In Hollywood, the first weeks of every year are dedicated to parallel and overlapping rituals, including Golden Globes prep, pre-Oscar nomination parties and packing up for the Sundance Film Festival. This year, though, the usual awards season chatter was spiked with more anxiety than usual.
On January 12, the day before the part-glitzy, part-gemtlich AFI Awards luncheon, the ‘Hollywood Reporter’ (THR) published a story about ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence program that for months had been captivating - and kind of scaring - American culture with its ability to spit out surprisingly convincing essays, poems and news articles based on a few prompts.
Amid worries that students are using ChatGPT to fake school essays and that bad actors will use it for disinformation and worse, in the movie business, at least, the technology has been received with a combination of alarm and wary optimism. Although ChatGPT had “set off alarm bells” throughout the industry, Katie Kilkenny and Winston Cho wrote in ‘THR’, “top film and TV writers are skeptical that the technology in its current state imperils their livelihoods in any way, even as they remain cautious about future advancements.”
“In its current state” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence - a sentence that, for all its diplomatic restraint, might have been fashioned by ChatGPT itself. If any major industry has been upended by technology’s Darwinian iterative march it’s been in the world of visual storytelling, wherein everything from computer graphics and previsualization programs to de-aging software have revolutionized fictional world-building and, by extension, our perception of the actual world.
In just two decades, we’ve traveled from the Uncanny Valley to movie stars morphing into their past selves as seamlessly as Deepfake Tom Cruise can palm a coin. “I don’t know how they do it,” Harrison Ford recently told Stephen Colbert, describing how tech invented by George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic hoovered up past footage to create his younger persona in the upcoming ‘Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny’. “But that’s my face.” There’s even chatter that Jonah Hill and Lauren London had so little chemistry on set that they needed AI to finish their Big Kiss in the Netflix rom-com ‘You People’.
These astonishing advances are part of what we’ve come to crave from a medium based on constantly upping the ante on spectacle. But when it comes to actually writing the movies - dreaming up a story, hammering out the plot, elaborating characters, dialogue and overriding themes - it feels like a new and disquieting Rubicon is about to be crossed.
So far, no one has suggested that ChatGPT could credibly write an entire script. Were a producer to use the technology, it would more likely be to create a treatment - a narrative that outlines the broad parameters of the story - or a synopsis. Writers who have experimented with AI have speculated that it could be helpful, if not in coming up with original ideas, maybe at least in sparking a few, and doing away with the drudgery of coming up with “loglines” and “beat sheets,” Hollywood-ese for scut work.
Still, it’s not just possible but utterly probable that ChatGPT will eventually be able to deliver a credible first draft of a script, with human writers being hired to provide punch-ups and polishes. (Apparently, the technology has yet to master comedy, especially zingy one-liners; even for ChatGPT, it seems, dying is easy, comedy’s hard.)
The idea that AI has finally come for the writers’ room has created an odd mix of apprehension, curiosity and defensive crouch in Hollywood. The Writers Guild of America declined my request for an interview, sending the same statement that they gave to THR: “We’re monitoring the development of ChatGPT and similar technologies in the event they require additional protections for writers.” (It has not gone unnoticed that talk of “replacing” human screenwriters with a bot presents studios and streamers with a convenient threat when their current contract expires on May 1.) Writers contacted to contribute to this article politely demurred, if they responded at all.
The hesitation, if not outright angst, is understandable: It’s as if Stanley Kubrick’s HAL (sorry, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s HAL) were coming back to haunt the profession that for decades has turned AI into a reliably dystopian trope. But it also elides an inconvenient truth about mainstream filmmaking that most screenwriters would prefer go un-emphasized, which is that their craft has always been a bastardized art form.
Cinema’s most famous and historically lionized auteurs have been writer-directors - John Cassavetes, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson - whose films are entirely of a piece, unsullied by the fingerprints of helpful “script doctors.” But most American movies are the product of many hands on the keyboard. Virtually since the inception of film - certainly since Thomas Ince invented something called the “shooting script” in the early 1910s, introducing the principles of assembly-line efficiency to the Dream Factory - the practice of screenwriting has been less about singular creation than endless tweaks, second guesses, page-one rewrites and cuts deep and wide enough to give the most ruthless editor pause. All in the name of a better, more commercial product.
Although “writing by committee” is often held in contempt by purists, the process has resulted in some of the most sublime movies ever made, from ‘Casablanca’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz’ to ‘Children of Men’.
Just as often, though, the presence of so many chefs in the kitchen has resulted in formulaic, drearily predictable McMovies that feel extruded rather than made. Hollywood legend and lore are rife with absurdly large writing teams - many of them, to be fair, working through years-long development. Still, we’ll never really know how many people’s fingerprints are on, say, “Transformers,” that statistic being lost to the winds of time and the vagaries of the writers guild’s arbitration process. Simon Brew, who has covered this subject extensively for the website Den of Geek, counted 35 writers who worked on ‘The Flintstones’, besting ‘Catwoman’s’ team of 28 by a whisker.
And really, can anyone who has suffered through the turgid plot and shockingly cliche dialogue of James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ movies argue that ChatGPT would do any worse? Or that a computer program couldn’t be counted on to come up with the kind of canon-approved deliverables contractually required from every director of a Marvel or Star Wars movie? Indeed, who would be able to tell that our computer overlords hadn’t had a hand in some of those movies already?
The good news is that it will be a long time before the final iteration of ChatGPT - or its inevitable clones - can replicate the most ineffable nuances of the human heart. They’d do well to accept the following prompt from George Burns: “Sincerity - if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”