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Artificial Intelligence AI Brand Strategy

Why Disney will have to tread carefully as it forges ahead with AI plans

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By Webb Wright, NY Reporter

August 11, 2023 | 9 min read

The entertainment giant is bulking up on its AI prowess. Analysts say the brand risks reputational damage if not handled with care.

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Disney is currently hiring for several AI-related positions. / Adobe Stock

As the entertainment industry struggles to absorb the shock of the AI revolution, one of its leading brands appears to take some early steps to embrace the technology.

Disney has reportedly created a “task force” to explore AI's potential applications across multiple branches of its business. According to Reuters – which did not quote Disney directly but attributed plans to anonymous sources familiar with the matter – the company could embrace AI as a means of reducing the sometimes astronomically high costs of film production (Avengers: Endgame, for example, cost well over $350mn) and also to enhance its theme park division, which is populated by a slew of animatronic characters.

Disney’s website currently lists nine AI-related job openings, suggesting that the company is aiming to strengthen its capabilities surrounding the technology.

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The entertainment giant’s foray into AI could be unwelcome but unsurprising news to many who worry that rapidly advancing AI could soon supplant human creativity as the primary driving force behind the TV and film industries.

In a list of proposals released in May, at the beginning of its ongoing strike, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) called for assurances that AI would not be able to “write or rewrite literary material” and that material created by human writers in the Guild would not “be used to train AI.” The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) rejected that proposal, instead offering “annual meetings to discuss advancements in technology,” according to the WGA document.

The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Radio and Television Artists (SAG-AFTRA) also went on strike last month, citing similar concerns about AI.

Others view the news from Disney as a logical next step for the company. “It’s entirely natural that if a relevant new technology comes around, then a company that’s affected by that technology [should] look seriously into deploying it,” says Julian Togelius, a computer scientist at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering. “I mean, it would be absolutely weird if they didn’t. If I was the head of Disney, and I decided that, ‘No, we’re not going to be looking at using AI,’ then I would expect my shareholders to [severely criticize] me at the next shareholder meeting.”

Disney has long been known for embracing novel technologies in order to enhance various aspects of its media and entertainment business. It has recently been investing, for example, in emerging tech like augmented reality (AR) and facial motion capture.

The company also launched a short-lived initiative in February 2022 to explore opportunities within the so-called metaverse, jumping on the cultural hype with was then swirling around the ill-defined virtual space. That initiative was axed earlier this year as part of a broader headcount reduction within the company. The division’s former chief, Mike White, was reportedly let go from Disney last week.

Managing the potential PR fallout

Previous technological achievements aside, Disney could face some novel PR challenges if it continues to embrace AI – a technology that some fear could pose an existential risk to humanity. Meanwhile, the WGA strike - supported by writers, actors and other industry talent, which Disney still relies on - has placed a negative spotlight on companies that are attempting to use AI as a substitute human creativity.

Disney’s recent use of the tech to de-age Harrison Ford for its latest Indiana Jones movie played into fears that film studios might eventually stop casting human actors to play younger versions of other actors.

“Disney will need to be very careful with public perceptions [surrounding its use of AI],” says Brian Yamada, chief innovation officer at VLMY&R. “Transparency and clarity are critical today.”

Bob Iger, who was reinstated as CEO of Disney in November following a bleak financial quarter for the company, has made it clear that he has big plans for AI. “Overall, I’m bullish about the prospects [of using AI] because I think they’ll create efficiencies and ways for us to basically provide better services to customers,” he told investors during an earnings call at the end of the second quarter of 2023.

Rival Netflix also appears to be upping the ante in its AI investments; the company recently published a job posting for an AI project manager position, the annual salary for which was listed as ranging up to an eyebrow-raising $900,000.

Paul Verna, head of advertising and media practice at Insider Intelligence, said the revelation of a Disney AI task force is not likely to win any favors with the creative community or among the general public. “Striking writers and actors have been vocal in their protests against TV networks, film studios and digital media companies, with Disney bearing much of their ire," he says. "While it’s understood and accepted that companies are experimenting with new forms of AI in their pursuit of efficiency, this story [about Disney’s AI task force] has a dystopian ring to it that will only exacerbate the many challenges Disney is facing.”

Given the rate at which advancements in AI are now being made and the dreary, alarmist view that our culture is used to assuming towards AI – thanks in no small part to haunting films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Matrix – it can be easy for one to imagine the future of an AI-dominated Hollywood and picture a scenario in which algorithms create every component of feature films, from the script, to the soundtrack, and even to the (digitally animated) characters. But Noam Kroll, a Los Angeles-based independent filmmaker, doubts that such a scenario will ever materialize. “Films very much need a human touch,” he says, “and I’m very skeptical that AI … will evolve to the point where it can replace human creativity.”

Echoing many marketers who pontificate about the future of AI within their industry, Kroll believes there will forever be a need within the filmmaking process for a human in the loop.

“None of us have a crystal ball [to help us] predict what’s going to happen,” he says. “The best thing that we can do – whether we’re individuals, studios or large production companies – is to try to understand more and have discussions around the technology and how to best implement it so that it elevates the industry as opposed to killing the creative part of it.”

Disney did not respond to The Drum’s request for comment about the future of the company’s AI strategy.

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