The new WGA contract will change how Hollywood works

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(Disclosure: The Verge’s editorial staff is also unionized with the Writers Guild of America, East.)

The WGA dropped a summary of the contract tonight and it’s historic. The flashiest wins for the WGA are around pay increases and artificial intelligence. The pay increases are significant across the board, with notable increases for “high budget subscription video on demand” (think Netflix) and streaming films.

“AI is the flashy thing… The data is the game changer.”

The WGA says writers of streaming features should see a minimum compensation increase of 18 percent, provided that film was budgeted at least $30 million, plus a 26 percent increase in residual base.

On the AI side of things, the WGA got essentially what it’s been demanding from the start. According to the summary of the contract, AI will not be able to write or rewrite literary material, and AI-generated material will not be able to be used as a source material. So an exec won’t be able to ask ChatGPT to come up with a story and ask writers to turn it into a script that the exec owns the rights to.

The WGA also “reserves the right to assert that exploitation of writers’ material to train AI is prohibited by MBA or other law.” This means that if the laws change or AI training reaches a point of contention for guild members, the WGA will be able to call that exploitation. This is likely related to proposed laws proposed in California regulating the use of materials for training AI.

But “AI is the flashy thing. The data is the game changer,” Katharine Trendacosta, director of policy and advocacy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a reporter covering the strike for Vice and Defector, told me.

And I tend to agree. As the LA Times noted earlier this week, streaming data has essentially been a black hole. This means no one working on projects in Hollywood knew how well those projects were doing, which created a problem because pay for projects is directly tied to performance.

Now, studios will have to provide the WGA with actual data. Specifically “the total number of hours streamed, both domestically and internationally, of self-produced high-budget streaming programs.” That means Netflix, Disney Plus, Amazon, and the other streamers won’t be able to invent weird metrics or meaningless self-referential rankings to give to the WGA. The numbers the studios provide may be subject to NDAs—so the rest of us won’t necessarily have access to those metrics. Yet the WGA will still be able to release data in aggregate, giving us a much more nuanced and revealing look at the business of streaming than anything we’ve had before.

And once real actual numbers start circulating, it will be a lot more difficult for streamers to claim a project succeeded when no one you know has ever heard of it or say a show is getting canceled for lack of interest while numbers suggest a different story.

The streaming industry has thrived on data opacity—allowing an industry in the business of fiction to twist the story to how it sees fit with carefully crafted data. Now, there will be real, actual, hard data available to the WGA membership, and once the genie is out of the bottle, it will be a whole lot more difficult to smush it back in.

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