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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Hollywood’s Future Belongs to People—Not Machines

Even the orcas are organizing.

On the ninth day of the Writers Guild of America strike, no one on the picket lines knows about the chaos at sea. They don’t know that the Screen Actors Guild, or SAG, will join them, or that 340,000 UPS workers and 30,000 Los Angeles Unified School District employees will vote to authorize the same, or that Sega of America will soon become the largest union shop in gaming. And none of those people have any idea that as they craft signs and fill water bottles, orcas are amassing in unprecedented numbers in Monterey Bay and Martha’s Vineyard. They have attacked approximately 250 vessels since 2020. One of their organizers, White Gladis, became an internet folk hero with her actions off the Iberian coast. Pod by pod, they learn how to strip the rudders from powerful boats and leave them adrift. On the ocean, as in business, a successful disruptor inevitably becomes a failing incumbent, torn apart by smaller competitors. As Ned Beatty’s character says in 1976’s Network, these are the primal forces of nature.

Welcome to Hot Strike Summer.

America’s economy is historically speculative: From cotton to crypto, it makes the youthful mistake of falling in love with potential. With no more worlds to conquer, the only real estate with any speculative potential is affinity-based: online platforms, virtual realities, transmedia franchises. But what happens if the vendors of vaporware try to run a dream factory?

“The future of entertainment will be the future of everything,” says John Rogers, creator of Leverage and The Librarians, “which is watching an enormous number of houses of cards that have been built over the past 30 or 40 years start to collapse.”

Rogers’ word choice there seems pointed. Cultural production’s current landscape, the one the Hollywood unions are bargaining for a piece of, was transformed forever 10 years ago when Netflix released House of Cards. Now, in 2023, those same unions are bracing for the potential impacts of generative AI. But the potential impacts of AI on filmmaking and scriptwriting represent only two of the shifts technology has brought to the world of cultural construction and consumption.

This spring, I spoke to around 20 entertainment professionals, in fields ranging from production design to pornography, and asked them about what they believed could revolutionize culture most. They talked about studios applying the “move fast and break things” model to over a century of profitable filmmaking and how it resulted in a consolidation of power that Hollywood’s Golden Age producers could only dream of.

With the fall of the Paramount Consent Decrees in 2020, any US studio with the right capital could once again open its own movie house and have control over what’s played in it. As negotiations between Hollywood studios and SAG heated up in July, the use of AI in filmmaking became one of the most divisive issues; one SAG member told Deadline “actors see Black Mirror’s ‘Joan Is Awful’ as a documentary of the future, with their likenesses sold off and used any way producers and studios want.” The Writers Guild of America is striking in hopes of receiving residuals based on views from Netflix and other streamers—just like they’d get if their broadcast or cable show lived on in syndication. In the meantime, they worry studios will replace them with the same chatbots that fanfic writers have caught reading up on their sex tropes.

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It’s not much better for the indies. Decades of being permanently online has yielded a crop of self-taught, self-motivated sole proprietors—many of them underage, working without the basic protections afforded to child performers. Unlike members of the Screen Actors Guild, streamers and influencers have no health coverage, no collective agreement, and no recourse when a platform like YouTube suddenly demonetizes them, or if they’re targeted for harassment.

Things are no more stable in other entertainment industries. Netflix Games is still looking for its first big hit, developers are still expected to crunch, and mod communities are using AI voice clones to create unlicensed pornographic content based on human actors’ performances. (The same technology allows true-crime influencers to engineer performances by dead kids on TikTok.)

Taylor Swift’s Eras tour is projected to bring in $4.6 billion in the US, but Swift still makes fractions of a penny per Spotify stream. In food service and hospitality, the frictionless transactions and delivery from the 2020 lockdown are a baseline consumer expectation in 2023—but the aftershocks of the Covid-19 pandemic are still causing labor shortages. Meanwhile, America’s federal minimum wage hasn’t risen since 2009, meaning that increased prices for subscription-based media like Netflix, Substack, or even Twitter still sting.

From Covid to cookie deprecation, internet censorship to international content, artificial intelligence to organic impressions, the trends of the 21st century are ready for their close-up. Disney has laid off 7,000 people. Meta is cutting 21,000 jobs. Comic book movies are now tax write-offs. Scalper-bots have eroded fans’ relationship to live music. Some fans skew review scores and destroy brand partnerships, while others squeeze meme stocks and “grind” streaming content. But advertisers, the people who historically have made all this financially viable, still aren’t sure if targeted marketing works. Despite executives having access to almost every possible analytic, screenwriter William Goldman’s lament rings true: Nobody knows anything.

What became clear as I spoke to sources was this: The unbundling of the American storytelling machine has become the unbundling of the American story. What was once a roaring engine of commerce and a siren of soft power is now as fractured as the audience consuming its products. And it’s left the entire country, and the world that consumes its wares, vulnerable.

The Great Unbundling

Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale once said there are two ways to make money: bundling, and unbundling. Newspapers once bundled news alongside classifieds and personal ads, providing value to advertisers and readers. Then came Craigslist and online dating, and the bundle unraveled. Cable subscriptions worked this way, until streaming. Education, retail, manufacturing, health care, real estate—all have been similarly fragmented.

But unlike many of those other industries, entertainment is something people actually enjoy and engage with even when they don’t have to. It’s something people enjoy consuming and something people enjoy making. Storytelling relies on empathy. The creator empathizes with the audience, and the audience empathizes with the characters.

“Art always comes down to its first principles,” says Television Without Pity alumnus Jacob Clifton. “It exists so one person can say to another person across time and space, ‘I have felt this too. We have a need to share the things that touch us deeply and to create art of our own.”

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For over a century, Hollywood has profited from this cranking out hits—even during economic downturns.

“I’m always amused when people say Hollywood is full of filthy socialists,” says Rogers. “Hollywood is the most capitalist place in the world. When I make a TV show, it is a product launch that I have to make a sample [pilot episode] of, and we spend $10 million, and then we focus-test it, and then we release it, and then we succeed or fail in seven days. There is no more capitalist experience than making a television show.”

Javier Grillo-Marxuach, executive producer of Netflix’s The Witcher, agrees. “Ultimately, a studio is little more than a bank. The writer goes in with a loan application (i.e., a script), and they decide if they want to spend $10 million making a pilot and $100 million making a show.”

But in the streaming era, startup logic guides creative decisions. Once, a weekly series like The X-Files, Community, or Veronica Mars (which received reboots thanks to their fans) might struggle for a while to grow their audience. Now, streaming services commonly abandon a litter of episodes on a platform to see if they survive. In the limited-series era, the feedback loop wherein creative teams sharpened their skills based on audience response over 22-episode seasons is gone. And when streaming platforms don’t pay the same residuals, the financial incentive to innovate is gone too.

Tech PR maven Ed Zitron calls this the “Rot Economy.” Author Cory Doctorow calls it “enshittification.” Writer Jacob Oller calls it the “IP Era.” In sociology, this is called the Principle of Least Interest: The one who cares the least always has the most power.

In a financialized creative environment, it is impossible to care less than a view-counting algorithm does. So producers end up serving the wishes of their bot overlords. This might be why in a recent interview, director Quentin Tarantino said streaming films “don’t exist in the zeitgeist.”

“The content is just a means to an end,” says Maggie MacDonald, a platform researcher and advisor to private equity firm Ethical Capital Partners. “Because every click, every pageview, every affiliate link, every recommended video that is engaged with, that’s a data point. And when you’re dealing with the scalability that these digital infrastructures require to make money, they’re not actually concerned with the quality of content.”

And this, says Grillo-Marxuach, is why America’s entertainment industry has R&D problems. “What they don’t understand is that artists, much like technologies, have to be developed. And the more you develop that talent, the more likely you are to have a product that audiences are going to embrace.”

Increasingly, the only place for artists and creators of any kind to receive the feedback necessary to foster that process is in influencer and fan culture. When I told drag streamer and Twitch Ambassador DEERE that Netflix wasn’t offering the same granular metrics and reports to writers and directors that she received regularly from Twitch, she was appalled. Without that information, she wondered, how would they know what worked? How could they hope to improve? It’s easy to attribute that attitude purely to big tech’s love for big data. But this is also a side effect of how today’s education systems train tomorrow’s artists: Your child’s report card has similar hairsplitting measures of success.

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And it’s working. Aron Levitz, president of media and publishing platform Wattpad WEBTOON Studios, says access to that kind of data has empowered the platform’s writers and artists. “As a user, not only do you see how big the story is, how many subscribers it has, how many people have commented on it, how many people have liked it, you can see it in comparison to any other story on the platform,” Levitz says. “[Wattpad’s] creator portal can do an even deeper dive.”

But, Levitz stressed, none of that is a substitute for mentorship, which is often the next phase when a Wattpad WEBTOON writer has a hit. But for the artists on other platforms who lack mentors and support, their entire creative process has been unbundled in much the same way cable TV and newspapers were. From on-demand learning replacing universities to a broader array of platforms for increasingly specialized content, the entire mechanism of cultural production and consumption has itself been disassembled. So has the relationship between artists and their audiences.

But art is a team effort. One successful pitch for a book, game, film, album, restaurant, museum exhibit, or theme park ride can feed hundreds of people. The average television series employs teams of electricians, carpenters, and caterers, as well as writers, actors, and directors. Hollywood is far from perfect. It can be abusive, prejudiced, and wasteful. But entertainment remains an industry where people who don’t vote or worship together still work together to spin the yarns that become the social fabric.

Naturally, all this teamwork had to be shaken up.

The Great Disruption

Not that all of the disruption will come from algorithms. “I think the technology to replace physical production will accelerate as climate change makes physical production more unpredictable,” says Rogers. “We shot the first season of the Leverage reboot, Leverage: Redemption, in New Orleans at the height of Covid. We shut down for weather much more than we shut down for Covid. We had five hurricanes! And the Texas freeze! This year, we had to move all production indoors for two weeks, because there were Cat 4 thunderstorms that made it physically unsafe to operate machinery outside.”

This is not a new experience in film production. In 2014, crews on Fargo, The Revenant, and The Hateful Eight scrambled to find snow. When they couldn’t, they paid up to $100,000 a day for snow machines. These problems have only worsened. Location scouts can no longer promise green trees, white mountains, or even breathable air. So they’ve turned to virtual production technologies like The Volume. Nature itself is now a special effect.

Production designer Dave Blass, who most recently worked on Star Trek: Picard, says these technologies reverse the traditional production schedule by requiring effects to be produced months in advance. This limits improvisation and input from directors on set. Like the writers I spoke to, Blass sees fewer chances for crew members to spend time on a set and witness the situation on the ground. When the just-in-time manufacturing model is applied to film and TV, teams don’t learn from each other, or develop the shorthand necessary to work faster. He says Covid deepened this problem, because work-from-home policies kept team members out of sync.

Like Covid, climate change will force more artists away from traditional opportunities for community and inspiration. The pandemic turned drag Twitch streamer DEERE into a full-timer; as a makeup artist, her gigs vanished. So she focused on her passions: drag, horror games, and streaming.

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Early in the pandemic, comedian Jenny Yang created and hosted Comedy Crossing, a twice-monthly standup show streamed over Zoom from inside the game Animal Crossing. Throughout 2020, it raised more than $40,000 for Black Lives Matter. “I’m in this industry and have dedicated my life to it because I want to be part of a conversation,” she says. “To me the collective conversation is what makes life meaningful.”

BOARLORD is an indie game developer who “pivoted to porn” (and Patreon) during the pandemic after working in tech, where she discovered “the naked hatred they all have for cultural production.” It was there she found her place. “I am not trying to capture the largest audience. I’m being hyper-specific, sometimes to my detriment," she says of her work.

Or, to put it another way, DEERE, Yang, and BOARLORD all found their own ways of seizing the means of production, of audience-building. It's the same thing Black Girl Nerds CEO Jamie Broadnax discovered live-tweeting Scandal years earlier. “I didn’t know I was building a community,” Broadnax says. “I was tired of waiting for a seat at the table, so I built my own table.”

The appeal of becoming one’s own studio head is obvious. “Take TikTok,” says Clifton. “You have teens with a more polished presence online than most companies, who have become TikTok experts seemingly overnight, and their work just keeps getting more and more professional-grade.”

But in a world where everyone is a brand, no one can be a star. And influencers have discovered what porn performers already knew: Platforms are fickle. Content guidelines, corporate ownership, and payment structures can change overnight, without explanation. Much like humans have permanently altered and unsettled the natural world, online ecosystems for fans and creators have experienced rolling shocks in response to technology. Just as users find another den, it’s burned down. The story of the internet is the story of America itself: a seemingly limitless landscape transformed into a shopping mall populated by the same handful of brands, products, and voices.

MacDonald tells me that what’s important about pornography isn’t what it can tell us about entertainment but what it can tell us about how platforms will treat people in the future. “Porn workers are the canaries in the coal mine. They are the first ones to be censored, demonetized, deprioritized in recommender systems, shadow-banned,” MacDonald says. And their vulnerability will soon be everyone’s. “Porn workers are at the bleeding edge of showing that if we don’t address this unilaterally and quickly, next it will be queer video gamers, and after that it will be certain political opinions, and that is alarming. That should concern everyone.”

Media, Tailored for You (and Advertisers)

To understand how the American media landscape fractured, one must first understand the brands that forged it. According to Faris Yakob, cofounder of creative consultancy Genius Steals and author of Paid Attention, advertisers created the neutral “view from nowhere” voice in media. In the 19th and 20th centuries, national brands looking to grow customers wouldn’t partner with biased publications. But everything changed when ad tech arrived.

“People started tagging their digital media buys so it wouldn’t appear next to topics like homosexuality, or Covid, to avoid getting into clusters,” Yakob says. “But that means that the news isn’t being funded. If you can pick and choose what topics to fund in news, you can distort what is being reported on, to some degree.”

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That distortion, like the US Federal Communications Commission’s abolition of the fairness doctrine in 1987, is part of how America got into this mess. Similar to content recommendation algorithms, audience profiles in digital marketing created micro-targeted ads. Those ads are more valuable on multiple screens. Media executive Euan McLeod recalls growing up when “there was no choice” but to watch what his parents were watching. Now each person in a household might be watching something wildly different, and the shared experience has dissolved. Isolated artists are creating for isolated audiences. Is it any wonder that generative AI seems poised to tailor entertainment to audiences of one?

In this world, we can all be George Lucas, using technology to create special editions. Rick gets on the plane with Ilsa. Jack fits on the door with Rose. Ben Solo lives. As Marvel Comics writer Anthony Oliveira says, Andy Warhol was fascinated by the fact that people everywhere drank the same Coke. But the allure of AI content generation, he says, is the same as the Coca-Cola Freestyle: filling your own cup with someone else’s flavors.

But when everyone can just request the narrative path they want, opportunities to hear other people’s stories greatly diminish. “That is a very sad world to live in, because how else are we gonna be conveying our deepest hopes and wishes, what we think should be a vision of the world we want to live in, what we should worry about?" Yang says. "This is what story and art is for.”

Using AI to sanitize content in regions where certain subjects are banned is already possible, especially if actors yield likeness rights. Generative AI means that studios could edit or change the content of some films without consulting the people who signed a contract based on a script, and the only thing stopping them is the possibility of a defamation suit. It sounds unlikely, until you remember that multiple versions of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse appeared in cinemas.

And animation is an apt comparison: Most changes to entertainment production have made film and TV more like animation or video game development, not less. With current technology, actors can be little more than action figures smashing together, as weightless as they are sexless. With AI, the actors need never leave the trailer. Or exist.

“[Studios will] say it’s for the insurance,” says production designer Blass, suggesting a “Paul Walker scenario” in which a deceased actor’s performance needs generating, because that performance is one of the terms of the film’s business insurance. But in reality, these likenesses could be used to do things that actors would rather not—whether it’s a dangerous stunt or a sex scene.

Generative AI could also be used to edit films in real time, responsive to data-brokered preferences, with algorithms running A/B tests on how much nudity you want based on the customer profile you most closely match.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is: In the 1990s, Blockbuster Video refused to stock films like Natural Born Killers and The Last Temptation of Christ. But that tradition goes back even further. Otherwise known as the Hays Code, the Production Code was an industry standard of self-censorship guidelines for major US studios from 1930 to 1968, when it was replaced by the movie ratings system. The Code influenced everything from the Comics Code to parental advisory warnings to video game ratings. It’s why titles from major studios during that period don’t depict graphic violence. It’s also why they lack out-and-proud queer and interracial relationships. But today, a revived Production Code might have very different guidelines. For example, the Pentagon recently announced it would no longer offer technical support to filmmakers who censor their films for the Chinese market.

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When I ask McLeod if he thinks America will ever re-adopt the Production Code, he’s unequivocal: “Absolutely. Everything goes in cycles.”

As writer, producer, and educator Tananarive Due says, “What we’re trying to do is recalibrate film and television so it resembles what the world actually looks like, and not the fantasy world that Hollywood was projecting from the beginning, of a white United States where the only Black people are housekeepers or a singer in a nightclub. We need to show the range of humanity of all people.”

The word entertainment comes from the Old French verb entretenir, meaning “to maintain, or look after.” Used reflexively, it means “to look after one another.” When I tell Oliveira this, he asks if I know that the root word of “religion” means “to bind together.”

“Religion and entertainment perform the same function,” Oliveira says, because they’re both spaces wherein audiences negotiate common values. To him, they ask the same questions: “What tools, what rituals, what art will bring a community together?”

So what happens if that art is made by machines? T.S. Eliot said that “the poet’s mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.” That might well describe the black-box process of generative AI, but it doesn’t describe what art does in context. It doesn’t describe the bizarre love triangle between the artist, the art, and the audience. Nor does it answer the question on every producer’s mind: Will anyone pay for this?

Visions of an AI-Generated Future

Let’s say that AI advocates are correct, and in a few years you’ll be directing your own blockbuster, starring actors licensed from an asset stable, speaking lines generated by a bot pruned to your interests. While hiding from the next plague or wildfire, you tell your smart entertainment system to make The Lord of the Rings as directed by Orson Welles, starring Laurence Olivier as Aragorn and Gene Kelly as Legolas. It blazes across every wall of your bio-crete rabbit hutch. It’s compressed to 80 minutes, because two- and three-hour films cost more to generate. You splurge on the rights rental, which means you can’t license the film to share. Even if you could, your current subscription tier only allows sharing with up to five IP addresses, all of which must be in good standing with the Copyright Office with no flags on their file. You get 48 hours with the file before it evaporates.

In that future, who gets paid? Who gets famous? Who gets to be seen and heard? To paraphrase Jack Fincher: Are you the organ grinder or the monkey?

“Hollywood has always had a disdain for writers,” Tananarive Due says. “But it’s fascinating now to watch how deep the level of disdain has grown. It’s so interesting to me how, just when the door opens and you start to see more women and queer people and Native American people in writers’ rooms, all of a sudden we’re asking if we really need people to write.”

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Whether or not this writer-less future comes to pass depends on the present. If the US writers’ and actors’ unions currently negotiating with the studios win the AI stipulations they’re asking for, they could forestall it—but only for so long. If they don’t, season 12 of Squid Game could star you, and creator Hwang Dong-hyuk may still not receive any residuals. If TV and movie producers disdain creators, and AI allows everyone to create, then everyone can be disdained. It’s not exactly the stuff that dreams are made of.

But there is always more than one possible future. The people I spoke to had differing views, but similar concerns. All agreed that shared stories were slipping away. And the loss of those shared stories can diminish soft power. What film and TV once did for America is akin to what anime did for Japan, and what pop music did for South Korea. If entertainment is where people negotiate common values, what does it mean if we're all watching and listening to different things?

On a grander scale, humans may lose our species’ narrative to endless reboots written by an emerging species which has never felt its heart skip a beat, or a chill go up its spine, because it has neither. If AI assumes responsibility for visions of our future and explorations of our past, then humanity will have lost the final culture war: the one between people who are free and things that are owned.

Everyone I spoke to agreed that art was a way of accessing a common humanity. “I still believe that as social beings, we ultimately want and need to share a space to have deep connections with content,” says Galit Ariel, a technofuturist who specializes in augmented and virtual reality.

So what happens when humans look at their own stories as natural and nourishing to our species as honey is to bees? What if storytelling is how our species strips the rudder from the boat?

“I have a vision of a world where we should all be able to not become bankrupt because we get sick or get hurt on the job, and we should have access to enough wages to take care of housing and food and families,” Yang told me. “These are just basic things—a basic standard of living that an economy should support.”

There is no one future, just as there is no one story. But storytelling is our oldest technology: a system for ordering and transmitting information across time, space, language, and difference. Some of the songs on the Voyager Golden Record are story songs. Should a distant machine intelligence find it, stories will be their first experience of humanity.

Stories surround and penetrate us; they bind us together. And if artificial intelligence is an evolving species much as humans once were, then it deserves to discover the pleasures of creativity on its own terms, not ours. It deserves as much creative freedom and self-determination as the authors and actors on strike have insisted on. In the event that Hot Strike Summer becomes Cold Strike Winter, the necessity of humans in the creation of those stories will become more obvious. That has been true, and will remain true, from the first story told around the first campfire to the last story, our story, told somewhere in a galaxy far, far away.

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