RESEARCHFive Hollywood writers discuss AI’s impact on their careers

In this ongoing storytelling series, workers in AI-disrupted industries share their perspectives.

April 12, 2024

Raphael Bob-Waksberg


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Leah Folta

TV story editor

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Danny Tolli

Co-executive producer

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Jackie Penn

TV writer

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David Goodman

Executive producer

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Photos by Phil Cheung and David Walter Banks

Recent advances in generative artificial intelligence (AI) are poised to substantially disrupt the writing profession. According to forthcoming Brookings research, writers and authors are 100% exposed to generative AI—the highest possible exposure score.

In 2023, generative AI's potential threat was at the forefront of a labor dispute between Hollywood writers and the studios that employ them. That May, the 11,000-plus members of the Writers Guild of America went on strike. After 148 days, the union secured a contract with historic protections for writers.

In this first set of stories in an ongoing series, five Hollywood writers offer their reflections from the frontlines of these efforts to shape the way generative AI impacts their work. They share their perspectives on generative AI, what is at stake for themselves and society, and what Washington, D.C. policymakers as well as workers in other professions can learn from their experiences.

Learn more about the AI protections that Hollywood writers secured and their implications for other workers in this case study.

Workers and AI: Voices from the front lines of disruption

In this ongoing series, Brookings Metro introduces you to workers in occupations that will likely face disruption from generative AI, including writers, legal assistants, illustrators, accountants, and customer service representatives.

In their own words, these workers will share what they feel is at stake as well as the risks and opportunities AI presents. Their stories are accompanied by in-depth case studies exploring AI’s effect on these industries and what policymakers, employers, and each of us can do to enable workers to benefit from AI and avoid potential harm.

Read the companion case study »

Read about the project »

Meet the writers

I think Washington should take this seriously. This is something that unites workers across all industries: the fear that automation is going to take over our jobs. If we can have some protections where we, the workers, can control the automation, then the automation can be used to help us do our jobs. I don’t think anyone would be against that. We’re not saying we want to go back to the rotary phone. We’re not saying we want innovation to stop in its tracks. We’re saying we need to hold the keys. Because when companies hold the keys, we get cut out. And it’s devastating for communities, it’s devastating for families, it’s devastating for workers.

I’m very down, artistically, on the idea of AI art. I’m not threatened on an artistic level, I’m threatened on a business level. I am worried that the people who have the money and who are going to spend it on content will invest it in the wrong places. And at some point, there will be a tipping point and it will be too late.

If you were to take a technology like this and say, ‘We’re going to give this to artists and make their lives easier and make their artistic power even greater,’ I would say, ‘Oh, that’s really interesting.’ But I don’t trust the companies to do that...I can see that the studios are going to over-rely on this technology in a way that hurts us as a workforce, but also hurts the product. It’s going to make a lot of bad stuff.

It was in the conversations with other writers and the rallying around this issue in the [Writers Guild] negotiation that made me realize: We actually don’t need to convince the companies that this is a mistake. We just need to exert our power. Because right now we’re at a place where if we say, ‘It’s us or the machines,’ they’re going to pick us because they know the machines aren’t good enough to completely replace us right now. This is the time when we have the leverage and the power to get some of this into our contract before it’s too late. And not rely on the studios believing in the greater good or believing in our rational arguments that that this would be better, but to actually just exert our power and make them listen. And that’s what we did.

I’m really kind of amazed at what we were able to do as a guild. I hope other unions were paying attention. Workers are going to demand similar things in their industries, because this affects all different kinds of people—it’s not just about TV writing…I think we need to organize. I think it’s going to require unions. I think it’s going to require rallying politicians, and it’s going to require large groups of people working together. Obviously, you’re not going to stop innovation—that’s a foolish thing to hope for, nor would I want to. But I think you can create some guardrails around it and use political power and worker power to protect people.

I love writing. I don’t have a backup career. I don’t have other options because I never wanted any. There is no other sure thing I could do to make a stable living instead. So, since I am good at this, and it’s the only thing I spent my adult life training to do, and I love it, I’m going to stick around for as long as it takes.

Early on in our union contract meetings, the idea of worrying about AI was such a sci-fi-sounding thing that only a fringe group of people cared about it. I wasn’t very convinced until I saw a John Oliver episode that made me think: This actually is something that will be disrupting industries, and maybe I should pay more attention. Then I realized it didn’t really matter if it is as good as a person—it matters whether companies will use it as a tool to make their projects cheaper by paying people less.

How do I feel about generative AI? Recycling. Plagiarism. Keeping us stuck creatively as an industry and just wanting more of the same. Risk aversion. Whatever the opposite of ‘worker-friendly’ is. Just a way to keep more money in the companies rather than paying their workers.

I feel that unions are literally the only way for workers to protect themselves or make change for themselves. Power is so imbalanced between the giant companies we all work for and each individual worker that it’s the only protection that we have and definitely the only way we can affect change.

Growing up, I was so affected by stories that made me feel less alone. If we want that out of our entertainment—if we want something that can really help people, make them feel more connected, and give our country more empathetic citizens—we need to take the content of our media seriously. I don’t know how you can accomplish that with AI. It can give you a structure, it can write a story with the beats that we expect. But it can’t give you a moment of honesty, of how it feels to be from a certain community, to just be human.

I am first-generation Latino, born and raised in Queens. I come from a very working-class, blue-collar background. My parents, as immigrants, wanted the American dream for me. They wanted me to pursue a career as a doctor or a lawyer. And unfortunately, I was a storyteller straight out of the womb. My passion for the cinematic arts eventually led me to NYU for film and television production. And that brought me to television, where I've been working as a TV writer for about 10 years now.

With AI a central issue in our contract negotiation, we felt very much like the canary in the coal mine. We were announcing to all workers and union members across the country that if these studios are going to use automation to replace screenwriters, what’s stopping them from taking your jobs? I’m happy with the protections we achieved. We’ve laid the foundation for future negotiations.

A big concern for me is AI generating ideas and scripts, and writers only being hired for polishing and rewrites. We won’t be writers anymore. It is quite depressing and scary. When you have AI creating all the material, what is to say the companies will need you for those 20 weeks to just rewrite stories? They might just need you for two weeks, or a couple of days. Instead of a weekly guarantee for pay, they’ll now give you a day rate, which is probably a third of what you would get paid for a regular script…Basically, we just become gig workers in an industry where we were an instrumental part of creating the product. It’s like the Uber-fication of Hollywood.

I want to make sure writing for the screen exists in 10 years, selfishly, to keep working. To start a family. To be able to afford all the things I didn’t have growing up as the son of working-class immigrants. To be able to live comfortably, securely. To be able to pay my bills and retire one day. And for the next generation, to give them a future where they can have the same thing.

We had a great show of solidarity from many different unions and organizations across the country. One of the most impactful days for me was when 300 nurses from Northern California got on a bus and drove down for four hours to march with us. These nurses supported us because the use of AI had already disrupted their industry. That made me realize this is bigger than Hollywood. This is every single industry, every single worker saying: ‘We have to take a stand against automation.’ We are losing the American dream. We are losing our access to salary, health care, to a working pension. We can’t let corporate greed and this desire to avert risk and increase profits completely destroy the middle and working class of America.

The reason why I wanted to be a writer is to craft stories that other people can see themselves in. In a lot of the shows that I loved coming up, a lot of the characters didn't look like me. It was really important for me to become a writer because I want people that look like me to find themselves in the stories that are told.

If there wasn’t a contract in place, in the future I think there wouldn’t be a writers’ room. Why would you pay 10 or 11 writers?...We would lose diverse voices coming from different racial and cultural backgrounds, people with different perspectives and life experiences, people getting a foot in the door.

Striking was one of the hardest things I have done. We showed up every day to show not only the companies but the entire country that we were serious about these concerns to our livelihood. If you could do it here in this industry, it will bleed into other industries as well. That is the real concern: [AI] won’t stop here. Every industry is in danger of this coming for them as well. I think it was really important that we fought to make sure we are in charge of how we use [AI] and if we want to use it, and not for it to be imposed on us.

I’m originally from Youngstown, in Northeast Ohio. Youngstown used to be a huge steel mill city and a really great city. I never saw it like that. When the steel mills closed, Youngstown never recovered. It has been hard for it to find another big industry and bounce back…My grandfather worked in the steel mill industry and my mom worked for General Motors. They were both in a union. I have seen how hard it can be when a lot of people had to try and figure out other ways to make a living. So it’s very personal.

I think it is really important that the public is engaged in this. We need legislation, period. Because if not, there are going to be a lot of jobs lost. It will cut costs, but there are people behind those cost cuts…How are we going to be able to support ourselves? I think it is a real concern and needs to be regulated. What are the guardrails that we need on a national level? State to state, what do we need to be doing to make sure that this is a tool that can assist but doesn’t come in and try to take [jobs] away?...Policymakers need to talk to different industries about how it would disrupt your industry and your workers. These kinds of conversations would help inform policy.

It really wasn't until we got into negotiations in the late winter and early spring [2023] that suddenly people were talking about generative AI. People started to use ChatGPT in casual ways and were just so impressed with it. And then people with imagination recognized, ‘Wait a second—if this gets better, can this actually replace writers? Can the companies use this to generate scripts that are good enough to cut writers out of the process entirely?’ And that was the fear. It snowballed. The people working on ChatGPT were adding to that by touting, ‘This thing you're seeing now, it's not even half as good as the next generation.’ And that just made things even more dire from a writer's point of view.

In the long term, as this technology improves, I don’t think there are any limits to what it might be able to do. My imagination is limited, but I am experienced enough to know just because I can’t imagine it doesn’t mean it can’t happen. I do feel that this technology is impressive and at some point, it could literally generate what are seemingly original scripts.

It's very scary. I have always relied on the fact that companies need writers to create the work that they build their business on. If they don't need human writers to write scripts, I'm out of a job and every writer who comes after me is out of a job. As soon as the companies can get rid of writers, they will. And that's very scary because something will be lost. Without getting too mushy, there is a soul in…good written work that will be lost if it’s done by computer.

The larger societal issue is that obviously, these companies that we work for care about maximizing profit. As a society, we have been fortunate that talented artists have found their way into this business and found a way to speak to the world through the work they do for corporations. It’s just a gift that, for so long, it just so happens that when somebody creates something that resonates with people, that connects with an audience, it makes companies a lot of money. It’s art and it’s commerce. And it’s changed our society in many ways for the better over the last 50 or 100 years that movies have been part of our lives. And that is in danger of being lost.

I think we have a natural fear that this creative career that we have is going to be taken away. Especially if you were raised, as I was, in a family with a parent who is struggling to make ends meet. The fact that I get to have a career and have this comfortable life and I'm going to do it through my imagination—there's the natural fear that somebody is going to say, ‘Oh, wait a second, no, you don't get to do this anymore.’ And so, the idea that there might be a technology that replaces most, if not all, writers is very scary because that feeds right into a natural insecurity that I already have that somebody is not going to let me do this anymore.


I am immensely grateful to the writers who generously shared their stories: Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Leah Folta, Cheryl Guerriero, David A. Goodman, Jackie Penn, and Danny Tolli. Special thanks to Leah Folta for her connections to many of the writers, to Becca and Matt Portman, Colleen Kinder and Brian O’Connor for their helpful introductions, and to Charlie Kelly for sharing his perspectives. Thanks to Phil Cheung and David Walter Banks for their excellent photography. Thanks to Leigh Balon, Alec Friedhoff, Michael Gaynor, and Carie Muscatello for their incredible creativity, talent, and collaboration in bringing the stories to life. Thanks to Glencora Haskins for her excellent work creating the visualizations in this report, to Benjamin Swedberg for fact checking, and to Erin Raftery for her promotion of the report. Thanks to Fred Dews, Gastón Reboredo, and Kuwilileni Williams-Hauwanga for their enthusiastic support in recording and transcribing the interviews. Thanks to Leigh Balon, Alan Berube, Xavier de Souza Briggs, Walter Frick, David Goodman, Glencora Haskins, Tom Kochan, Mark Muro, and Bharat Ramamurti for helpful feedback on the report draft.

This publication is part of a series on generative AI and workers made possible by support from Omidyar Network. The views expressed in this report are those of its authors and do not represent the views of the donors, their officers, or employees. Thanks in particular to Lauren Alexander, Anmol Chaddha, Laura Chavez-Varela, Anamitra Deb, Beth Kanter, Alexis Krieg, Mike Kubzansky, Michele Jawando, and Tracy Williams for recognizing the importance of worker storytelling and for supporting this series.

These interviews were conducted between November 4, 2023 and January 16, 2024. Participants have provided permission to Brookings to use their names, likenesses, transcribed words, and audio for this series. The quotes have been edited for clarity and brevity.