On picket lines and in the media, artificial intelligence continues to be cast as the boogeyman coming to take creative jobs away. So some could be forgiven for thinking that AI is new to Hollywood and that what’s up for debate is how, when, even if it should be introduced.
But even for an industry built on make-believe, that’s a far cry from reality. AI technology has been used in Hollywood for more than two decades, contributing to the success of some of the most beloved, award-winning and profitable franchises of all time.
The introduction of AI has empowered filmmakers and storytellers to bring their visions to life in ways they could previously only imagine, beginning with the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy in 2001. The magical landscapes, enormous battle scenes and characters that blended fantasy with reality were possible because of AI technology from Massive, a studio born out of WETA, the group that produced visual effects for the movies. Massive’s technology produced the battle scenes in “Lord of the Rings” to such success that they continued to be tapped for projects including “Game of Thrones” and Marvel’s “Avengers: Endgame.”
Advances in the technology also made it possible for the work of actors to be incorporated seamlessly into scenes with AI enhancements. To turn Josh Brolin into Thanos for “Avengers: Infinity War,” filmmakers relied on machine learning. Working with huge data sets to analyze and match the actors’ facial movements with the work of the visual effects team produced a realistic character. In the process of incorporating these technological advances, these franchises have employed hundreds of VFX artists to create fantasy, action and superhero stories that are only possible because of AI.
It’s been well understood that AI opened up new possibilities for moviemaking, created jobs and kept Hollywood competitive and profitable. Whether you call it AI, VFX or CGI, the technology has been responsible for some of the biggest hits coming out of studios in the past two decades as writers and filmmakers create scenes that would otherwise be impossible. It helped drive an unprecedented run of big VFX movies that filled theaters and helped to grow the entire pie over the past two decades, which were historic box office years until COVID hit.
And the technology continues to propel moviemaking forward, as well as employ thousands of artists and technicians, advancing their skills along the way. The modern theater experience has largely been empowered by AI.
So arguing against AI in an industry that’s benefitting wildly from its use seems not only disingenuous, but counterproductive. AI has made Hollywood better. Whether it will continue to do so, and to what extent, is what’s actually up for debate.
Consider the possibility of using AI to turn entertainment franchises and original IP into Roblox-like creative playgrounds, putting power in the hands of fans. With limitless possibilities for fans to engage with and contribute to the narrative and create their own companion content within the sandbox of the “core canon,” the original production is just the beginning. Think of a TV series or film as more of a “story flywheel” enabled by AI technology, where fans create new characters and stories that expand the world, all with the help of AI as their creative copilot.
Social media tools like Tiktok have already trained (mostly) younger generations to engage with participatory forms of entertainment. AI will provide Hollywood with the tools to create that kind of stickiness and creativity with storytelling that other industries have already tapped into.
The human ability to adapt will be the very thing that prevents the apocalyptic scenarios being peddled about AI. Just as we saw two decades ago with “The Lord of the Rings,” thousands of VFX artists were able to enhance their skill set and contribute to productions that changed the face of movies forever.
Similarly, in hushed tones around town, you’re beginning to hear stories of people playing around with AI, to use it for research, to test ideas out and more.
Dare I propose a future state where a new kind of residual emerges, one that empowers actors and writers to get paid every time their work is used (as a portion or in its entirety) to create new works and forms of output? This permission-based dream state would be another example, just like 20 years ago, of new tech expanding the entertainment commercial pie.
So let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. AI will continue to be a valuable tool on the production side that will make the impossible possible (here’s looking at you, Gollum and Thanos), and it will also become a valuable tool on the consumer side that will empower fans to engage with and cocreate entertainment story worlds in powerful new ways.
This will mean more great stories, from new and diverse storytellers will come to life. And this could be the new script that Hollywood needs right now during these tumultuous times, and just might prove that there’s nothing to fear but fear itself.
John Attanasio is CEO and cofounder of Toonstar, an interactive story studio building entertainment franchises through community driven storytelling.Prior to launching Toonstar, he spent over a decade at Warner Bros. and DreamWorks developing franchise properties.