The Stack

Entertainment in 2021: Deepfakes as animation, AI-based production, and more

Following a year of unforeseeable upheaval for the media and entertainment industry, 2021 is likely to see further changes in consumer behaviour and content creation. Here, David Ingham, Client Partner, Media and Entertainment at Cognizant, picks five key changes he expects to see across the entertainment industry in 2021.

After a year like no other, the media and entertainment industry is anxiously hoping that 2021 can bring some form of normalcy. However, the aftermath of 2020’s widespread disruption makes that anything but assured.

David Ingham, Media and Entertainment, Cognizant

The effects of the pandemic have been two-paced. Many operations, largely ongoing productions and in-person work, had to grind to a halt.

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Conversely, we have probably seen around five years’ worth of transformation take place in just six months – thanks to digital technologies, both operationally and in content consumption.

Businesses accelerated their digital transformation plans significantly as they learned how to quickly ramp up remote operations, while consumers increasingly turned to online channels for everything from retail to healthcare and, even more so, their entertainment.

As a result, the way we live and work in 2021 is set to be quite different from how we would have expected it to look 12 months ago. Here is what this might mean for the media and entertainment industry in 2021:

1: Deepfakes start to go mainstream

Currently viewed as a fake news tool that has largely been used for fun, yet inconsequential, videos and social media apps, deepfakes are now becoming viable for mainstream content creation. Its potential is best demonstrated by Sassy Justice, the new offering from the creators of South Park who have touted deepfakes as the next form of animation.

While the technology itself is no longer especially new, the application of AI-altered, deepfake videos could be on the cusp of evolution. Like any new technology, it won’t be successful until a use case presents itself and creatives view it as adding value. Too often we have seen technology, from virtual reality to Google Glass, deployed just because it can be done, and failing to break into the mainstream. Sassy Justice is leading the way, but we still need something more universal to really open the floodgates.

A grey area that will soon need to be addressed revolves around the appropriate use of individuals’ images in such content. Sassy Justice may be pioneering deepfake technology in mainstream media, but it is clearly viewed as satire. However, what will happen when drama productions explore the potential of deepfakes – using images of real politicians in a series like Bodyguard, for example, or using images of the actual Royal family in The Crown? The technology is here, and it will be interesting to see how its potential is explored across the industry.

Credit: John Ruddock, via Unsplash.com

2: Virtual production to grow

A knock-on effect of the pandemic has been the acceleration of investment in virtual production technologies.

Where this is most apparent is in the integration of visual effects (VFX) within live production. Previously, VFX productions were shot in front of green screens, with the visuals added in post-production. We can now harness the technology that drives video games such as Fortnite, to allow these virtual backgrounds to be shot live.

This has various consequences for the industry. On-location filming, and the logistics and costs attached (especially during a pandemic), will decrease. Meanwhile, different skills are required – for example, digital painters are needed instead of traditional set dressers. The AI technology underpinning a production will alter the entire media supply chain, allowing film-makers and actors to work with VFX in real time –­ what you see is what you get. The technicians and AI experts working on live productions will be as integral to operations as grips and runners.

Most significantly, post-production time will decrease significantly. By shifting VFX into real-time production rather than post-production, shows and films can dramatically reduce editing time. This means shows can air far more quickly ­ a significant bonus, given the widespread film-shoot setbacks caused by the pandemic.

Credit: Felix Mooneeram, via Unsplash.com

3: Cinemas to remain empty

The more this conversation evolves, the worse it looks for cinema. We are no longer just pondering the next delay to the upcoming James Bond film, No Time To Die, or the film being sold to a streaming service as a demonstration of the growing primacy of digital distribution. Warner Bros blinked first, announcing its entire 2021 slate will now premiere on HBO Max on the same day as any cinema release. Now Disney has outlined an incredible amount of content, much of it built around Disney’s most popular properties from the Marvel and Star Wars universes, for its Disney+ service over the next year and beyond.

While the only way to secure the $1 billion+ in global returns required by the various stakeholders is to cover their investment remains through theatrical distribution, the reality now is that alternatives must be considered. All major studios are trying to determine the best way to cut their losses as the realisation grows that cinemas will remain shut for a while yet, and even upon reopening, they will have too deep a backlog for many films to get the distribution run they might have expected.

Consumer behaviour complicates this waiting game. With cinemas closed for so long and with little to entice viewers back out to them, people have grown used to having the very latest content at their fingertips at home. This will only increase following the Warner and Disney announcements. What’s more, they are increasingly prepared to pay a premium for it. What began as a ‘needs must’ situation due to the pandemic has ultimately led to the acceleration of direct-to-consumer delivery becoming the preferred – and sometimes only – option for viewers, at least for now. This all means that cinemas as we have long known them are as good as dead, with only the most spectacular visual tentpole films, like an Avengers or a Bond film, justifying the big screen experience.

Credit: Pan Xiaozhen, via Unsplash.com

4: Genres to bundle

One area that is poised to grow in 2021 is a focus on genre-specific subscriptions targeting specific groups of fans.

Disney+ has been offering genre-specific subscriptions on a far larger scale for its core audience of children. We will most likely see an increase of content curation within less mainstream genres ranging from horror (Shudder) to reality (HayU). However, many more niche areas exist (Bollywood, anime etc.) that could see an OTT offering tailored to the customer success as an add-on to more mainstream subscriptions like Netflix.

This is likely to lead to a rise in bundles, with each subscriber able to build their own bespoke content packages and expecting the flexibility of tailored content. With individual tastes varying significantly, the current ‘all you can eat’ approach of the major platforms may subside, especially given the wealth of user data they have available. Segmenting this and giving audiences what they specifically want will in turn encourage more opportunities for makers of these more niche kinds of content to find and grow an audience.

Credit: Nino Kojo, via Unsplash.com

5: More international content on streaming platforms

The pandemic halted production schedules, leaving broadcasters and streaming services with big gaps in their content calendars.

International content is one feature that is likely to increase while production schedules are starting to get back up and running. Netflix has already been demonstrating how successful this can be with the Spanish drama, Money Heist, becoming one of its most-watched shows earlier in 2020.

Traditional linear television is following suit. While a handful of premium-calibre foreign language shows do appear, such as popular Scandi-noir dramas, too often the language barrier, and lack of audience willingness to read subtitles, has deterred controllers from programming more of them. Now, they could be an attractive interim solution to a lack of new content as production schedules get back up to speed, with the content already made and ready to go, and distribution costs likely to be low.

Global investment is growing more generally, with Netflix committing $1 billion to production in the UK, demonstrating the attraction of branching out beyond Hollywood and reinforcing its winning combination of U.S. and localised content across its global subscription base.

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