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Hollywood’s New Algorithm: How AI is Impacting Production (& Even Wrote this Headline)

How AI will change production—and our jobs.

Photo by Andrea De Santis / Unsplash

Today, we’re focusing on AI. But it’s not more “big think” on the topic. You can find that elsewhere. This is a look at the implication of artificial intelligence and machine learning for actual production—what it means for us now, what we should do about it, and what it means for us longer term for our jobs and our mediums. 

Consider this Animations Guild survey of 300+ production execs. It estimates 204,000 production jobs will be adversely affected in the next three years. 77% of respondents in that report already use generative AI to speed up rotoscoping, uploading images to virtual production screens, etc.

Evan Halleck used RunwayML in “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Warner Bros and some others are using Cinelytic to help make greenlighting decisions. Netflix is posting $900,000 AI project manager jobs while cutting other staff.

If you’re not already using AI tools for scripting, storyboarding, budgeting, scheduling, on-set management and design, and/or VFX editing, you will be soon. We’ve compiled a list of our favorite AI tools for you here.

If about 70-75% of a budget for a significant project is below-the-line staff and production/post-production costs, and production teams are using these tools more and more effectively, we’re looking at much lower budgets, faster productions, and smaller staffs. Expect that to speed up even more in the next two years.

Optimists will say that AI is going to free us up from days’ worth of admin and allow us to focus on the creative, strategic work that most of us got into the business for. AI will be a collaborator and amplifier for us. Unions and policy makers will create safeguards to keep craftspeople in work. 

It’s possible. WGA and SAG-AFTRA both carved out some protections in their labor deals last year. The IATSE’s deal with the AMPTP will soon expire and AI protections may be one of the  key issues in negotiations.

Pessimists will say that collaboration and upside will be temporary and lead to permanent job replacement. They’ll point to the same survey: by 2026, a third of respondents predicted over 20% of all entertainment industry jobs, or roughly 118,500 positions, will be cut. 

Both can be true over time. 

But it feels like AI is hastening a sea change beyond labor and workflows. It’s democratizing production. Microbudget films and independent content creators now have access to the tools that big productions had the monopoly on for years. Quality of production outside of the big studios has been improving; it’s going to take off exponentially as AI and machine learning tools become more commonly used. That’s exciting.

Workloads have been falling off since COVID. So who is filling the content void? It’s those generalists, independents, small budgeteers that now have access. AI has met new media, and now the playing field is more level. 

What happens next?

Maybe another “old” media form that’s faced disruption in recent years gives us an example.

In book publishing, it’s now easier to access the design and production programs used by big publishers. Combined with a more accessible printing and supply chain (Amazon), and straight-to-consumer outlets (also Amazon), this has chipped away at the big publisher’s monopoly. The big authors and the big promotional budgets are still the territory of the traditional publishers; they still make the most money and produce the biggest hits. But self- and independently-published books can now be comparable in quality, have a real market share, and occasionally hit it big (think 50 Shades of Grey or Colleen Hoover). 

Small publishing teams and small presses are filling the publishing gap, leveraging their experience and the production technology to publish with quality and make hits for rising talent. They’re most relevant to us reading this newsletter. They’re often teams of generalists, and can take more chances, experiment, and be entrepreneurial because of their scale. They have more autonomy and move faster and reach audiences in new ways. And publishing is more democratic because of them. 

For those of us who aren’t consistently working on “Hollywood” productions, maybe that’s what our AI-enabled, near-future production environment looks like. And that’s exciting (and scary!).