artificial intelligence (AI) | Artificial intelligence and film: Actors and writers fear obsolescence dws

Hollywood is at a standstill. Its screenwriters have been on strike since May. Now, in mid-July, actors joined them on the picket lines. They’ve walked off sets, left film premieres and canceled promotional interviews. The effects of the Hollywood strike are being felt internationally.

In a business still absorbing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, inflation and the rise of streaming services, the screenwriters and actors are striking not only for a living wage, but above all, for protection from artificial intelligence (AI).

Concerns about digital exploitation

And indeed, AI could herald a sea change in film and television production, which has alarmed the unions representing the screenwriters and actors. Writers fear that programs like ChatGPT could be used to write entire screenplays. And actors are fighting for the right to their own image and voice: Modern algorithms can create a digital likeness of them that could be used endlessly without additional payment, and the same could be done with voices, say concerned Hollywood creators.

The specter of a new form of digital exploitation is spreading fear not just in Hollywood but on European sets as well. There’s a lot of solidarity on this side of the Atlantic with colleagues in the United States because the situation for creators is the same more or less everywhere.

While the public thinks of Hollywood actors as global stars like Meryl Streep or Leonardo DiCaprio, making millions per film, the reality is that most SAG-AFTRA actors’ union members live from paycheck to paycheck, struggling to pay rent or qualify for health insurance.

The situation in Germany is similar, where 70% of the country’s actors make less than €30,000 ($33,400) per year, and 60% make less than €20,000, according to the homepage of the German actors’ union. Only 4% earn more than €100,000 per year. They, too, are grappling with income loss from the pandemic and inflation, as well as the unclear payment practices of streaming services — and now comes the threat of artificial intelligence.

‘Massive need for action’

Many in the film business, both in the US and Germany, are worried about their futures.

“Structurally, and in terms of the market situation, we have the same problems,” says Hans-Werner Meyer, a board member of the Bundesverband Schauspiel (BFFS) in Berlin, the country’s largest actors’ association. But not all aspects are the same, he says: “In the US, the producers and distributors are usually the employers,” Meyer tells DW. “The structure there is simpler: On the one side, a very strong trade union, on the other side the strong distributor/employer. It’s a classic labor dispute.”

But in Germany, the beneficiaries of the productions — streaming services and television broadcasters — are not simultaneously the employers. That makes it difficult to regulate the complicated issue of collective bargaining.

However, from the point of view of creators and performers, there is a huge need for regulation when it comes to the use of artificial intelligence. Meyer isn’t the only one who sees it that way; Jan Herchenröder, executive director of the German Screenwriters Association, agrees: “We see a very, very massive need for action here!”

A machine ‘can’t go into depth’

What can ChatGPT do that a human writer can’t? “If you give the software the right information, it can do research very quickly, put together pitches, initial templates, initial texts, and even build scenes and dialogue,” says Herchenröder. So what can’t a machine do? “It can’t go into depth. Not yet …”

When it comes to developing a screenplay for a feature film or a single episode of a series, to creating conflicts or emotional situations for human characters, then AI programs fail. What’s scary, says Herchenröder, is the efficiency of the algorithms: “The time frame that you normally need to develop a plot keeps shortening significantly. And anything that can be done faster in terms of time costs less.” And producers know this.

From the point of view of creators, there is an urgent need for rules regarding AI-driven production. Even the mass data training of AI software with existing texts, images and sounds is nothing more than a “gigantic global raid by the trans-Atlantic tech giants.”

Creators demand a compensation system

Herchenröder is calling for creators to receive compensation, including retroactively. For that, he says, transparency is necessary, as well as a system of payment, “so that legally protected works that are used as data are also remunerated!” The organized actors are demanding something similar, says Hans-Werner Meyer of the actors’ association.

But who will impose new rules for the AI age on the film industry? And what if those rules come too late? “Politicians have woken up and become active,” says Herchenröder, referring to the planned European Artificial Intelligence Act (AI Act). “The technology is there; guardrails are needed for its use.”

Who decides whether AI is used, and if so, in what form? Of course, says Herchenröder, sovereignty over AI use must remain with the authors. “We simply assume that, in the future, viewers will still want to have stories of their world told by other humans.”