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Friday, June 21, 2024

Fear and loathing in Los Angeles over AI. But it doesn’t have to be this way



John Attanasio is the CEO of Toonstar.

I can’t recall the exact moment. It might have been during an AI event that I attended last summer where a top union exec proclaimed that she “prefers candles to electricity” in front of a cheering crowd…or it might have been last fall, post-writer’s strike resolution, when I warned that the challenges for Hollywood were not over and someone on X (formerly Twitter) thoughtfully responded with “Die AI Scum.” Or perhaps it was last month when the audience at a SXSW panel with OpenAI loudly and frequently booed speakers who professed any benefit of AI. But I do know that at some point during that sequence of events, I realized the backlash to talk of AI in Hollywood was no ordinary fear of a new technology. And in this case, it’s a fear that will only prolong the troubles plaguing Hollywood if it persists.

Fear of new technology, and the changes that come with it, is certainly not new. We can trace it all the way back to The Luddites smashing looms in England during the industrial revolution. But the existential crisis currently facing the entertainment industry has been in the making for decades and it has nothing to do with AI. Distribution fragmentation driven by the rise of internet video and social media platforms has disrupted the gatekeeper era and the monopoly on access to audiences of the mega-network and cable days. Add to that, there’s now a business model imbalance, courtesy of the streaming wars, which drove up the cost of production and marketing so high that basic economic rules (i.e. profits) were forgotten. The result? Ongoing legacy industry consolidation and the seemingly unending layoffs that have haunted the studios for more than a decade.

Almost any writer, actor, or agent will tell you about how hard it’s become to get anything sold, let alone made. “Stay alive till ‘25” is a thing, which is apparent in the testimonials featured in this recent LinkedIn post from many skilled behind-the-camera professionals who haven’t worked in months, and are on the cusp of selling their homes to survive. 

Last but not least, younger generations have new tastes and habits that have been born from legacy alternatives such as YouTube and TikTok which have significantly challenged the media industrial complex. A recent Harris Poll reported that nearly three-fourths of Gen Zers and millennials prefer original content over franchises and want more content from small, independent creators. So why not lean into this trend and give younger audiences what they want?  

Hollywood should be embracing these desires, but it’s not. Instead, it’s stuck in prequel-sequel-reboot purgatory and focused on brute force big-name, big-budget blockbusters in the hopes of combating fragmenting distribution and changing business models. Cord Jefferson made an impassioned plea at the Oscars this year for studios to make 20 $10 million movies or 50 $4 million movies instead of a single $200 million movie because there are too many great storytellers out there who can’t get their projects made. And guess what, with that many great storytellers and with audiences who want their stories, it doesn’t have to be that way. 

And this is absolutely where AI can enter the picture as part of the solution. AI-powered tools can help democratize production capabilities previously only available to the big studios and put this superpower in the hands of these talented independent creators who have been left behind by the legacy system. AI can help deliver cost-effective, studio-quality productions which in turn will unlock opportunities for new and diverse storytellers, create new job opportunities, and satisfy the demand from millennial, Gen Z, and Gen Alpha audiences. And these are job opportunities and original projects that are just not in the cards from legacy Hollywood.

The proponents of AI in Hollywood have learned to develop thick skin around this issue. We’ll take the insults on X because believe it or not, we’re lobbying to save the industry, not destroy it with robots. And in fact, it’s not the robots we should be worried about. As in the case of all human history, in the words of historian Melvin Kranzberg, “Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral.” It’s the bad actors who use tech to do harm that we need to worry about.  

It’s true that with each new technological innovation, jobs are indeed lost while new efficiencies are reaped, and new types of jobs are created. AI is no different. It will eliminate jobs. But to talk of a smart approach to using AI in Hollywood is to absorb all the fear and anger of a community of creatives that’s borne the fallout of an industry that lost its way long before AI. And if we let fear take over, we’re going to lose the chance to manage and control AI in a way that can help get our industry back on its feet.

Maybe the words of Matthew McConaughey’s indelible Rust Cohle character put it best right after his own existential reckoning, “It’s just one story. The oldest. Light versus dark.” But not “light vs. dark” as in tech vs. humans, but “light vs. dark” as in humans doing good vs. humans doing harm. And maybe this is the moment when we find out what kind of humans we are.

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The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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