If you’ve been on the internet lately, you’ve no doubt come across some gee-whiz article along these lines: Programmers build an artificial intelligence, train it on datasets of Renaissance artwork or baroque-era classical music, and then gasp in amazement as the AI “paints” a portrait or “composes” a cantata. This inevitably leads to breathless speculation that we humans might soon find ourselves rendered wholly redundant in the production of the arts, eclipsed in all regards by machine learning just as the gas lamp was by the light bulb. And hey, I’ll admit it’s a neat little party trick. But no computer is replacing me anytime soon, because while Silicon Valley might not like to hear it, artificial intelligence will never be able to rehash pre-existing IP as soullessly as a flesh-and-blood studio executive.
I spent the better part of two decades as chairman at Disney, and I like to think I know a thing or two about monotonously regurgitating proven intellectual properties to wring every last dollar out of people’s nostalgia. That endless churn of Marvel movies dominating your theater? My handiwork. Those antiseptic live-action remakes of the Disney classics you grew up on? Them too. I’ve mastered the craft of recycling cash cow, decades-old media, and I’m not being arrogant when I say that some pile of wires and circuits can never feel the hollow, joyless drive to increase shareholder value that I do. To AI, a beloved franchise like Star Wars is just ones and zeros. But to a living, breathing studio executive? It’s a new beach house. Another personal chef. A little line on a graph ticking slightly upward. AI might be able to do a passable impression of that cynical avarice, but that’s all it will ever be. An impression.
Let’s use that portrait painting AI as an example. Sure, its output might seem insipid and formulaic at a glance, but look a little closer and you’ll eventually find a hand with seven fingers, or a tree sprouting from someone’s shoulder. However superficially constrained AI might be by the datasets it learns from, it can still blunder into reassembling those inputs in novel and unfamiliar ways. You let an AI try to remake Lilo & Stitch, you’re gonna wind up with some scenes that challenge the audience and potentially lose public interest by taking creative risks. But turn an old hand studio exec like me loose on it, and I’ll give you a remake so safe and anodyne that people will start forgetting it before they’ve even finished watching. AI just doesn’t know how to slap together a charmless money grab with that level of creative bankruptcy, how to capitalize on people’s fond memories of the original by making them pay to see a duller, less inventive version of it. But I sure do. Hell, I don’t know how not to!
AI’s cheerleaders also ignore the amount of collaboration that goes into tediously rehashing IPs, because God knows us studio execs don’t suck the life out of these franchises alone. We’re constantly looking for exciting, buzz-generating directors we can grind down into making wooden retreads with bad lighting and Joss Whedon dialogue, and cajoling them toward just the right kind of bland homogeneity will always require a human touch. Sure, an algorithm might be able to at least identify a rising talent, but only someone who feels real emptiness can teach them to butcher the old classics—toward which they hold genuine reverence!—and turn them into cinematic taxidermy. If you think just coming up with the idea for a photorealistic CGI The Lion King took a bleak and passionless outlook, imagine what it took to get a whole team of actual creatives onboard with it. Artificial intelligence could never.
Now before you write me off as some stick-in-the-mud Luddite, let me say I can absolutely appreciate that AI has its uses. It holds real promise for cutting out low-level concept artists and designers from a production budget. And the idea of paying an actor for their likeness once and then using AI-generated performances to put them in dozens of movies without spending another dime? Buddy, sign me up! But where soullessly rehashing IP is concerned, I’m afraid we mortal studio executives are here to stay, forever squeezing profit out of the same handful of blockbuster franchises we always have and always will.