Artificial intelligence will likely impact every type of job. But this summer, Hollywood actors and writers have raised substantial concerns about the ways in which generative AI systems may be used to replace aspects of their human craft. The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and the Writers Guild of America (WGA) are currently joined in a dual strike, hoping to make progress on a range of labor grievances with the studios and streaming companies that employ them.
Today’s guest is Justine Bateman, a writer, director, producer, author, and member of the Directors Guild of America (DGA), the WGA, and SAG-AFTRA. Bateman has been on both sides of the camera for much of her life, and has a particularly sharp perspective on how AI may change the entertainment industry, and why it matters to all workers that the unions are standing up on these issues now.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion.
My name’s Justine Bateman. I am writer, director, producer, author. I am a member of the DGA, the WGA, and SAG. And if I found a way to belong to IATSE and Teamsters, I could have the entertainment union EGOT.
And I should point out also as well, someone who holds a degree in computer science and digital media management, which I suppose together with all of that experience makes you perhaps one of the best placed people to talk about the implications of AI and the current strike in the entertainment industry more generally. I was struck by your piece in Newsweek, your imagination around how you think AI will play out. And I’d love for you to perhaps share that with my listeners. What do you think’s going to happen to the entertainment industry as generative AI and other forms of AI become more prominent?
Well, for anyone who doesn’t know, and I’m really simplifying it, what generative AI even means. Just picture a blender or a box. And on its own, it can’t really do anything, it needs to be fed something. So generative AI in the arts you can imagine is if you want to produce a cool painting, you feed it as many paintings as possible, then you give the AI program a task and it’ll spit out an amalgamation of what you fed it. Same thing with scripts, books, acting performances, entire films. So people can see how egregious the idea of generative AI is in the entertainment business. Because not only would you be replacing our work, but you’d be replacing our future work with an amalgamation of our past work.
Here’s how I see things going, and if anybody wants to see demos of this, I encourage them to go to my Twitter account or my Instagram account. I put a lot of videos on there, and this is just consumer facing software, these demos, this isn’t even the high end, more expensive option that I’m sure NVIDIA is offering many, many people right now.
Another interesting point for people to look at, and then I’ll get into the progress of how I think it’s going to progress or rather the steps I think this progression will take. I encourage people to look at this article. I think it was an adage about WPP, the ad agency conglomerate. They own Young & Rubicam and all these different ad agencies, something like Publicis Group. They own a bunch of ad agencies as well. And look at the relationship they have developed with NVIDIA, and now they’re at a point where they’re almost merging. And NVIDIA, as people probably know, they produce GPUs, which are essential for graphic processing. And I know they do a lot of other things, but that’s the only thing that I have been focused on with this company.
And when they say things like we and excitedly in this article, Nvidia said, “We are going to be putting together the algorithm, the methodology, the structure, the infrastructure.” Basically the entire setup for WPP, for their brands to send out individualized ads. Now, if I’m a brand at some point very soon, I look at WPP and I wonder why I’m paying them. I’m going to make a deal directly with NVIDIA because if they have this entire set it and forget it generative AI, it’s more complicated than a algorithm people know. Then I’m not using a creative director, I’m not using any copywriters. What do I need WPP for? And I think the same type of thing will happen in entertainment very soon.
So I think the process goes something like this. In entertainment, right now we have of course directors and writers and actors and cinematographers and a crew and the distribution and all of that. But what if we do generative AI, fed it in all of these films and then made available to viewers something that was customized to them, customized to their viewing habits. And they have many years of every individual’s viewing habits. And let’s say you watch films that are Hong Kong action films and you also watch a lot of nature documentaries. So they’re going to put together nature documentaries/Hong Kong action films, et cetera.
So that’s one thing, these customized pieces. Then they can also for an upcharge, ask every viewer to go to a particular establishment and go get themselves scanned and then they can put them in the film. Another thing, they’ll ask you to upload a picture and which is all you need for face replacement. And they can replace, let’s say you order up or I want to watch Star Wars tonight and put my face on Luke Skywalker’s body, and I’m talking about things that are currently available.
And then for the future, and I don’t know how close we are to something like this, but I think it’s definitely on the very near horizon is feed in all the episodes of an old show, let’s say M*A*S*H or Fran Drescher’s show, The Nanny or something. And let’s say they only did six seasons, they could generate a 7th season without any overhead, but the cost of the generative AI processing.
You’ve pointed out that not only will this technology affect actors and writers and directors, but also other folks in the industry who are behind the camera, everybody from the caterer on through to the grip and the lighting folks. It’s not hard to imagine the footage and the content that’s generated by generative systems being put into virtual environments, maybe in some game engine and manipulated in post-production without terribly many humans being involved at all.
And I think that option is more enticing to the studios and streamers right now than anything else. I don’t know what Netflix, what did they spend on making films and series last year? I don’t know what the number is. Let’s say it was $4 billion and let’s say they made $7 billion. I don’t know what the numbers are, I’m just making things up. What if you could make $7 billion and only have spent $1 billion or half a billion? What if you could cut that overhead?
It’s pretty difficult to cut it if you’re not using generative AI. But if you are, then all those people you’ve just mentioned, when you hire people in the entertainment business, if they’re part of a union, you not only have to pay for their work that day, but you also have to pay fringes, which is their pension and health. You have to feed them, you have to put them up if you’re on location, there are all these other expenses that are beyond just that salary. And if you could cut that out, then your profit margin would be incredible. And I think that’s the motivation in all the sectors that are adopting some form of generative AI, whether it’s just text or speech or full-blown video.
So what you’re saying is that to some extent, you imagine the executives who are running these media and film companies to some extent, the perfect price of content is zero?
Yes. And it’s never been closer to doable.
So I want to talk a little bit about this moment. You have pointed out in prior interviews that you know think that this is perhaps the last moment of leverage that the industry will have. Why is that? What makes this moment such a last stand in your mind?
Well, you can see right now with everyone going on strike, anything that was in production stopped. People just left the locations wherever they were shooting, the actors did. With writing, it’s harder to stop things on a dime because there are scripts that the studios or streamers had already purchased that they could go ahead and shoot. The same thing would’ve happened if directors went on strike. Everything would’ve just stopped on a dime. Now, if you’re making things with generative AI, nothing stops. So I feel, and this is also based on what the AMPTP lawyers, and for anyone who doesn’t know, that’s the association of all these streamers and studios, where they bargain together. Based on what they asked for from the writers and the actors in terms of generative AI, indicates to me that they are further along than anybody knows.
I’ll give you comparison. I was on the negotiating committee for the Screen Actors Guild and on the board in ’07, ’08. So during that negotiation when we were talking about made for new media, that was the new area. YouTube had a upload restriction of three minutes, that’s how long ago this was technologically. And we said, “Okay, well what about when you distribute stuff online?” And they’re going, “Made for new media, that’s so new. We don’t even know if one can make any money over there.” And I was already working in digital media at that time as a writer and producer. And so I said to the negotiating committee, I said, “This is bullshit. This is just another way to distribute things. Trust me, you’ve got to get real estate in here. We have to have rates in here, we have to have residuals. This is just like when TV began and it’s just another way to distribute the same work.”
And we got some, but not enough. And still to today, still today rather, and still today, there are gains that we need to make in that area, all the unions do, to catch up to where they have… Our increases with made for new media residuals have not at all matched the degree to which these studios and streamers have succeeded with made for new media, what it used to be called. So contrast that with now, the asks. They didn’t even say, “Why would we talk about AI? We don’t know if that’s going to be useful at all.” When they said to the Writers Guild, we are not talking about it, I immediately knew that they had already fed in whatever scripts they could get ahold of into some kind of LLM.
When they said to the actors, “Okay, we will give you consent and some sort of compensation if it’s a direct digital double of you, but we’ll only give you a little bit of compensation and no consent if we’re just feeding into a generative AI model and making sort of Frankenstein where you can order up like, ‘I want a character that’s a little bit of Brad Pitt and a little bit of George Clooney who dances like Fred Astaire, these kind of Frankenstein orders.'” That to me was very telling. I was like, “There’s no way. We can’t allow to not have any consent.” You can just use all of the work from the past and not ask anybody if they’re okay with being replaced by an amalgamation of their work? It’s crazy. And I think SAG gives up that, you handed them the keys to the house because then no longer to the point you made earlier. Then you no longer need any of the crew members on a set.
Listen, I think all this is going to happen anyway, but at least we can set some sort of example for how other industries can push back. And so in that sense, this, I believe 2023 is the last time that any of these unions will have leverage on their own. I think in 2026, if DGA WGA and SAG banded together, I think that might be the only way we have leverage. And maybe somehow we can get the IATSE and Teamsters cycle to match up with ours. And that would mean extensions and stuff. And I don’t know how possible that is. But I’m just saying in three years, I think they’ll be so far along with AI only films that I don’t know that they’ll care if we go on strike.
Is there a difference between the interests of the WGA and the Screen Actors Guild and other unions on this in terms of what they want?
There’s some things that are very similar. Generally speaking, it’s extremely similar. But of course the writers have some asks that are unique to them. TV series writers used to be engaged for the entirety of a series, and the series also used to be 22 episodes or around there instead of now eight. And now they’ve reduced the writer’s involvement in many cases to get in a room, four weeks, eight weeks, something, write all the scripts for the entire season and then go away. The showrunners probably had experience on a set doing a show, but none of these other writers and that’s your farm. That’s how you build new showrunners. So that’s one thing that is an extreme problem.
And then I think one thing we all have in common definitely is a concern with AI and then streaming residuals. The reason residuals were established many, many years ago, I’m not going to remember the story exactly, but I believe it was musicians on radio. I think they were like two shows a day or something that they were contracted to do and they would pay them for the two shows. And then they said, “Well, listen, we’re going to record the first show and just play the second show. You guys don’t have to come in.” And the musicians said, “Well, you just took a session away from us. You have to pay us for that too. You can’t just replace us with and not compensate the loss of the second session.”
And so in that sense, if streamers just want to and basic cable’s a very low residual structure as well. But in particular streamers, you want to have all this. You’re just a website. If you don’t have all of this material, you’re just a website with no reason for anyone to come to it. So if you want to have all this material on there that’s just available endlessly, you can see how that displaces anybody’s additional employment, like those radio musicians or those musicians for the radio, the point they were making.
Is there some context in which you would like to take advantage of AI or can you imagine actors, writers, others in the industry who are currently advocating for their own interests, seeing some of the benefit of artificial intelligence? Have you been presented with the opportunity to license your avatar in contracts, for instance?
It’s something I am 100% disinterested in. So for me as a filmmaker, I’m going in the complete opposite direction. I want to make new things that have a deeper emotional impact to the viewer than any work I’ve done before. Or ideally, what if I could make something that had a greater emotional impact than any film before? I don’t even know if that’s possible, but if you have that as a goal, you can’t use AI for anything. It’s generative, automatic imitation. So all it is going to regurgitate the past. I would never be making anything new, and I would also be stealing from myself of my own enjoyment to do anything, to make film.
I love writing and directing. Why would I give that away to somebody? So for me, it’s not for me, but the job of these unions is to set a floor, set a default, and the default for actors and writers and directors too. I’d like to see directors’ past work protected because now they can feed it all in and just say, “Well, I want something that’s in the style of PT Anderson, or “I want something that’s in the style of Alfred Hitchcock or something like that.” Which I think we have a responsibility to not necessarily older, but to directors’ past work. We have a responsibility to all of those directors.
So if the default for, say, Writers Guild or Screen Actors Guild is no, then that takes the pressure off them. That’s what a union is for. A union is supposed to establish the floor. What’s the default? The default can’t be yes for things like this where then it’s up to the individual to say, “No, I don’t want to do this.” It’s up to the union to say, “This is not allowed without compensation and consent.” So that means they would have to go to the actor or go to the writer and say, “Do you consent to this? And what would you like to be paid?”
Particularly for actors, because they can be on location in say, Europe, on a film. The second AD knocks on their trailer asking them to come out and we’re ready for you on the set to shoot a scene. You’re in the mindset of doing this creative work, of playing this character. And then he hands you a document and says, “You need to sign this first.” And you have to shift gears and say, “Well, wait a minute, what is this?” And they say, “Oh, well, we’re going to do a scan of you later.” And you ask, “What’s that for?” And he says, “I’m not really sure, but you need to sign this. They say, you need to sign this before you come on the set.” And then you try to get your agent on the line, but it’s the middle of the night because you’re in a different time zone. So middle of the night for the agent.
And so the actor themselves is faced with signing away their likeness and then continuing on to go to set or holding up the entire day. It’s not fair to put any actor in that kind of position, which is why the default has to be no, and it has to be compensation consultation. And I think personally, you really got to spell out exactly what you’re going to be doing with it, because it’s also for an actor… For a writer, it’s horrible to take their material and do whatever you want with it. But a writer can write another script, which doesn’t make it any less horrible, but for an actor, it’s criminal.
It’s your body.
It’s creative identity theft. We’re going to see it in the election coming up. There’s going to be so many things going on with generative AI in other areas of our lives that are really going to toss people’s sense of reality.
I want to ask you about that, perhaps. Is there a message that you might have for policymakers who are considering AI more broadly, considering generative AI, perhaps specifically that perhaps you would give beyond the interest just of the entertainment and creative industries. What do you think policymakers should be doing around this technology?
I think policymakers should get off their asses right now and do something about it right now. Europe didn’t have a problem doing something immediately. I think in back in April, they started introducing legislation, honestly. I think it seems to me the problem might be that these enormous tech companies who are now over here part of the AMPTP, think about that. We’re not just negotiating against the biggest companies in Hollywood. We’re negotiating against the biggest companies in the world, and these extremely large companies have contributed to these political campaigns. And I think unless there’s a politician that wants that gravy train to stop, they’ll continue to drag their feet like they’re doing right now.
I think there was a AI, they posted this, I forget what it was called, but they had all these AI… There was somewhat of a hearing. This was a big video presentation and they had all these people come and talk and tell them more about what’s coming and all of this. And I’m sure most of them talking about how exciting it is. And they came out of there, shrugging their shoulders. Quote after quote after quote in this article was, “Gee, I’m not really sure what we can do here. We don’t want to stop innovation.” They know exactly what they need to do. Exactly. Really any politician who said that, look at who their contributors are. And I bet you will find these big tech companies on there.
Perhaps these days, harder to find a politician that is not receiving funds in some way or other from one of the large tech firms.
They can thank Citizens United and all the Supreme Court justices that let that go through where corporations could be seen as people and contributed in kind. I think that was the worst thing they could have done to U.S. politics.
I’ll ask you maybe just two last questions. One is, you have pointed out how important the timing of the strike and perhaps the emergence of things like ChatGPT, just November last year, just a few months ago, really. This convergence. Do you think AI would be as big an issue as it is in this particular moment if it weren’t for ChatGPT, if it weren’t for OpenAI’s release of that product late last year?
Yeah, you bring up a good point. So our negotiation cycle for the entertainment unions is three years. I’m pretty sure that’s true for all of them. I could be wrong. Definitely for WGA, SAG and DGA. So here comes our cycle the summer of 2023 or spring/summer of 2023. I started posting about the threat to the entertainment business in about February. So you say this became available to the public in November, and I’m thinking, what if it had become available to the public instead of November 2022, November of 2023? And what if WGA, DGA, and SAG had negotiated? It just would’ve seemed like another round of negotiations. Not much has changed. Try and get more for streaming residuals and things like that, but basically go the same route as maybe the 2020 negotiations or the one before that.
And then they had released access to these generative AI models to the public, and we would’ve just had to sit there for three years and just watch it disappear. And we would’ve never had leverage again. So I don’t know why it worked out that way, but it’s pretty lucky. Because I had a Bloomberg journalist make a good point. She said, “It’s great in a way that it’s coming after the entertainment business first because you guys have really strong unions and people are also interested in your business. And so people are watching, people are listening.” And maybe we can become a template for, or at least a model for how to push back and not just lay down.
And it’s people that are like, “Oh, Bateman, you got to just go with it. It’s the future. It’s what’s happening.” And I’m like, “Give me a break.” They’re like, “It’s out there. It’s out there. There’s nothing you can do about it.” Yeah, I know there’s nothing I do about it, but fentanyl’s out there too. But I’m not going to go snort it because it’s available and it’s not the future. It’s an absolute 100% regression. It is the opposite of the future. It is the opposite of innovation, it is the opposite of the new. All it is regurgitating everything that is available online or otherwise. You could feed it in anything. I think it’s the absolute wrong direction for society and in particular the arts.
I don’t think that I can stop it. I have been attempting to since February, just tell the rest of the people on the beach that the tsunami’s coming, because I really love everyone who’s called to this business, and I don’t want them to be caught unawares because the AI infiltration into our society and into various businesses is insidious. It’s something that will be brought in by whoever your boss is and set up underneath within the infrastructure of that company. And as soon as it’s set up and in place, they’ll say bye-bye to you. It’s not going to be, “Hey, we’re thinking about bringing this in.” And that is the problem the AMPTP has right now is that they don’t have it completely built up yet. They would’ve loved it if this had come out in November of 2023. If I was the AMPTP, I would’ve agreed to everything and then in the background, made my all AI films and then 2026 comes around and I just say, “We’re not going to be a signatory anymore. We don’t need to negotiate with any of you.”
So they’ll probably do that anyway. I think this is really going to burn the entire business down. I’m not meaning that to sound like a dramatic idea. I really do think we will see the end of the entertainment business, of this 100 year old entertainment business. But those who are called to this, if they just hold on, I believe on the other side, viewers will, after they are done with the novelty of it and the novelty of seeing themselves in all of it, I think they’ll feel like the end of Supersize Me. They’ll start feeling sick. That’s where Morgan Spurlock ate McDonald’s every day for 30 days. Sounds great at first and then not so good.
And I think then they will start rejecting AI and they will start rejecting any “content” that seems like AI. And they will also be distrustful of anything they’re seeing or reading because it’ll be so much infiltration of AI. And I think they will want to see and hear. They will want music and films and series that are really raw, really human, really obviously made by humans. And I think that will lead to a new genre in the arts, and we haven’t had one of much significance, I should say, since the 90s because tech has been center stage for like 15 years solid. And it needs to step aside and of other things in life, be in the middle here.
Any predictions on how long the strike will go on?
A prediction? I would predict a month. If I’m the AMPTP, I let them whoop it up for two weeks in this heat, and then I give them another two weeks to start feeling the heat and then I start. I don’t know, it’s interesting. They’ve put themselves in a bad position because they’ve got a lot of films that they need to release right now. A lot of actors that they need to help promote these films. So they’re in a bit of a negotiating bind, I think. So that’s just a very weak prediction. That’s not me saying, I think this is the way it’s going to go. I’m just throwing out a 30-day thing into the Justin prediction pot.
Well, perhaps I can bring you back on in a couple or three years time at that next cycle. We’ll see what the impact of AI was in this moment. And perhaps if some of your predictions about this tide that’s about to wash over the industry come true, hopefully your efforts to educate and engage with folks will perhaps improve matters. But I thank you so much for joining me today.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.