(Disclosure: The edge the editorial staff is also unionized with the Writers Guild of America, East.)
The WGA released a summary of the contract this evening and it’s historic. The WGA’s most striking victories concern wage increases and artificial intelligence. Pay increases are significant across the board, with notable increases for “big-budget subscription video-on-demand” (think Netflix) and streaming movies.
“AI is the flashy thing… Data is a game changer.”
The WGA says writers of streaming feature films should see their compensation increase by at least 18 percent, provided the film’s budget is at least $30 million, plus a 26 percent increase in the residual basis.
On the AI side, the WGA got essentially what it demanded all along. According to the contract summary, AI will not be able to write or rewrite literary materials, and material generated by AI will not be able to be used as source material. So an executive won’t be able to ask ChatGPT to create a story and ask writers to turn it into a script to which the executive owns the rights.
The WGA also “reserves the right to assert that exploitation of writers’ materials to train AI is prohibited by the MBA or any other law.” This means that if laws change or AI training reaches a point of contention among guild members, the WGA can call out this exploitation. This is likely related to proposed laws in California regulating the use of materials for AI training.
But “AI is what shines. Data is a game changer,” said Katharine Trendacosta, director of policy and advocacy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a reporter covering the strike for Vice And Defector, said.
And I tend to agree. As the Los Angeles Times As noted earlier this week, data streaming is essentially a black hole. This meant that no one working on projects in Hollywood knew how well those projects were performing, which created a problem because project pay is directly tied to performance.
From now on, studios will have to provide the WGA with actual data. Specifically, “the total number of hours broadcast, both domestically and internationally, of big-budget, self-produced streaming programming.” This means that Netflix, Disney Plus, Amazon and other streamers won’t be able to invent strange metrics or meaningless self-referential rankings to give to the WGA. Figures provided by studios may be subject to NDAs, so the rest of us won’t necessarily have access to these metrics. Yet the WGA will still be able to release aggregate data, giving us a much more nuanced and revealing look at the streaming industry than anything we’ve had before.
And once the real numbers start rolling in, it’ll be a lot harder for streamers to claim a project was successful when no one you know has ever heard of it or to say a show is canceled due to lack of of interest while the numbers suggest a different story.
The streaming industry has thrived on data opacity, allowing a fiction industry to twist history as it sees fit, using carefully crafted data. Now WGA members will have real, concrete data, and once the genie is out of the bottle, it will be much harder to get it back in.