Strange World Strange World

The Walt Disney Company has a dedicated task force that is studying artificial intelligence and the ways it can be applied across the company’s many businesses, including productions.

The task force: According to a report published by Reuters, Disney launched the group in the hopes of developing artificial intelligence applications in-house and partnering with third-party startups. At present, Disney is looking to fill 11 positions with individuals that have experience working in AI and machine learning.

Why is Disney doing this? An anonymous source told the publication that within the Walt Disney Company, AI is seen as a potential resource to help control spiraling production costs. The person also said that Disney isn’t the only company working towards those ends, and any legacy media organization that doesn’t embrace AI runs the risk of making itself obsolete.

Disney’s super spending: Disney’s budgets have ballooned in recent years, meaning that every failure at the box office is felt more keenly. Last year, for example, Disney distributed two of the year’s biggest box office flops, Strange World and Lightyear. Combined, the films lost an estimated $303 million at the box office. As we’ve discussed in the past, to a company the size of Disney individual flops aren’t generally much of a concern. If, however, patterns form over time and it becomes normal for films to lose hundreds of millions of dollars, that does create a problem.

That said, other studios have found ways to make lots of money on much smaller budgets, and the idea that AI will be a panacea for Disney’s over-spending seems far-flung. Dreamworks’ The Bad Guys had a reported budget between $70-$80M and the film grossed $250M worldwide while Puss in Boots: The Last Wish made $481M with a budget between $90-$110M. Illumination’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie had a similar budget of around $100M and made more than $1.35 billion worldwide. And right now, the $70M budgeted Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem looks likely to be a huge success story for Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies, and has already made $50M in its first week in theaters.

Where else will Disney use AI? According to Reuter’s sources, Disney is hoping to use AI across all of its businesses, and job openings can be found in the company’s theme parks and engineering units, Imagineering, Disney-branded television, and its advertising team.

What’s Disney’s history with AI? In June, the company caused a stir when it revealed that AI image-generating software had been used for the opening credits of the Disney+/Marvel series Secret Invasion. On the Disney Research website, the lists machine learning as one of its main research areas at its Zurich-based offices. According to the website, that includes using machine learning for “content generation.” The page reads:

We work on algorithms for finding hidden structure in large data sets, using a combination of probabilistic modeling and deep learning, ranging from social media understanding, text mining, and consumer analytics to visual computing and content generation.

What are they saying? An unnamed executive who has worked with Disney told Reuters, “AI research at Disney goes back a very long time and revolves around all the things you see being discussed today: Can we have something that helps us make movies, games, or conversational robots inside theme parks that people can talk to?”

Former Industrial Light & Magic research lead and Pinscreen co-founder and CEO Hao Li said she was working with Disney on AI research as far back as 2006. “They basically do research on anything based on performance capture of humans, creating digital faces. Some of these techniques will be adopted by Disney entities,” she told the publication.

Pictured at top: Strange World

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