Is AI a virtue or vice for Hollywood? Several experts weigh in

The idea of AI in Hollywood is fascinating to some, but terrifying to others.

September 1, 2023, 12:34 PM

LOS ANGELES -- When it comes to director Scott Mann’s tech company Flawless, he says it all started with an actor.

“It's entirely Robert De Niro's fault this exists,” says Mann with a laugh.

Mann directed De Niro in the 2015 crime thriller "Heist." It was his first time directing De Niro, and he tells ABC Audio he wanted everything to be perfect, and that the film crew worked hard to get the performances just right. But then Mann came across a foreign dub of his film.

“That's when I realized how bad that process was in that the dialogue gets changed to fit the wrong mouth flaps,” says Mann. “The performance is very different … you're not pulled into it, you're not immersed, you don't believe the story.”

Looking for an alternative, Mann approached scientists working at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, who were developing an early form of generative artificial intelligence -- a type of AI that can produce content including text, images, audio and video with a simple prompt.

Mann pitched them on adapting the tech for the film industry, and their company Flawless was born. The first time the technology was actually used was in Mann’s 2022 film "Fall," but not in the way it was originally intended.

PHOTO: Justine Bateman and Noah Wylie walk the picket line in support of the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strike on Aug. 23, 2023 at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, Calif.
Justine Bateman and Noah Wylie walk the picket line in support of the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strike on Aug. 23, 2023 at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, Calif.
Jfizzy/star Max/GC Images via Getty Images, FILE

"Fall" is about two women stuck on top of a broadcast tower, and Mann had a problem. The distributor, Lionsgate, wanted the film to be PG-13, but it had too much profanity and was slated for an R rating.

Mann says re-editing the film would’ve been impossible, and re-shooting it would’ve been expensive. Instead, he and his team at Flawless, using the AI tool that was created to dub movies into another language, changed the way actress Virginia Gardner’s mouth moves. Using this method, along with some newly recorded lines from Gardner, the filmmakers were able to make it appear as if she was not using as many expletives. Mann got his PG-13 rating.

But while the whole idea of generative AI in Hollywood is fascinating to some, it’s terrifying to others.

“We are all scared of this,” actress LaNisa Frederick told ABC News from the strike picket lines in Los Angeles. “We do not know what that means. We don't know where it's going, we don't understand it.”

Justine Bateman is also concerned about the unknowns when it comes to AI. The filmmaker has been advising the SAG-AFTRA actor’s union on AI issues as the guild negotiates with Hollywood studios, represented by the AMPTP. Bateman is also a computer scientist, having received her degree from UCLA a few years ago.

“There's no soul, there's no spirit. Gen AI isn't tapped into anything except the past, and a regurgitation of the past. Not even a new way to look at the past. You know what I mean? It's just slicing and dicing and rearranging. It's not an artist”

Bateman says her biggest issue with generative AI is that in order to work, it has to “learn” from vast sets of data. Her concern is that companies will train their AI systems on existing TV shows and movies.

“If you turn a blender on without anything and it just spins, it does nothing, right? So you have to feed it something,” says Bateman. “So there's these generative AI models, only function by consuming our past work, which is like add insult to injury, right?”

If the work of actors and writers is going to be used to train this technology, Bateman, SAG-AFTRA, and the Writers Guild say they want consent and compensation. But, even then, AI still concerns Bateman.

“I think this is going to crater the structure of the business because it'll take out too many jobs,” she says. “And that pipeline will collapse and it'll burn things down.”

At the offices of Flawless in Santa Monica, California, Mann promises their AI has only ever learned on material they had the right to feed into it, and will only generate using data from the current project it’s working on.

“Fundamentally copyright is kind of the foundation of - of how we make art really, right?” says Mann. “And if we don't enforce it and protect it, then we have major problems.”

Tech firm Storia uses AI to make storyboards, a kind of visual representation of a script used by filmmakers to visually plot out what a film, TV show or music video will look like, before they begin shooting. With Storia, users feed in scripts and the program automatically generates a storyboard. It can also mimic the style of certain filmmakers, such as Steven Spielberg or Wes Anderson.

“A lot of the base systems that we have, have been sort of whatever's been scraped on the Internet already exist, you know, that's public available,” says Mihail Eric, Storia’s co-CEO. “It will learn from that data because those are just images that are sort of free and like licensed correctly so that they can actually be scraped and parsed.”

Even still, Eric says he and his company have faced resistance from “across the industry” when it comes to what his company’s AI models are trained on, and how the human creators of that material should be compensated.

“I think there's a way to get kind of the best of both worlds where you can maybe learn from some of these styles because it is something that can augment people's workflows,” says Eric. “I do think that the right path is something where there is attribution and, you know, whatever that mechanism is, some sort of royalties are paid to the right people.”

He also says filmmakers have a right to completely opt out of having their creations used to train AI systems.

“If they're not open to any sort of like, that kind of a royalty system, you can certainly just exclude that data from the training completely,” says Eric.

For Mann, despite the pushback, the benefits of AI in Hollywood outweigh the risks.

“I see an option where we can we can do an awful lot of good with this technology. I feel responsible with it,” he says.

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