More reality TV? AI-generated “South Park” episodes? Is this where Hollywood is heading thanks to the latest writer and actor strike? We find out from UCF experts how, and why, the strike will be resolved and how AI will play into plans moving forward. This is part one of a two-part episode.
- David Luna, Ph.D. – UCF College of Business
- Robin Cowie – Phygital Experience Creator & Feature Filmmaker
- Cassandra “Cassi” Willard, J.D. – Instructor, Department of Management, UCF College of Business & Program Director, Blackstone LaunchPad at UCF
- Ray Eddy, Ph.D – Lecturer, Integrated Business, UCF College of Business
SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher in a press conference July 13, 2023: The entire business model has been changed by streaming, digital, AI. This is a moment of history that is a moment of truth. If we don’t stand tall right now, we are all going to be in trouble. We are all going to be in jeopardy of being replaced by machines. You cannot change the business model as much as it has changed and not expect the contract to change too. We are labor and we stand tall and we demand respect.
Paul Jarley: Oh my, this is going to get really complicated. In the meantime, prepare for a new round of reality TV. This show is all about separating hype from fundamental change. I’m Paul Jarley, Dean of the College of Business here at UCF. I’ve got lots of questions, to get answers, I’m talking to people with interesting insights into the future of business. Have you ever wondered, is this really a thing? On to our show. The writers and actors haven’t been out on strike together since 1960. Then, it was partly about how television was impacting the film industry and getting residual income for writers and actors from movies that were then being shown on TV. The business model was changing and labor wanted its share. Screen Actors Guild President Fran Drescher’s comments at the start of this podcast note that technology is changing the business model again with streaming services, digital media and AI among the main drivers. This is a very complicated situation, so complicated, that we couldn’t fit it into our usual 25-to-30 minute podcast. So we decided to split it into two parts. Today we will tackle the basics of the strike and how and when we see it being resolved. The second part, we’ll do a much deeper dive into AI and Hollywood and how that is likely to change the industry going forward, especially for writers and actors. Essentially, we want to answer the question, will anybody be left in Hollywood in 10 years?
As always, to shed light on these topics, I’ve assembled a group of UCF experts. Cassandra Willard is an instructor and Program Director at our Blackstone Launchpad and a practicing attorney with extensive experience in entertainment law. Ray Eddy is a lecturer in our Integrated Business program with an interest in understanding consumer experiences. Ray is not just an academic, he has worked as a stuntman, started his own production company and written, directed and starred in several performances. If you’ve been to Walt Disney World in the last several years, you may have seen Ray playing Indiana Jones, in Indiana Jones: Epic Stunt Spectacular. David Luna is a professor in our Marketing department. He is currently working on several projects studying human machine interactions in the context of chatbots, intelligent agents and AI generally. And last but not least is Robin Cowie. Rob is a graduate of our motion picture technology program. He’s a little hard to summarize, having worked in a variety of positions in the industry, from EA Sports, to Nickelodeon, to the Golf Channel, to the Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts. Today, he is President and CTO of Promising People, a company that provides training and placement for people who have been incarcerated. But you probably know Robin best from his work as co-producer on “The Blair Witch Project.” Listen in. So there’s two things I know about technology in all my years being Dean. One of them is the marketing is always, always ahead of the reality. What the technology can actually do is usually some significantly paired down version from what the marketing people are telling you that it will do. At the same time, I also know that resisting technology is futile. We can go all the way back to the Luddites in their attempt to get rid of mechanized levers back at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and how that worked out for them. I’d like to start by grounding us in the present, and I’m going to rely on Robin and David for doing this. So I want to get some sense about what AI can actually, really do today. David. Can AI create an entire movie script, one that would lead to a successful movie?
David Luna: I think it is helpful to think about different genres and the fact that AI may be better at some genres than other genres. For example, if you’re talking about superhero movies, maybe an AI could write a script that it takes a franchise and and sort of perpetuates it in a fairly cheap way. But, but then when you’re talking about character-driven dramas as a different genre, maybe that, it would be a little more tricky. And what we are seeing in some of these attempts to have say, ChatGPT, write a script, is that oftentimes it does write a script. It may or may not be an interesting script. But one of the flaws that it generally has is that characters sort of contradict themselves. When a consumer observes another person, they infer certain character traits, so you form a mental image of what the other person is like, and then that character acts in a manner that it contradicts their personality then there’s a problem. And that’s what it seems to be happening with some of these scripts. On the creative side, altogether, what I would think, it seems like a partnership between an AI and a creative would work best with the creative supervising the AI’s work. It’s sort of an iterative process directing the AI, which is doing the more menial writing work in the, in the right direction and to make sure that everything is consistent and interesting.
Paul Jarley: Thank you, David. So Rob, you represent production here. So could the studios release and entirely AI-created movie today? Is that technically possible for them to do?
Robin Cowie: No, I think at this very moment in time, given the state of AI, no, it is not possible to do a completely AI-generated movie. There’s a lot of technical reasons that I can list out for why that’s the case. The most recent, and then when we say recent, this is literally last week, is that there’s an organization called Fable, who have released a series called “The Simulation.” These are a series of basically a parody of “South Park” episodes and they are complete “South Park” episodes with voice and, and everything like that. And that’s probably the most extensive we’ve seen so far, but in this exact point in time to release a feature film, no, not possible right now.
Paul Jarley: So I know both the writer strike and the actor strike is about more than just AI, right? There’s been pretty significant changes to those business models, particularly with streaming services that have left I think both the writers and the actors feeling a little bit like they’re on the short end of the stick, particularly when it comes to residuals. Listening to union leaders, I sort of get this impression: We kind of missed on how damaging streaming services would be to our income, we ain’t going to miss it over AI, because if we do we’re all going to be broke. Cassi, what do you think?
Cassandra Willard: One of my absolute favorite quotes from one of our former leaders of the entertainment, art and sports section of Florida Bar, he always used to holler at folks that you have to understand it’s called show business because without the business you have no show. And every single time you have an iteration of a different union strike, when you have the guilds raise their hand up, they’re looking to a large extent to safeguard the business side of the industry. Because without the business you’re going to see the entire house of cards collapse. So we need to sort out, and we’re being more proactive, and you see this in each iteration of going through and looking at this, but had we gone through and looked five years ago, pre-pandemic, we weren’t sitting around thinking about AI technology being a big push. We were more concerned about the digital side of things. And now AI rapidly becoming household information, it seems like over just the past few months. Now this is a bigger focus that our greater community is looking to, but our greater community is also looking to support the entertainment industry. We’re seeing great box office numbers, we’re seeing a lot of pushes, but we have to respect those in the industry to make sure that our market does continue and push forward as well.
Robin Cowie: Yeah, I love, I really like what you’re saying about business because to me I think that’s the heart of this and I think one of the great complexities here is that technology companies really own Hollywood now and that we live in the attention economy and not the actual revenue economy. So as somebody who literally went through a lawsuit to get a better accounting done because there were days of, still are days of, creative accounting, I’m very familiar with, you know, being sensitive to that. But the argument that they’re putting from the streaming side is that basically this doesn’t make money. The only one who’s making money is Netflix. We spent all of this money in our streaming service and none of them are making money. We’ll open our books to you and we’ll show you. It doesn’t make money. Streaming itself doesn’t make money, therefore we can’t pay more residuals. But the reality is, it does make money. If you’re Apple and people are using all your Apple tools and people are using your hardware and you’ve got their attention, it does make money if you are these bigger tech conglomerates. So what’s really happened is that the monetization model has changed. And so you’ve got a labor union on one side saying, hey, we want to measure this by old residuals. The studio complexes, they killed Blockbuster on purpose because they were losing a huge amount of money to Blockbuster. It was very expensive. Now the days of secondary, tertiary, international markets that’s gone away. One of the reasons why Netflix is leading this in the entertainment field is that they use their technology and win global faster than anyone else. So all I’m saying is it is about the business, the SAG and the Writer’s Guild is all about the business. The problem is you’ve got two different business models that they’re arguing over.
Paul Jarley: Well, let’s talk to Cassie about real people who have some legal rights and what those legal rights are. Is there anything that prevents a writer or an actor from entering into an agreement with someone to license their writing style or movie rights in perpetuity? Can they do that now?
Cassandra Willard: So one of the interesting things to always consider when you’re looking at any form of contract in the entertainment industry is your contracts are going to be based on negotiation between the parties and any restrictions that would exist existing in our laws right now, or any other encumbrances from unions or guilds or anything of that nature. Now it’s interesting to see the evolution because I’ve been practicing for over 20 years now, and I first started practicing and studying intellectual property under that dark cloud of those file sharing platforms that we’re supposed to ruin the music industry forever and a day. And it’s part of the reason why a decade ago, a member of Congress out and they wanted some details for me about what my thoughts would be on AI as far as ruining employment as a whole. They were researching an article about how AI was just going to completely implode and the robots would take over kind of theory. And ultimately there’s an element of humanity that you’re hearing this common thread that’s always going to exist. And it’s been fascinating for me over especially the past couple of years as some of my clients have pivoted. If they’re doing creative works, they’re linking into AI. If they’re traveling and they need a co-writer, if they’re brainstorming and they need some other ideas, they’re basically using AI as kind of like a group project. But the other thing that’s a deep, deep pull is the fact that these different platforms, these different AI groups that we have that exist, these entities are in a constant push and pull, just like the discussion we’re having right now, as far as who owns what, how it can be mobilized, how it can be exploited, how we can lay claim. Because these different platforms are trying to discern where the intellectual property exists. And as a faculty member, as an educator, we see this from the academic dishonesty, the plagiarism, we see this push and pull as far as originality is concerned.
Our industry is dealing in the same space. We need to figure out if this content is being created by a machine, is it a machine creating it as a work made for hire for a corporation? Since you have humans putting input into it, do these humans still lay claim in this space? So we have to look to see what we can bring to the table and negotiate. And we also have to think long-term because especially when we’re looking at our guild strikes that are going on right now, if you look at the history of these guild striking in the past, a good bit of what triggered these guild striking in the past was technology. It was not negotiating to add certain physical distribution elements to monetize, or not negotiating for certain digital elements to monetize. It’s part of the reason why we add all forms of media now known or here and after discovered, and we expand on the language over time because we’re not running around passing, you know, a Betamax or a VHS tape around a dormitory as the thing that’s going to make us go belly up for infringement. We have so much more mobility in this space. So when we’re now looking at machine-created content, we now need to think, how do we go through and wrap our arms around this so individuals have these rights? And part of it is the content creation that they would own otherwise is the content that they’re creating, truly intellectual property that exist to these individuals or these things that are being created as a work made for hire, at which point they just float up to the parent company that’s paying that check and the intellectual property is outside of their wingspan. But then again, we have to look at the platform that’s serving as kind of the co-writer to see if that co-writer space holds intellectual property rights as well. When it comes to the likeness rights, very similar format. And in the likeness rights side, we’ve had a lot of different actors lay claim to the right of likeness, especially when it comes to subsidiary rights, sales of merchandise, approval of merchandise, things of that nature. You know, weighing in the mention of Tom Hanks as an actor, building a line into the contract with a right to review and approve that approval won’t be, you know, withheld inappropriately, but being able to look at it to make sure that it reflects that right of likeness. So I think you’re going to see some more robust negotiations in this space. You’ll see some more strategy in this space as well.
Paul Jarley: Help me to understand though, Cassi, the contours of where the collective bargaining agreement ends and individual negotiation could take place. If I’m Tom Hanks, could I enter into an agreement with Paramount Pictures to give them my likeness in perpetuity for x hundred million dollars if that’s what I wanted to do?
Cassandra Willard: You’re going to have restrictions in that space due to our statutes. So our laws are going to put restrictions as far as length of contracts and to other elements that will come into play. We also want to look at just the base level of being competitive in the market to be able to mobilize yourself for future rights. Signing on to some sort of long-term exclusive agreement. You want to make sure you have some fluidity to be able to move on to different projects, into different productions, work in different realms in this space.
Paul Jarley: All right, you’re being very lawyerly with me. So how does it end? How does the strike end?
Robin Cowie: I think in tears and unfortunately in in tears specifically for the writers, I think they will lose against AI because if you look at all the tech companies, the number of AI engineers in a tech company that make up a tech is actually a very small fraction. But the amount of investment that’s going into AI right now is converse. So there’s no way that they’re going to step away from any of these initiatives and AI, you’re going to lose that battle. You’re just going to lose that battle. On the streaming side, I do think that actors and writers will get some give. And I do think that clarity and accountability for streaming services, that’s the best upside in my opinion for the writers and the actors.
Paul Jarley: You agree, Cassi?
Cassandra Willard: I think it’s going to be a robust debate for sure, to say the very least. And I do agree with Rob, kind of looking at those different rights. You still are going to have elements of human equity that are going to come into play, but ultimately we also have to look at the longevity in those survival of the industry as a whole. So that’s one element to also consider as the days tick by, that’s going to start to impact the industry as a whole too. And we’ve seen, you know, reality television was born to a large extent out of strike.
Paul Jarley: Oh no. Is there room for another round of reality TV? Or might AI-generated Southpark episodes be better? Cassi?
Cassandra Willard: That’s the other concern. You’re creating a vacuum of content and talent. So that’s the other element of part of any negotiation are elements of timing and scarcity. So that becomes a space as well. But this is a really unique time in the life of creativity and content because if you defer to AI, you can possibly buy yourself some gap filler if you don’t want to go the reality route, which that’s not something we’ve really seen in previous iterations.
Paul Jarley: Rob?
Robin Cowie: I will say that understanding human behavior and doing more and more customized content is really going to be there. Look, I’m a big believer in synthesis. I mean, I think we’re all basically cyborgs and I think we’re going to become more and more cyborgs. And it won’t be an uncomfortable cyborg state. It’ll be so intricate to us that we just won’t even realize how much it is that way. And it’s bad because, you know, we’ve seen what the echo chamber of TikTok is like, you know, what the echo chamber of social media is like, and basically we give, you know, we tend to serve up to people more of what they love, and can we do that synthetically with computers? You betcha. You know? So I think as humans, we have to really invest in confronting that, educating people, and instilling a love of humans.
Paul Jarley: Ray, I’m going to have you represent all actors here. What do you want your union to do in this situation?
Ray Eddy: Uh, yeah.
Paul Jarley: No pressure.
Ray Eddy: No pressure. Yes, I speak for everyone, exactly. In terms of, you know, acting and stunts as well, you know, they overlap a lot. I think the crucial thing we’re going to look for here is just that it won’t be just farmed out and there’s no need for anyone, any live performers ever again in the future. I think just having some language in there that, you know, we understand that if you need 10,000 extras, we get it, but we need to maintain a human creativity, the human voice, the human passion spirit that goes into artistic creation and eliminating that would be detrimental to the form of art itself.
Paul Jarley: It’s my podcast, so I get to go last. I learned a few things today. First, for the time being, everybody still needs everybody here. Producers still can’t make a totally viable product without creative people. The actors may be in a bit of a better position than the writers, but the industry still needs them both. Second, while streaming services are part of the value chain that makes money for their owners, and those owners, the tech companies, will want to continue to make money, strikes don’t make money. So while there are some very serious long run implications to all this stuff, we live life in the short run and there lies the basis for a deal. I see it going like this, history will repeat itself just like in 1960s and the groups will agree to provide the writers and actors greater residuals for streaming on productions that go to market probably after a certain date. Just like in the 1960 strike where the actors gave up residuals on old stuff to get revenue on new stuff. This way everybody understands those new rules. As Rob notes, there are some accounting issues to deal with here, but ultimately it will come down to revenue sharing in some manner. The world kind of lost its mind when ChatGPT 3 was released. It threatens a whole class of work that nobody saw coming, but it, like any technology has limitations. It will be a while before all this shakes out and we know what works and what doesn’t. So in the short run, we’re going to want some people to experiment with the safety harnesses on. That means, limitations on how AI can be used and perhaps how much content can be AI-generated. It also means getting some better data on how consumers will react to all of this stuff, what they will buy and what they won’t. How long that learning takes and how quickly the technology changes is a bit uncertain. AI seems to be getting exponentially better quicker. Humans who produce and consume AI-generated material may take more time to adapt. My guess is that the agreement will be a short one, just a couple years long, and that everybody will be back dealing with these issues again pretty soon. Also, keep in mind that not all of this is likely to be settled at the bargaining table. Issues of intellectual property and the consequences of industry restructuring may end up being dealt with in Washington and the courts. If one thing is certain, the lawyers most certainly will get paid. That’s the short run story in my view. Our next episode, we’ll take a deeper dive into AI and Hollywood and perhaps give you a few insights into the long run. So what’s your take? Check us out online and share your thoughts at business.ucf.edu/podcast. You can also find extended interviews with our guests and notes from the show. Special thanks to my new producer, Brent Meske, and the whole team at the Office of Outreach and Engagement here at the UCF College of Business. And thank you for listening. Until next time, charge on.