In our previous post, we looked at how AI has the potential to upend the way Hollywood works. With generative AI, the writers are rightfully scared about how the technology can potentially curtail their value in film production. With generative AI, I could generate a story in 35 minutes. It needed much work. However, the AI that I used was not trained on scripts. Neither was I. Imagine we both were. What stories could we generate then?
Though AI is taking center stage in the kerfuffle, the friction has also exposed a hidden tension underlying the mass movie industry. It is the tenuous relationship between artistic expression and the commercial nature of the television and film industry. Hollywood only cares about recurring profits. They could not care less about art. They’ve always wanted a formula. Prompt script here. Press play on the production process. Put money in the bank and watch stock prices go to the moon. Everything else is irrelevant. Generative AI will give them what they want. But it will be a hollow victory. Why? Generative AI will eventually upend them as well. But before we get there, we need to discuss how Optimus Prime got into our heads.
Tapping into Pester Power: Transformers and the Deregulatory Reagan Era
Working on some side projects, I had the fortune of coming across Drawn to Television: American animated sf series of the 1980s by Lincoln Geraghty. The article explores the cartoon era of the 1980s, dominated by cartoons like Transformers, GI Joe, My Little Pony, Thundercats, and more. Geraghty ties the genesis of this genre to Star Wars. Toy companies aimed to replicate the triumph of Kenner's Star Wars action figures by creating a market through TV shows. These shows served as prolonged advertisements for an assortment of toys.
But why did this development wait until the 1980s? The Reagan Administration deregulated television and allowed toy companies to sell directly to kids of all ages and sizes. Before that, the FCC prevented such commercial interests from tapping into children's pester power.
What does this have to do with art and Hollywood?
Film critics did not think much of Transformers and the like. They saw it as “…little more than poorly drawn, glorified half-hour commercials for action figures and video games.” David Wise, a critical writer in the original Transformer series, gives us a better idea of how commercial it was. He explains that the "Rebirth" episodes were initially slated as a five-part mini-series. They were designed to introduce 92 new characters to sell as toys. He was then asked to condense the five-part story into just three episodes. Wise calculated that a new character must be introduced every 12.5 seconds. To make the storyline workable, Wise introduced groups of characters simultaneously, revealing their names and moving on – illustrating that Wise had to sacrifice the story for sales.
The Death of Optimus Prime: Killing off the Old Product Line for the New
Perhaps, the fundamental contradiction between art and commerce can be seen in the toy company’s decision to kill off Optimus Prime in the full-length movie, Transformers: The Movie, released in theatres in 1986. Wise revealed that Hasbro was disappointed with the sales of the toy-truck-robot figurine. The decision was summarized as follows:
“It was a toy show. We just thought we were killing off the old product line to replace it with new products.”
According to this cold hard logic, Optimus Prime seems to be the ultimate unscrupulous used car salesman. However, instead of peddling to adults, he sells to kids. Through his on-screen sacrifice, they could sell Rodimus Prime in his stead.
There can't be the best way to entertain children. Specifically, it’s hard to convince a child, parent, or anyone that such an extractive relationship is healthy. How does a parent calm down a despondent child who just saw their hero killed off? It’s probably not to offer them the latest “Prime” that Hasbro has to offer. The larger point, however, is that commercially-driven content clashes not just with artistic expression but how a transaction approach to content is non-optimal for us as a whole.
The Hollywood Hit Machine: Losing its Luster in the Age of Authenticity
The writer's strike has a limited impact on the content I usually consume, published by YouTubers, podcasts, and other enthusiasts. This shift in popular preference speaks for itself. People prefer to hear stories from real, relatable people instead of the formulaic commercial narratives churned out by the Hollywood Hit Machine.
A good proxy of the shift is the decline in cable television.
As reported by Adweek for June 2023, during prime time, FOX garners the largest average viewership with 1.49 million viewers, followed by MSNBC with 1.32 million, and CNN with 635,000 viewers. These networks collectively attract approximately 3.46 million viewers, representing about 1% of the United States estimated population of 330 million.
Another piece of evidence is the sudden and swift demise of Quibi.
The pandemic proved to be a boom to Netflix and other streaming companies, so that's not the likely cause. Instead, what likely caused the company to crash and burn was that user-generated content was a much better source for short-form content.
Generative AI: The Great User Generative Content Amplifier?
Now we finally get to AI!
As I argue in this Medium post, generative AI is about amplification, not abdication. The post speaks to the issue of abdication from a professional perspective. A lawyer, consultant or CPA can't rely on public-facing generative AI models to do their work. Instead, it can amplify their effort by putting polish on the rough notes they have gathered.
Similarly, it’s abdication to get generative AI to produce a fictional novel in 35 minutes, hoping it will receive rave reviews. According to the Wall Street Journal, a surge in AI-generated story submissions, influenced by online videos promoting ChatGPT, led to the temporary closure of online submissions at Clarkesworld, a science-fiction magazine. Publishers, including Clarkesworld's Neil Clarke, expressed their tendency to reject these AI-written submissions, characterized by grammatically perfect but incoherent and formulaic narratives.
Using generative AI to create these types of submissions signifies an instance of “author abdication." It's the generative AI version of spam. And like we have spam filters and other "internal controls" (like the infamous proof of work concept invented to fight spam), Clarkesworld and others will need to develop similar controls to separate the good from the bad.
Instead, budding authors must work hard to conceive storylines that resonate. It could take weeks and months to sort out plot lines and characters. And you will still need to know Da Vinci Resolve, Premiere Pro, or another video editing tool.
In terms of the maturity of the tools, they have yet to arrive. However, we can see that day is quickly coming. Consider the following that is already out there.
AI Image Generation is Amazing: The current ability to generate images from a few sentences is simply the stuff of science fiction. Using stability.ai, I used this prompt “Snowy winter wonderland with a lone cabin in the distance, surrounded by frosty trees and fresh snowfall, peaceful, serene, detailed, winter landscape” to generate the following image:
AI Image Generators Enable Panning and Zoom: As explained in this video, Midjourney can generate AI images and now can allow the panning of an image. It also allows a zoom-out feature.
Professional Narrators for the Price of a Latte: In Kevin's heroic struggle, I got a professional-sounding voice to narrate the story. The cost? Eleven Labs sells this for the bargain price of $5 a month. The next tier is only $20/month.
Text to Video is Already Here: Matt Wolfe, who follows the generative AI space, compiled this video that looks at the current state of what’s out there with text to video. Lot’s to be desired. However, we’re only nine months into the Generative AI boom. The footage includes Runway ML, featured on Vox’s Recode podcast. The interview discusses how AI eliminates the need for manual labour for rotoscoping. The technique was used in the movie Everywhere All at Once, saving the production team "several hours."
The first nonsuccessful film not produced by Hollywood is still years away. However, with the rapid pace at which these tools will improve, it takes little imagination to see that the cheque is in the mail.
Reel to Real: Is There Life Beyond Hollywood?
We do not have to go far to see the types of stories that people will produce that are not driven entirely by commercial interests. Consider the historical drama Diriliş: Ertuğrul. The series chronicles the rise of Ertuğrul, whose son, Osman I, would establish the Ottoman State in present-day Turkey. And there are documentaries like Ava DuVernay's The 13th. The Netflix documentary explores the mass incarceration of African Americans in the US. The popularity of the Ertuğrul illustrates that there is no need to make up heroes when they already exist. At the same time, the success of the 13th proves that people are interested in reality – not just fiction.
To be sure, we can expect Hollywood to continue for the foreseeable future. Cable television still attracts millions, albeit with a much-reduced viewership from its glory days. However, the shift in audience preference towards content from relatable individuals, coupled with the rise of sophisticated AI tools, indicates that the dawn of a new era in filmmaking is at hand. It's potentially a future where anyone can tell a story, where unique voices are heard, and commercial interests don't kill off characters that kids love. This technological revolution might enable a broadening of storytelling, creating space for a multiplicity of voices and narratives beyond the confines of Hollywood.
Malik Datardina, CPA, CA who has more than 20 years of experience in information systems, risk and assurance, information security governance and audit data analytics. In his current role as a Governance, Risk Management, and Compliance (GRC) Strategist, where he manages internal compliance at Auvenir and takes a strategic lens towards the latest trends in innovation to build the audit platform of the future.