tearing Tinseltown apart — which is also the most public trial yet for the chilling potential of artificial intelligence.

AI: coming soon to a cinema (and office and factory and home) near you!

The Writers Guild of America walked out in May, followed last week by the Screen Actors Guild. The entertainment industry is in disarray. Film and TV sets have shut down. Red carpets are bare (the stars of Christopher Nolan’s new film Oppenheimer walked out in the middle of their London premiere). US TV networks are scrambling to fill schedules for the rest of the year with reality shows and imports — such as the delightful BBC sitcom Ghosts, coming this fall to CBS even though CBS literally already made an American version.

(Bob Bakish, CEO of Paramount and CBS, was paid $32 million in 2022.)

Burn, Hollywood, burn

But this is more than just people who’ve chosen to make stuff up for a living getting cross about how much they’re paid for it. You may have limited sympathy for millionaire movie stars, but the strike has shone a spotlight on the stark economics of life for the average writer, actor or performer whose name doesn’t make it onto the poster.

The strike has shone a spotlight on the stark economics of life for the average writer, actor or performer whose name doesn’t make it onto the poster.

Twitter is awash with examples of terrible pay, appalling practices and creative accounting by studios and streamers.

Laying workers off for a week to dodge holiday pay. Cooking the books of smash hit blockbusters to claim they haven’t made a profit and can’t pay out the people who created them. Streaming services like Netflix and Disney Plus ignoring the established practice of paying residuals or royalties when a film or TV series is shown and re-shown.

(Netflix bosses Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos are annually paid more than $50 million each.)

No business like show business

This Hollywood horror movie is about all of us. It’s a story about precarious employment and gross inequality. It’s about gig workers struggling to make ends meet or even be treated with basic dignity. Most of all, it’s about how we struggle while executives and shareholders make out like bandits.

And it’s about loopholes in new technology. Writers and other creative types raise ethical concerns about generative AI, which can synthesise almost-convincing imagery and text. ChatPGT and the like can generate a movie script that looks like a script, with the INTs and the EXTs in the right place and the dialogue neatly indented. What an AI-generated story lacks is emotion, wit or any connection at all with the feelings and experiences of actual humans expected to watch and pay for the resulting “content”.

But make no mistake: AI is already being used to create content — like the credits for Disney’s Marvel TV series Secret Invasion — and as Bard and Dall-E get better at faking it, it’s only a matter of time before AI is routinely employed. You could well see something similar happening in your workplace or sector, as AI is inserted into workflows. It’s an exciting time, certainly, but nerve-wracking for those of us who could simply be deemed replaceable by an algorithm.

(Disney CEO Bob Iger, who called strike demands “not realistic”, could earn $27 million this year.)

Hollywood sign (of the times)

One of the sketchy business practices emerging from the la la land fracas is the digital scanning of people working as extras. Scans of their bodies and faces can be used to build digital doubles and populate the background of future TV series and films — which means background work disappears. Various performers say they’ve already been scanned without anyone explaining why, let alone offering them compensation.

We’ve already seen “deepfakes” of actors who are no longer alive, like Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing in recent Star Wars flicks. We’re faced with likenesses being used without pay while the performer is still alive, even if their employment prospects aren’t.

Now apply that idea to your job. You do a day in the office, the AI follows what you did, you’re sent home with a day’s wages in your pocket and also the AI has your job now. You work one day and never work again. 

Sounds great! That’s exactly the golden future promised by AI: technology does the work and we all sit around eating grapes, appreciating poetry and evolving into all-round better people. Except the losing your job part is here right now, but relaxing about your rent and mortgage and sky-high food prices most definitely is not.

That’s why the WGA and SAG strike is significant. Hollywood is the highest-profile industry in the world. Workers in other industries may be worse off, but it’s exponentially harder for you or for anyone else to draw attention to the inequalities and exploitation in your workplace. Members of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA are shining an arc light on the potential for AI to be abused in their industry and in yours.

And it’s a must-watch.

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Richard Trenholm
Richard Trenholm

Richard is a former CNET writer who had a ringside seat at the very first iPhone announcement, but soon found himself steeped in the world of cinema. He's now part of a two-person content agency, Rockstar Copy, and covers technology with a cinematic angle for