In one of the early scenes of the classic film, “Sunset Boulevard,” the main character stumbles into the lair of a silent era actress who is living in seclusion. With surprise he recognizes the owner of the mansion as the once iconic silent film star Norma Desmond and exclaims, “You used to be big!”
“I am big,” she retorts with disdain. “It’s the pictures that got small.” Norma then goes on a diatribe about how the advent of sound in movies had led to the death of Hollywood.
This declaration, made in 1950, certainly would have been seen as ironic at the time. Movies were, after all, the burgeoning art form that would go on to shape our entertainment landscape for the better part of a century. Over the seven decades that have passed since Norma Desmond’s time, the ‘pictures’ have only grown in size. Our summers have become saturated by gargantuan $200M+ “tentpole” movies that, up until recent years, consistently raked in over $1B in cinema ticket sales alone.
Yet, things took a dramatic turn when the pandemic transformed bustling cinema halls into boxes full of empty chairs. Since then, many of the once unstoppable “blockbuster” films have struggled to generate their previous revenue. This summer, in particular, has seen a bloodbath at the box office, with once surefire spectacles now bombing on a regular basis.
And If the fading luster of the once bright lights of Hollywood isn’t bad enough, the industry’s firm grip on the means to generate these fantastic spectacles has also started to slip. The monopoly Hollywood once enjoyed on the tools, talent, and capital necessary for such productions has started to loosen.
That’s because with every passing week we get closer to realizing the full potential of generative technology to create fully “artificial entertainment”. Every facet of modern cinema – from script writing to animation and special effects – is being transformed from the relentless advance of artificial intelligence. The tools used to facilitate these developments may seem crude today, but it’s only a matter of time before someone pioneers a way to use them to craft an entirely artificial film. These early instances of generative cinema won’t need to be masterpieces to capture our attention – they’ll simply need to be “good enough.”
And the moment this genie escapes the bottle, the floodgates will open. Hundreds, if not thousands, of innovative entrepreneurs will dive into the world of generating artificial movies. Their creations may not only rival, but potentially surpass the offerings of current Hollywood productions.
In the face of this oncoming tidal wave, traditional media – already bruised by the onslaught of social media and the collapse of the advertising market – seems to be stubbornly looking the other way. And the Screen Writers Guild is desperately trying to stop anyone from using AI scripting. Yet, the ongoing writer’s strike, coupled with tightening budgets, threatens to reduce the former flood of scripted content to a trickle.
This drought will come at a time when the first groundbreaking attempts at digital cinema will start popping up online, providing audiences starved for fresh content with an entirely new form of entertainment. Moreover, the looming threat of actors joining the writers on the picket line could not only prolong the hiatus of big-ticket films but could also fracture the creative process in a way that undermines every aspect of the modern blockbuster.
The full impact of that inevitable change won’t happen overnight, and the media dinosaurs (and their supporters) may refuse to acknowledge the shifting tides until it’s too late. But one thing is certain: change is inevitable. Piece by piece, we’re seeing that movement, sound, and image are domains that AI can not only replicate what has come before, but allow creators to excel in new ways.
The question that remains is, what advantage will the millions of dollars that the big studios can invest into movies still hold? It won’t be long before AI entrepreneurs are creating their own movies on desktop PCs, with effects equivalent to those that cost hundreds of millions today. Combine the current pace of technology with more powerful machines and more optimized AI and by the end of the decade, advances in AI could render movie studios obsolete.
Watching the struggles that the cinema industry currently faces, it seems Norma Desmond’s prophecy is starting to take shape. The power to create the blockbuster, once confined to the hands of the elite, is becoming increasingly accessible to the masses. And even if the pictures aren’t getting smaller each day, the technologies we’re using to make them surely are. And in the end she may be proven right after all.