Extra! Extra!: Preserving the human element in movies—and storytelling

One wouldn’t equate Hollywood executives with sustainability; they’re synonymous with sprawling compounds, Gulfstream private jets, and conspicuous consumption. But the strike between SAG-AFTRA and Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) hinges, in part, on a truly dystopian bit of recycling: using technology to copy, then replace, human extras.

SAG chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland summed up the studios’ position: “They proposed that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get paid for one day’s pay, and their company should own that scan, their image, their likeness, and to be able to use it for the rest of eternity in any project they want, with no consent and no compensation”

The emergence of breakthrough technologies often spurs concern, but actors are right to be nervous for a number of reasons.

There’s money to be made by faking it

Since the advent of Pepper’s Ghost in the 19th century (a breakthrough method of creating holograms using mirrors and projection), productions featuring artificial performances have drawn crowds. This technique enjoyed renewed popularity in 2012 when it was used to enable Tupac to join Dr. Dre at Coachella. Since then, it has become a lucrative modern cottage industry. For example, thanks to technological advances, Abba reunited for a virtual concert last year. After selling one million tickets to a London residency, producers are preparing to mount a global tour.

Studios were an early adopter of recycling

Before anyone was talking about climate change, Hollywood had already gotten hip to the possibility of making money (lots of it) through recycling—that is, by establishing a formula and slightly tweaking it ad nauseum. The advent of the blockbuster in the mid-1970s was followed quickly by the rise of the sequel: Rocky II (1979), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Jaws 3-D (1983), to name just a few.

Studio executives dream not of single movies but of franchises. In 2022, all of the top-grossing movies in the United States were sequels or reboots. Originality isn’t in high demand. And if movie studios are willing to recycle the thinnest of concepts, you best believe they will use AI to populate the background of a scene to trim some production costs from a big-budget popcorn movie. I imagine Fast and Furious 15 will consist solely of scanned extras, CGI car chases, and Vin Diesel.

Effects-driven movies give tech top billing

Technology is already on its way to making actors irrelevant for some types of stories. Take Avatar 2: The Way of Water: James Cameron used AI, CGI, and aquatic performance capture to translate human actors into Na’vi warriors. Audiences flocked to the movie to witness the groundbreaking visuals and endure the flimsy story. Its global box office reached $2.3 billion, more than nine times its production costs.

Would anyone notice if Zoë Saldaña didn’t reprise her role in the next sequel? And just think how much in residuals studios could avoid paying by relying more heavily on technology and post-production rather than actors.

But all is not lost yet

For some audiences, the human connection and authenticity matter. Everything Everywhere All at Once used some special effects, but at its heart, the movie was about generational trauma brought to life by amazing acting performances. It didn’t gross as much as Avatar 2, but it swept the Oscars this spring. Tom Cruise has staked part of his brand on doing his own stunts rather than handing the task off to trained professionals and technology—even when it means training for one scene in the new Mission Impossible movie for over a year. (OK, I cited a movie franchise as an example. I’m doing what I can here.)

In other forms of entertainment, a portion of consumers are embracing tradition and the tangible over technology. In 2022, vinyl albums generated $1.2 billion in revenues and outsold CDs for the first time since 1987. Sure, physical sales of music accounted for less than one-eighth the revenues of streaming, but it’s not nothing.

What’s all this have to do with thought leadership?

I have to make that connection; after all, we’re content marketers, not entertainment pundits. Thought leadership’s value, as the name suggests, comes from unique insights that advance the conversation, not recycled ideas. That means drawing from proprietary data and research as well as firsthand experience. If an article can be written by generative AI, the output is just a synthesis of what’s already out there and unlikely to provide any value or distinguish your company in the marketplace of ideas.

My colleague Luke put together this visualization of the range of thought leadership quality. Leaning on generative AI means you’re likely to produce content that’s to the left of the midpoint—not a winning place to be. Organizations that need their content to communicate complex ideas to specific audiences shouldn’t rely on generative AI to figure out how to grab their audiences.

The best content with the most utility for businesses will be novel, geared to a specific audience, and contain a hefty dose of human insights. So it figures the organizations that market expertise and produce new knowledge are, by definition, in the best position to stand out and connect with their audiences. There aren’t shortcuts here.

As for the studios, here’s hoping they recognize and reward the human element in storytelling before it’s too late. And if Die Hard and its many sequels taught us anything, it’s never too late.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of LEFF. He’s spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he’s had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of “lean content creation” as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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