How Disney is using the Hollywood writers’ strike to move closer to AI

A recent spate of AI-related job openings from streaming giants has revealed their true intentions

Updated - September 02, 2023 02:46 pm IST

Published - September 02, 2023 11:36 am IST

Even as the AMPTP skirted this issue, the recent spate of AI-related job openings from these companies betrayed their true intentions [File]

Even as the AMPTP skirted this issue, the recent spate of AI-related job openings from these companies betrayed their true intentions [File] | Photo Credit: AP

After more than 100 days into the Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike, the Hollywood writers’ union sat down to negotiate with top executives from Disney, Warner Bros., Netflix and Universal. The streaming companies offered a new deal with some concessions: a 13% increase in writers’ wages over three years, and more data on the number of views that shows get on a quarterly basis. 

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) body’s proposal regarding AI was slightly longer than the others: AI-generated content would not be considered literary material, writers would be paid regardless of the inclusion of any AI assistance, and the company would also disclose if it had used generative AI to write its content.

But the offer stayed mum on training AI models on books and scripts written by writers without their consent or compensating them. Even as the AMPTP skirted this issue, the recent spate of AI-related job openings from these companies betrayed their true intentions.

Flurry of AI jobs

Through July and August, entertainment companies - specifically six of them including Disney, Netflix, Sony and NBCUniversal - have put out at least 26 positions related to AI, according to an NBC News search on online job listings. And the wage discrepancies are closer to chasms.

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Netflix is offering senior software engineers an annual package of between $100,000 and $700,000. Meanwhile, a machine learning scientist hired to “develop algorithms and power high quality localisation” is being offered between $150,000 and $750,000.

One job posting for a product manager on Netflix’s machine learning platform, offering between $300,000 and $900,000, drew immediate interest and backlash; according to SAG-AFTRA, the labour union for media and entertainment professionals, 87% of the guild’s actors make less than $26,000 a year.

Justified pay gap?

To most on the business side of entertainment, these six-figure salaries sound like a reasonable bargain. 

“What a product manager is essentially doing is keeping the company relevant to their target customers, while taking into account that any disruptive technologies can instantly invalidate their product at any given point of time. You are building a roadmap 5 - 10 years into the future and keep adding features and making tweaks to your product gradually,” said Prateek Lonarkar, a senior product manager at Oracle.

Because the responsibility of guiding the future of a company is immense and the skills required are many, there are also fewer product managers considered eligible.

“They are constantly in touch with the technical team, the marketing team, the sales team to coordinate and need to have a solid understanding of the engineering and architecture part, as well as bring business value. They have to be on their toes all time because if the product is moving in the wrong direction, it’s not hard to imagine the business shutting down in a few years,” he added.

Rohit Joshi, another senior product manager for Ads at Yelp, agreed. 

“I imagine these roles will tie to key strategic initiatives for the company. That means these will either directly tie into the ARR (Annual Recurring Revenue) or indirectly impact the ARR over the long term. So, it’s fair if the employee is able to bring more than their compensation package in value to the company,” he explained.

More money for fewer resources

With revenues wobbling for Netflix and Disney, generative AI seems to offer a promising fix.

“I think we will soon see the first $100 million in ARR company with less than 100 employees,” Gregory Shove, CEO of e-learning platform Section, posted on LinkedIn. “Companies can have AI-powered everything: business models, GTM (Go-to-Market), customer support and finance, with just 10% full-time employees and the rest as contractors and consultants.”

“Get ready for companies that will blow Netflix ($2.6M), Apple ($2.4M), and Alphabet ($1.6M) away in terms of revenue per employee. OpenAI (the ChatGPT maker), probably already has,” he said, referring to the revenue per employee generated by these companies.

Even if none of the job listings online clearly show that the hires are to help make content for the streaming platforms, there’s enough to suggest that the companies are putting up a scaffolding of robust AI infrastructure. Some of the openings are more to meet baseline concerns - like Principal AI Operations Manager to coordinate between the IT and AI teams - and several are for R&D Imagineer Seniors in Generative AI, which is to develop generative AI experiences for Disney’s resorts and parks.

But some draw attention even though they are vague. One of the job requirements for the senior machine learning engineer position simply states that applicants must be able to “develop, debug and deploy new applications of machine learning while working in tandem with Disney Studios, including Marvel, Walt Disney Animation and Pixar.”

While it is unclear if Disney is replacing striking writers with professionals who build generative AI tools, it is clear that the company is axing jobs. In March, it laid off 7,000 employees. Cuts were made across various arms of the company, like ESPN, Disney Entertainment, its products division, and Disney Parks.

For writers, the movement is a fight against more than one detractor. 

“The core exercise of writing still has to do with human experiences. AI can help with summarising, brainstorming for plot outlines, organising and proofreading or even make pitch decks more presentable. Even the smallest phrase or a joke has a beginning, middle and end drawn from a human mind’s collection of information and lived experiences,” said P. Harish, an associate creative director at TVF.

He noted that, for years, writers seldom got their dues from organisations that are focused on profit-making.

“The strike is nothing short of revolutionary and necessary, and every writer must stand by it,” he said.

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