After a summer of strikes and “Barbenheimer,” the future of entertainment hangs in the balance
The box office success of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” including the organic “Barbenheimer” phenomenon where fans took in a double feature of the movies on opening day, led once again to major pronouncements about the future of entertainment. After a multi-year decline driven by streaming services and the pandemic, cultural observers wondered, “Is going to the movies finally back?”
“July would have been a lukewarm month, but then ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’ arrived; moviegoing exploded,” David A. Gross of Franchise Entertainment Research told Variety. “Within one week, July caught up to its pre-pandemic average.”
That the premieres came right after the actors union (SAG-AFTRA) joined the writers union (WGA) in their first simultaneous strike since 1960 made questions about the future of entertainment echo all the louder. The strikes meant that in the near term, there would be a dearth of new movies and shows to captivate audiences the way “Barbenheimer” did, either at home or at the theater.
Consumers didn’t feel the immediate effects of the strikes because there was enough content already finished to sate demand for a while. But even with a relatively quick labor resolution, there will be a period when your favorite shows run out of new episodes, or an entire season where the quality is noticeably down because of a rush job. We’re headed for an entertainment desert for a bit. What we don’t know is what kind of industry will emerge from it.
Studios are very interested in incorporating AI into the entertainment ecosystem, something the actors and writers are wary of. They contend studios want to be able to scan background performers, pay them for a day’s work, then use their images and likenesses for other projects without paying residuals to the actors. The writers, for their part, want guarantees that AI won’t be used for work already contracted by human writers. There’s no doubt studios are curious about what kind of content they can wring out of generative AI, and whether the technology might make it easier to conjure up dream worlds for audiences.
As Pinar Demirdag, one of the creators of AI image generation and editing tool Cuebric sees it, the human ingenuity that goes into the process is irreplaceable. For generative AI to produce great art, it needs great artists at the controls.
“Are you making the tools to annihilate humans, to make decisions instead of you? Do you not trust yourself enough that you want to rely on an emotionally devoid battery? Or are you making the tool to uplift the burdens from your shoulders so that you as a visionary can focus on your creation and vision?” she said to BOSS.
We’ve seen virtual production already in shows like “The Mandalorian,” and it can do an excellent job of creating worlds that characters and audiences alike can sink into much better than a green screen.
“The Volume allows us to bring many different environments under one roof,” visual-effects supervisor Richard Bluff of ILM told American Cinematographer. “We could be shooting on the lava flats of Nevarro in the morning and in the deserts of Tatooine in the afternoon. Of course, there are practical considerations to switching over environments, but we (typically did) two environments in one day.”
That time-saving, world-building technology is a big reason AI on screen will be the norm in the future of entertainment.
Too Many Choices
With social media and a wide variety of streaming services offering content that’s individually tailored, we have seen a growing fragmentation in entertainment media. YouTube and Netflix combine for almost as much content viewing as all of network TV combined, if they haven’t already surpassed it. Back when there were only a few TV channels, shows could draw huge ratings because they were the only thing on. Now, shows and movies have to compete with whatever we’re doing on our phones. And even with popular shows, people can watch them whenever works for them, not when they air, so much of the shared experience is gone.
That’s a big reason why live sports has become the last bastion for TV advertisers. It’s the last thing people still want to watch as it’s happening, for fear they’ll see the score and ruin the fun if they don’t. Thus, it’s last place where advertisers have a large captive audience with core demographics represented. But even that is changing. Amazon Prime is the exclusive home of the NFL’s Thursday Night Football, and other sports have some games only available on streaming services, with no broadcast TV option.
“The fragmentation of sports rights is good for the leagues but confusing for consumers. The most passionate sports fans will subscribe to everything and find their sport wherever it is, but fragmentation creates a delicate tightrope for the leagues to walk in terms of maintaining mass appeal and engagement, which have driven a stellar sports advertising business,” Ann Sarnoff, former Warner Bros. chairwoman and CEO, told CNBC.
There will simply be more and more options vying for our attention and entertainment dollar. Cord-cutting, once a cost-saving measure for consumers, has given rise to a bunch of streaming services we can’t keep track of that end up costing as much as cable did. If we grow bored or disillusioned with all that, we’ll just check in with what influencers and power users are up to on social media. If actors and writers strikes persist, studios will inevitably turn to more reality programming. It all adds to fragmented viewing customized to individual tastes, which might make us happier with our entertainment choices but makes the chances of hugely popular events like “Barbenheimer” less likely.
The solution for the entertainment industry might just be really good work.
“At their core, consumers want to go see a compelling story, they want to be entertained,” Michael O’Leary, president and CEO of the National Association of Theater Owners, told CNN Business. “If stories resonate with people… they tell other people.”
Figuring out how to produce those stories will determine the future of entertainment.