OPINION: Tyler Perry’s $800M studio pause in Atlanta is an eye-popping moment in AI

Tyler Perry in Tyler Perry Studios on Sept. 26, 2019. He has halted an $800 million expansion at his 330-acre studio in Atlanta over fears of artificial intelligence. (Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Tyler Perry in Tyler Perry Studios on Sept. 26, 2019. He has halted an $800 million expansion at his 330-acre studio in Atlanta over fears of artificial intelligence. (Hyosub Shin/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

The “Terminator” warned us this was coming 40 years ago, that artificial intelligence would become our overlords. But did we listen?

OK, the dystopic future depicted in that movie was 2029, so we still have five years to avoid human replacement. But advancements in AI have exploded so quickly in the past couple years that the seismic disruptions once seen as futuristic are now reality.

The latest case in point is Tyler Perry halting an $800 million expansion at his Atlanta studio compound because he’s worried AI will make old-fashioned movie making obsolete. Why spend all that money on bricks and mortar when you can just click a mouse?

Perry had witnessed OpenAI’s text-to-video Sora, released two weeks ago, and was blown away. He told the Hollywood Reporter, “I am very, very concerned that in the near future, a lot of jobs are going to be lost.

“I immediately started thinking of everyone in the industry who would be affected by this, including actors and grip and electric and transportation and sound and editors, and looking at this, I’m thinking this will touch every corner of our industry.”

Perry said he’ll no longer have to travel to locations to shoot or build sets. “I can sit in an office and do this with a computer, which is shocking to me,” he said. In fact, technology has allowed him to avoid hours of “aging makeup” for a movie.

That’s bad news, of course, for makeup artists.

"A Madea Homecoming," on Netflix returns Tyler Perry as Madea. (Charles Bergmann/Tyler Perry Studios/Netflix/TNS)

Credit: TNS

icon to expand image

Credit: TNS

Soon, Perry will be able to just slap on one of his grandma wigs and bang out another Madea sequel from his living room.

The worry of AI coming for people’s jobs is not new. Reports, studies and news stories have predicted it for years in fields ranging from software development to information technology to accounting.

Jobs not at risk? Pipefitters, firefighters and barbers. Try getting a decent haircut from an app.

Journalism is also in AI’s crosshairs. I asked ChatGPT to write about AI and Tyler Perry in my style. It pumped out 442 words in 20 seconds.

Here’s a sample: “Bill Torpy, in his characteristic style, might quip, ‘Can a computer really capture the essence of Madea’s sass or the depth of emotion in one of Perry’s heart-wrenching scenes? Maybe AI needs a lesson in Southern storytelling before it tries to fill Madea’s shoes!’”

Kinda lame. I think I still have another couple years.

Tyler Perry Studios has built a dozen soundstages that the company rents to other production companies. Films including Black Panther and First Man have shot scenes in these buildings. SPECIAL to AJC from Tyler Perry Studios.

icon to expand image

A Pew report on AI and the workplace found that “about a fifth of all workers have high-exposure jobs. Women, Asian, college-educated and higher-paid workers are more exposed.”

Some 27% of college-educated workers are “exposed,” meaning they could get replaced, compared to 12% of workers with a high school diploma.

It’s similar in movieland.

The consulting firm CVL Economics polled 300 entertainment execs and found that two thirds thought drastic changes were coming in the next three years. Terms like “rebalance,” “disruption,” “consolidation,” “replacement” and “elimination” are sprinkled through the report.

The bosses estimated 118,500 film, television and animation jobs would be “consolidated, replaced, or eliminated.” That’s 21% of those in the field., affecting 62,000 such jobs in California, 26,000 in New York and 7,800 in Georgia.

I called some folks knowledgeable about the business.

Brian Magerko, a professor of digital media at Georgia Tech, was initially surprised by Perry’s announcement.

“At first, I thought, ‘This is such an overreaction,’“ he said. “But then I thought he’s not worried about next year, he’s thinking five to 10 years down the road. He was just extrapolating that it’s just a matter of time. And it’s difficult to disagree with him.”

The professor added, “We’re coming to a fundamental moment with our relationship with technology” and what happens in Washington in the next couple years dealing with regulations of the industry is vital. Perry said the same thing.

Magerko said predictions about jobs being replaced are often inaccurate and AI will also create new positions nobody has yet pondered.

Robyn Watson, president of Women in Film and Television Atlanta appreciates the efficiencies AI can bring to the process. But, she added, those improvements must also be weighed against the human cost.

“There is that feeling that as women, we have overcome so many hurdles to get into the room, whether it be producing or writing or whatever, and now this?” she said.

Tom Cappello runs Crazy Legs Productions, which focuses on true crime stories. He thinks AI will help his part of the business in more easily recreating past crimes.

He doesn’t think AI is the sole reason for Perry’s decision. “There’s other economic factors at play,” Cappello said.

“There’s a lot of stages (in the metro area) not at full capacity,” he said, adding that the effects of the writers’ strike, a tightening of Georgia’s movie tax credit and a slowdown in the business might just give Perry a reason to pause.

Besides the question of jobs, Magerko said AI brings up another issue. He pointed out that AI simply hunts for existing data and content and then delivers an amalgam of what is requested.

“You worry about Hollywood being too formulaic now?” he asked. “Wait until you literally have a formula.”