Writers and actors are a relatively small percentage of any film’s budget, so pleas of poverty from executives ring hollow
As Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike against the Hollywood studios drags on, money is increasingly becoming a concern to everyone. The most concerning issue, among many, is the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to create “things” (at this point describing them as “scripts” is a bit iffy) that would impact their earnings.
And now the National Board of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) has voted to put its 161,000 members onto the picket line. An issue they have, as well, is AI. In this case, it would be to generate cyberactors, be they completely synthetic (e.g., in January a Korean girl group, MAVE, dropped a single. . .and the members are AI-generated) or it is a matter of using a morphed variant ( having an actor aged one way or the other and used in place of the actual being). Again, this has a huge potential on affecting their earnings.
In the case of either writing or acting, there is the ability to train large language models using existing scripts or filmed performances that can potentially use those examples to generate output that are new versions of either.
Presumably, the position of the studios (although it is unimaginable they would say it out loud) is that instead of having to deal with difficult writers or actors, they can just have the generally uncommunicative guys in the IT department produce what is now generally considered “content.” This would mean, conceivably, (a) things go more smoothly (no whining about taking notes) and, more importantly (b) lessening costs.
But is that really the case?
There has long been the debate between the writer and the actor: The actor can’t perform unless the writer creates a script; the writer can’t get the work manifest in the physical world unless there is an actor to perform it.
It is truly a symbiotic relationship. When things go right, it is amazing. And the result can be big box office. Even if it doesn’t end up providing a huge ROI, when the hand fits the glove the work can attain high levels of admiration and respect, valuable in their own way.
Here we are at a time when the studios can take one or both out of the equation.
But it may not be as advantageous to them as might be generally thought.
The Nashville Film Institute (NFI) has obtained the breakdown of costs associated with three films. Admittedly, these films and figures are somewhat old, but the pattern is such that were inflation added, they are undoubtedly proportionate.
First, “Unbreakable,” the M. Night Shyamalan film of 2000. According to the NFI, the total budget for the film was $74,243,106. Of that, the cast accounted for $35,068,388 (the greatest percentage of which–$20,000,000—went to Bruce Willis. The story and screenplay rights were $5,000,000. So the actors in toto represent 47 percent of the total budget. And the writing a mere six percent. Say what you will about the acting talents of Bruce Willis, arguably it would be difficult to have some digital animatronic to pull off what he did at his peak. And what’s the point of a six-percent save through the screenplay writing version of ChatGPT?
Then “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider—The Cradle of Life” (2003). The total budget is much higher: $118,000,000. They budgeted the cast at $17,250,000. Or under 15 percent of the total. Lara Croft began its existence as a video game character. Angelina Jolie turned her into something real. The story and screenplay rights: $4,000,000. Three percent
So think about it: the acting and writing constitute a mere 18 percent of the total budget.
Finally, NPI has “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” (2003). Total budget: $187,300,000. The cast: $35,000,000 ($29,250,000 of which went to Arnold Schwarzenegger). The cast represents under 19 percent of the total budget. The story rights and screenplay $24,700,000. Although certainly comparatively pricy, still just it’s still just 13 percent of the total budget. Even though he is playing an AI-powered machine, it is inconceivable there would be a Terminator movie without Schwarzenegger.
As big movies today are more akin to Tomb Raider and Terminator 3 than Unbreakable—as in being more special-effect intensive than character driven—presumably the actors’ earnings, even for a star-studded Marvel movie, probably are not a particularly major part of the total budget.
So what would you save by using AI to replace writers or actors? Comparatively speaking, not much.
What do you risk by doing so? Plenty.