AI Is Not Coming to a Theater Near You

“AI” is a swear word in Hollywood, one only muttered at CinemaCon 2024 after a certain number of daiquiris. In Booth #2618A on the trade show floor, it was a pitch.

In our search of the hundreds of participating CinemaCon 2024 vendors, Indy Cinema Group — born in the UK and optimized outside Yosemite — was the lone company bold enough to plant its AI flag in Las Vegas this week.

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The Indy app, developed by aerospace-engineer-turned-theater-owner (yes, that old story) Keith Walker, is out to replace the five or six computer systems a movie theater already uses. Indy will sell your tickets and your concessions, sure, but its real power is in the data. Upselling loyal customers has never been so easy, and staffing never so efficient.

Indy will learn what your customers like to watch, eat, drink, where they like to sit and at what times, and even how long they’ll wait on line for Twizzlers. From there, theaters may decide it’s worth adding another 2-3 hour shift to keep the wait times down — or, that it would cost more in labor than it would make in candy. Indy’s AI starts with a theater’s demographics and instantly spits out optimized everything, including a forecasted profit & loss statement that is automatically adjusted with each incremental decision. It’s a one-click shop to run a movie theater.

Indy costs a few grand per month, but the company posits that its efficiencies would cover those costs and then some. That could mean more popcorn sales (where the profits are huge) and/or fewer workers just standing around, a cardinal sin in exhibition. With movie-theater margins being squeezed tighter and tighter, every shift, screen, and showtime counts.

Not all humans at CinemaCon 2024 were psyched for AI. Aziz Ansari, while presenting his new film “Good Fortune,” joked that he had to make this his directorial debut after seeing what OpenAI’s Sora could do. “There’s AI theater owners, AI executives, it’s coming,” he said.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - APRIL 09: Charles Rivkin, Chairman, MPA, speaks onstage during "The State of the Industry and a Special Presentation from Crunchyroll" during CinemaCon, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners, at Caesars Palace on April 09, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images for CinemaCon)
MPA Chairman Charles RivkinGetty Images for CinemaCon

It was also a talking point for MPA CEO Charles Rivkin. The studios he represents obviously have a massive interest in how AI develops and the role its plays in entertainment. However, while studios negotiated AI rules with the WGA, SAG, and DGA last year, MPA will focus on lobbying Congress to ensure AI can’t violate copyright.

Currently, AI-generated material doesn’t qualify for copyright. The MPA supports that position, but has cautioned Congress to tread lightly as it drafts federal legislation that would bar unauthorized replication of individuals’ likenesses and voices. While that would protect actors and musicians, it could also risk treading on the First Amendment.

Although Rivkin said the MPA shares actors’ concerns of actors around how their digital replicas could be used without consent, he believes most issues around AI are covered under existing copyright law and that there isn’t a need to change them.

“We can’t support any law that’s going to take away our ability to tell stories,” Rivkin said in an April 9 press conference. As an example, Rivkin cited the idea that making “Forrest Gump” could be illegal because it used a digital replica of John F. Kennedy. His concern is current language in the legislation doesn’t clearly define ideas like animated replicas and inadvertently impede productions like SNL’s digital shorts or “South Park.”

“That’s not the intent of the legislation,” he said. “We just want to make sure we can protect people who make a living using a digital replica, but also wouldn’t stop us from making documentaries or parodies. We have to make sure we don’t inadvertently box us out.”

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