The AI Apocalypse Is Coming for Hollywood, but Don’t Robots Rule Us Already?
Before you know it, they say, robots will be making our TV shows. At this very moment, the machines are learning: to generate full-length screenplays; to spin up dazzling sets and locations; to deep-fake 3D rotatable stand-ins for your favorite actors; to bust out all-new needle drops of algorithmically regurgitated data sets that more or less amount to Taylor Swift. And all without paying a single fee or residual. So if you thought we were already drowning in “content,” girl, strap in! Soon every teen with a computer can be a showrunner—it’s just a matter of entering the right prompts. They’ve already got infinite Seinfeld running on Twitch.
Given that—as an AI chatbot adequately trained in English idioms might put it—the horse has left the barn, it seems there’s nothing any of us can do to prevent this oncoming flood of digital spew. So perhaps the move for us bedraggled mortals, stuck in our sloppy, stubbornly circadian carcasses, is to humbly step aside. We had a good run with our myriad millennia of arts and culture, but I’m calling it now: That’s a wrap. It’ll be easier for all of us, going forward, if we just take everything human out of the equation. Let the robots make the shows, let the robots pick the shows, let the robots distribute the shows—hell, let the robots watch the shows! Imagine the metrics you’d rack up with a bot farm dedicated solely to clicking on, for example, true-crime mockumentaries with sexy scammer protagonists set at the bottom of the ocean. And then you could send those calculations over to the robots on Wall Street, who’d crunch them into profit statements, numbers that only go up. Don’t you see how much more efficient “show business” can be? Just stand back and let the algorithm do its thing: smoothing out the assembly line, removing all risk of surprise or failure, achieving the singularity of taste and product, of the pigs and the trough. People don’t need to be involved in telling stories anymore—just let it be bots all the way down.
Of course, if you’ve worked in Hollywood over the past 10 years, you’re probably thinking: Um…isn’t that pretty much already how things are? The future does have a creepy way of sneaking up on us and revealing itself to be the present. The businesses formerly known as theatrical film and broadcast and cable TV have by now, like the journalism and music industry before them, been subsumed into the vast cauldron of digital streaming soup. There’s no such thing as a movie star anymore, because there’s really no such thing as a movie—and because all of us are stars now, with our TikToks and BeReals and myriad other fun do-it-yourself home surveillance kits. Nor is there any such thing as an old-fashioned blockbuster hit anymore. Or if there is, no one will tell us, because that would require the tech behemoths that own all our little shows to relinquish some of their blank-faced control by opening up those black boxes of data and being honest about who’s watching any of this shit, how much that’s worth to their bottom lines, and why. The sexiest person in Hollywood of 2023 is an accountant: someone who actually gets to touch the math. But maybe those jobs have been outsourced to robots too.
So the coming onslaught of AI-generated, algorithmically cooked storytelling may not be so much a paradigm shift as a continued succumbing to forces already at work, assiduously massaging the life and the magic out of what used to be known as entertainment. Does anyone really doubt an AI could handle the next 40,000 superhero sequels? And who in the dazed, content-battered audience would protest? Surely not the generation of smooth-brained youths who have barely left the house in four years, whose interiorities have oozed out of them, becoming one with the feed. Those poor kids, with their Roblox and their Minecraft and their porn addictions, who have surrendered all their privacy yet still ended up with a loneliness epidemic. They’ll take a Replika for a friend, so no doubt they’ll gladly watch the shows the robots give them. And robots, as executives know, are so much easier to work with than people. Robots don’t need COVID protection on set. Robots won’t be heartbroken when you throw out an entire series they shot in exchange for a tax break. Robots would never ask for an intimacy coordinator.
But there’s something in that word—intimacy—that catches me here, makes me pause. (Could an AI have a moment like this, while “generating”?) Is it possible that this one word might capture the whole reason we tell stories—and listen to them—in the first place? Couldn’t you say that we need stories because they help us coordinate our intimacies: They allow us to explore, alone in the dark or at home on the couch, at a sleepover or on a first date, who we are with each other. Stories, about families, coworkers, criminals, spies, even—yes!—robots, are made of and necessitated by human relationships. Through stories, we, first as children, then as adolescents and adults, learn how to treat each other. We learn how to care. This capacity for empathy is what gives stories their stakes: What’s fundamentally at stake in every story is the tender, vulnerable human heart. Stephen Sondheim—surely one of the greatest non-algorithmic intelligences ever to practice the craft—said, “The only reason to write is from love.” Robots, as far as I know, can’t love. So how can they write—or, more to the point—why would we listen to what they have to say
This requirement—of intimacy, vulnerability, care—is, when you come down to it, what makes the work of telling stories so hard: for writers, actors, directors, everyone who labors together on a set to midwife a new film or TV show into existence. You have to bring your humanity to the job. You have to risk your heart. If a story doesn’t make you feel anything, check again—you might be reading a microwave instruction booklet. Or a screenplay generated by ChatGPT.