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Sub-Genre Media Newsletter:
Weekly musings on indie film, media, branded content and related items from Brian Newman.

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Generative AI and Film Future(s)

November 3, 2022

I’ve been working in some aspect of the film business for far too long, but what brought me into it was my interest in where the future of art was going as the moving image blended with computers the web and new technologies. And that’s what’s been fascinating me more often as of late than anything in the traditional film world. What’s been happening in the past few months, weeks even, in AI and generative art, and how it overlaps with traditional arts and film in particular, has been pretty incredible to watch. I’ve been too busy in this older (dying, crumbling?) film world to participate in it directly – I haven’t taken the time to learn Midjourney or use Dall-E. And while I’ve been following what people are doing with virtual production or other technologies which will soon merge into this space, I haven’t had a chance to play around with them. Heck, I don’t even own a VR headset, and can’t barely bother to use Facebook, much less get into Mark’s version of the metaverse. But all these spaces, combined, consume my thoughts when I’m not on some Zoom with a client, or busy trying to help bring a little indie film to reality (as I’ve been doing lately, but that’s another post).
In brief, that’s because I got into all of this as a student of Greg Ulmer at the University of Florida, who was a theorist who proposed the idea of society moving from orality to literacy (Walter Ong) to what he called Electracy, where society learns the full communicative potential of these technologies, much as literacy is to reading. I’ve written a fair bit about how this will impact the arts and film (here’s a post from 2011 about it, which was part of a chapter I wrote for a book), but you can see it all coming together now.
The latest craze – in all senses of the word because it’s also driving many artists crazy mad – is generative AI and art, and while it’s hitting graphic arts and photography/still images hardest now, it’s already becoming a phenomenon in film and video, too. We’ve filed a few stories about this in this newsletter in the past few years, but this tiny post about what Steve Coulson of Campfire has been doing with Midjourney and comics being the most prominent. But I expect I’ll be writing a lot more about this stuff, as it’s hitting my feed left and right. Just today, for instance, I was reading this excellent LinkedIn post from my friend Simon Staffans in Finland, about his experiments and thoughts in this space. And I was reading this piece in the Hollywood Reporter about how MGM is using AI tools to help filmmakers and others to search their archives and license clips for use in research or advertising (one hopes they’ll dream bigger soon and allow reuse and licensed payments for new art using the same). 
There was also this piece two days ago in NoFilmSchool, where James DeRuvo argues that generative AI is getting smarter and smarter and the film world needs to stop worrying about it and embrace the potential. Like Steffans, he brings up the good and the bad around how filmmakers are using AI to create storyboards and pitch decks for their films. On the one hand, it might lead to storyboard artists losing their jobs. On the other hand, he brings up the many filmmakers who can now be empowered to use AI to create images they could never have made before, and many of them would not have ever been able to hire and pay a storyboard artist in the first place. And I’ve been seeing this left and right – filmmakers who want to make an animated film, and they will hire a real animator eventually (for now, but in the future…?), but who can use this to draw from their “mind’s eye” and show their story-world and raise money to bring these ideas to fruition. Or they’re using it to create pitch decks with the perfect images, instead of cut/paste stock images (which are seldom paid for in these decks, either) that only half-convey what they want to show, at best. 
But as controversial as these latest iterations have already been, we’re at the start of this journey and much bigger things are coming. It will take some time, because technology is always so damned slow, but we’ll see some crazy shit soon. More than one short film has already been made using AI generated art for every scene, in fact everything in the movie. There’s probably been a feature that I haven’t heard about, and will soon. And sure, they aren’t perfect yet, but they’ll get better. And then someone will merge them with virtual production tools and virtual sets that were created and stored in the cloud. And someone else will merge them with Unreal engine and the gaming stuff they’re making and make it participatory. And some other folks will merge this into a VR or AR world, and someone else will let us manipulate these images and stories in real time, in a virtual world – and someone else will grab those files and use another AI to make them into another virtual story world, and charge admission. And one of those will be made into a Hollywood blockbuster, which will then be iterated upon and memed and so on and so forth. It’s another reason why Sundance getting rid of the New Frontier program at this juncture is so crazy – why kill it, when this stuff is finally coming together and working?
Thinking about all of this, I stumbled upon this little article from two days ago from someone called "C"ON"VER"S"E" writing about theorist Vilém Flusser’s 1985 book Into the Universe of Technical Images, and how this applies not just to film but to the future of these art/technology mash-ups. They point out that “The imminent future, where anyone has the ability to generate high-quality images or videos with a few keystrokes, threatens the status of the “Artist” as a singular creator, an individual who has put in the hours to develop their technical skills and unique point of view. This existential disruption to the concept of the artist is at the center of controversy around text-to-image models. Dialogues around the implications of this shift are passionately unfolding right now online, but Flusser shows us that the shift was already well underway at the time of his writing nearly 40 years ago.” In fact, looking through Flusser, we can think about the death of the “auteur” and the notion of the “single great Artist,” but also focus on what it brings us, which is “not an act of subtraction, erasing artists and their role in society, but of addition,” where everyone can be an artist, and everyone can participate in art.
The key is going to be making sure this technology stays focused on the additive parts. And that won’t be easy, as Thomas Edsall points out in his NYT piece this week about the impact of AI and automation on the broader work-force. AI isn’t just coming for artist’s jobs, but for many others. Edsall quotes Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence, who argues: “When A.I. is focused on augmenting humans rather than mimicking them, humans retain the power to insist on a share of the value created. What is more, augmentation creates new capabilities and new products and services, ultimately generating far more value than merely humanlike A.I.” But, he adds, “While both types of A.I. can be enormously beneficial, there are currently excess incentives for automation rather than augmentation among technologists, business executives, and policymakers.”
Importantly, Edsall brings this to how it can disempower another generation, and lead to more populist political leaders like we’re seeing now (and you should read this article for that part of his argument). This is another reason we need our film organizations to be thinking about the implications of all of these technologies and shifts (which could have been a policy arm of the New Frontier program, perhaps). But the important thing to me, is that we as artists and those working in the field, participate in all of this and help ensure that the future being built is one that is additive, and augmentative to artists and their work, and not just automation and replacement of our visions (or us!). 
As this "C"on"ver"s"e" person says – “we still have the chance to steer things in a more utopian direction if we can see the situation clearly. The key is to see AI images not as a historical aberration, but an inevitable step in the revolution brought about by technical images. From this perspective, there is an opening for artists to embrace these new tools, push their unlimited potential, and break free from creative stagnation through new ways of envisioning, new ways of collectively imagining value and meaning.”  
We can sit around and bemoan the loss of the auteur, or the coming of the Matrix. But we’re also gaining the ability to be additive. To create as a group again, and tell stories like we did in oral cultures, before it became the one-way model of consumption. If done right – meaning augmentative and additive, instead of just copying and replacing other’s creativity, the great promise of these technologies can be realized. It can be scary, because it goes against our (now) instinctive view of single artists pushing culture, not the group. But it can be a bit of both, so long as we don’t get lost in a Zuckerverse. We can perhaps move from meme to movement. That, to me, is what’s exciting about this future. But that’s enough future thinking for today’s newsletter, and I gotta get back to helping my client’s make old fashioned movies!

Stuff I'm Reading


Why Streamers Are Getting on Board With In-Flight Entertainment: In-flight entertainment is a 250-300 million dollar/year industry… and growing. Two decades ago you’d be lucky to have a personal screen onboard, and even then there’d only be a few films to select from. Now, that number has grown significantly but it’s still relatively small. But “we’re heading toward a world where the seatback screen in front of you is fully connected to the internet, where the airlines and studios push content to you as an individual passenger, and where all of the systems are designed to tie in to loyalty programs and studio subscriber platforms… If the airline knows that you’re a Paramount+ subscriber and they have a special deal going with HBO Max, you might get an HBO Max-heavy set of content.  (Josh Marks, CEO of Anuvu, onboard entertainment provider).” The takeaway: airlines will start to learn more about us (read: collect more data), resulting in massive deals with studios and targeted content that’ll  hopefully be more enjoyable for its passengers. Kirsten Chuba for The Hollywood Reporter brings us the story. (GSH) Also, read Dan Mirvish's article for Filmmaker Magazine on how indie filmmakers can navigate this space.

Why horror films kill at the box office all year round: Despite the last couple years being a nightmare for theaters, horror films have been killing at the box office… all year round. Take “Smile” for instance – it made almost $23 million in box office sales in week 1 and stunned Hollywood in week 2 with a staggering $18.5 million. So, thank you Horror Movies and horror enthusiasts for helping sustain theaters fighting against a brutal Pandemic and the streaming revolution. Frank Pallotta for CNN Business has the news. (GSH)

Campaign to Save the EIFF and FilmHouse: A campaign has been started to save the Edinburgh Film Fest and the FilmHouse & Belmont theaters. The petition is nearing 25K signatures as of this writing, and some folks are doing some cool projections and activations around Edinburgh. The FilmHouse building is being sold, and people seem to hope that some group will come together to put things back in place again. Let's hope so. Deadline reports. (BN)
Branded Content
Kyra Sedgwick Movie ‘Space Oddity’ Lands With Samuel Goldwyn Films: Recently picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films, Space Oddity tells the story of Alex (Kyle Allen), who after giving up on Earth and deciding to leave it all behind for a one-way mission to Mars, develops an unexpected romance with Daisy (Alexandra Shipp), the enigmatic town newcomer. REI CO-Op Studios serves as an Executive Producer on the film “to show how mainstream films can impact change and elevate current topics including Climate Change and protecting the environment (Anthony D’Alessandro, Deadline).” REI Co-Op Studios is a Sub-Genre client, and we're super happy for the teams at REI and those who made the film. 

Ralph Lauren redesigned its iconic logo for a Fortnite collab: Following in the footsteps of Balenciaga and Moncler, Ralph Lauren has partnered with Fortonite. What does this mean? For starters, its iconic horse logo is now a cartoon llama for certain items. Ralph Lauren digital outfits will be available for purchase in the Fornite item shop starting this weekend and physical outfits that replicate in-game collections will also be made available soon. A few takeaways here: (1) The partnerships represents another instance of the merging of digital and physical worlds; (2) the deal signifies Ralph Lauren’s belief in the power of the metaverse; (3) the brand’s flexibility and desire to embrace new times (as symbolized through its logo redesign). Andrew Webster for TheVerge has the news. (GSH)

Elon Musk owns Twitter. Now what? Elon Musk owns Twitter. Let that sink in. Give Shrini Ghaffary’s piece for Vox a read for the now what?. Here’re my takeaways: (1) After moving in and immediately firing Twitter’s CEO and a couple other top executives, Musk’s greatest challenges will be dealing with speech moderation, changing its business model (Twitter’s stock value has declined substantially this past year, and retaining users (apparently, Twitter’s most active users have been leaving in large numbers since the start of the pandemic); (2) Musk says that “people should be allowed to say pretty outrageous things that are within the bounds of the law”, but what his algorithms will filter vs. amplify remains to be seen; (3) Trump will get his account back; (4) Musk says he’ll get rid of bots (which account for as high as 20% of Twitter accounts); (5) Musk has ambitions to turn Twitter into a “superapp,” where people can order take out, pay their bills, and more… kind of like China’s WeChat; (6) Musk plans to cut 75% of Twitter’s employee base. Insiders say the transfer of power has contributed to fear and uncertainty. Again, check out Ghaffary’s piece for the details. (GSH) And I have no clue why any of you would keep contributing there or at FB given who owns the two of them?! (BN)

GSH = Articles written by Sub-Genre's Gabriel Schillinger-Hyman, not Brian Newman (BN)
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