AI moviemaking grows up at Runway’s film festival

The second annual event comes amid tensions over the tech in Hollywood.
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· 4 min read

In a two-screen movie theater modeled after a 1920s-era cinema on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, hundreds of viewers gathered last week to watch short films made in a style that’s very much of the 2020s.

The occasion was tech startup Runway’s second annual AI Film Festival, for which the company invited submissions that feature AI techniques, whether in generating visuals or editing. This year, Runway CEO and co-founder Cristóbal Valenzuela said organizers received around 3,000 entries—10 times the number put forth for the inaugural event—as a sign of how much interest in this technology has exploded over the past year.

That boom also changed the backdrop of this year’s festival; Runway now has more competition in courting Hollywood with its AI production tools from the likes of OpenAI. Two historic labor strikes have spotlighted frictions around the technology and its use in the entertainment and media industries. And video-generation tech itself has matured from crude distortions to uncanny quasi-realism.

Events like the AI Film Festival can help to cut through some of the noise and open up direct dialogues around the technology between filmmakers, according to Valenzuela. The company’s more creative-centric background—its three co-founders met in art school—also differentiates it from some of the new entrants in the space, he said.

“We’ve always been in [the video AI] business—it’s very natural for us to just do this,” Valenzuela told Tech Brew. “We don’t have to pretend we like it. We don’t have to pretend we want to help artists. We started this company being artists ourselves. And most of [those] who work in our company have artistic backgrounds.”

Runway has something of a head start in the entertainment business. Its editing tools have been used on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and the film Everything, Everywhere All at Once. More recently, the content director for Madonna’s Celebration Tour used Runway’s tech to create stage visuals, according to the company.

The company also hosted a larger version of the film festival at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles ahead of the New York one this year.

The evening in New York kicked off with a conversation between Valenzuela and Jane Rosenthal, CEO and executive chair of Tribeca Enterprises and a producer behind movies like Meet the Parents and The Irishman. Rosenthal said the production of the latter film, which relied heavily on de-aging tech, might have used more AI in the production if it had been available when the movie came out in 2019. “If we’d had the kind of face-swapping deepfakes, that movie would look different,” she said.

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Rosenthal also announced Tribeca Festival’s new partnership with Runway that will showcase a host of AI-generated short films and music videos. “Our goal is to foster a robust dialogue about the role of AI and engage with creators from all backgrounds,” she said.

The rapid evolution of AI video tech was also clear in the films themselves. Spanning subject matter from a kiwi bird’s animated journey across an ocean to a depiction of mental health episodes and musings about the afterlife, AI’s fingerprints weren’t as readily apparent as they were in last year’s batch, and the filmmakers seemed to be less caught up on the novelty of the tech itself.

Paul Trillo, a director and visual artist who has served as a juror at the festivals, said that in addition to a definite jump in quality as the tech has improved, there’s been a “natural evolution” toward more personal stories.

“Because what AI does is it allows people to tell stories that they have trouble finding financing for, that means it tends to become more personal,” Trillo told Tech Brew. “These are films that maybe people would have struggled to make just on their own, or their vision would have been much more limited.”

Questions about the future of art and AI were inescapable at the event, from the stacks of artsy 250-page zines full of AI-inflected visuals and essays on the technology to the dialogues between various filmmakers and visual artists set in diner booths that were screened between segments of the show.

But for all the worries over replacement, most of the AI films on display still notably ended with rolling credits filled with many human names.

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Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.