Friday, May 26, 2023

On intelligence--artificial and otherwise

There's been a lot of talk about artificial intelligence lately. Your local news show tries to explain what it is. The financial media talks about all the industries it'll disrupt. Trade journals warn about the jobs it'll eliminate. Heck, the Writers Guild of America is currently on strike because of it.

But is it really as bad as people say?

Well, yes and no.

A test case

At least that's the conclusion I came to after reading a fascinating article in The Hollywood Reporter. In it, reporter Lesley Goldberg asked ChatGPT to write a scene for the sitcom 30 Rock.

Goldberg gave the chatbot simple instructions. Write a scene about four of the characters from the show going on strike and how it impacts the show-within-the-show that they work on.

As it turns out, the plot it came up with was pretty good. There was plenty of conflict and the narrative flow made sense.

But there were two major flaws with the script. One, all of the characters sounded the same. This is a biggie. Every story, every TV show, every movie has to give each character a unique voice or the writing will came out flatter.

And two, it didn't come up with a single gag. Obviously, this is an even bigger biggie.

I'm not surprised. AI engineers have yet to figure out how to impart a creative spark to their chatbots. All they can do is scrounge the internet looking for patterns and then rearrange those patterns into a poor semblance of originality.

The real danger

I'm not worried that AI will replace writers. It won't and I honestly don't think it ever will. Creativity doesn't come from dumping existing works in an electronic blender. It comes from creating something new.

No, my worry is that Hollywood producers will think AI can replace writers--and act accordingly.

I support the striking writers. They need--no, they deserve--guaranteed more money and longer employment terms. But I think they took the wrong tack on this vitally important issue.

Of course, they want to prevent producers from using AI on their own to generate story ideas and write scripts without the input of, you know, actual human writers. But they also want to protect their right to use AI in their writing. And not to share any credit with it.

I don't understand why any writer would ever want to use AI. If I reach the point where I'm that hard up for ideas that I need to rely on a computer to provide them, I'll quit writing.

Plus it sets a bad precedent. If writers can use AI, why shouldn't producers also be allowed to use it?

Not all bad

Sure, if you're an office drone putting together a financial presentation, go ahead. Use AI to make your job easier.

Or if you're the only reporter on a small-town newspaper and you just don't have time to fill those pages every day, fine. Newspaper articles are supposed to have a uniform voice anyway.

But in a creative field, where you're paid to be creative, original, to really say something? Never. Never. Never ever. And the WGA writers need to get that in, well, writing. Now.

If they don't, then I fear for our future. Not just because thousands of writers will be out of work, but a much more dismal fate. That all of our entertainment will be bland and unfunny as that 30 Rock scene.

We can't let that happen. Not now. Not ever.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

My 12th year sales

Gangbusters. That's the best word to describe this, my 12th year of publication. After three down years, theater is back--and bigger than ever.

It was a very good year

My total revenues were 19% higher than my previous best year, the just-before-COVID theater season of 2018-2019. Weirdly though, this wasn't my best year in terms of the number of productions. I had a total of 328 productions vs. 361 in that now long-ago record-setting year, a 9% drop.

So how did I make more money on fewer shows? Did Pioneer raise their royalty rates and script prices? Not that I know of.

Did the mix of plays produced skew more toward the pricier big-cast plays? Maybe. It's hard to tell.

Did I get more performances per play? Quite possibly. I had a 15-show booking, a 10-show booking, and an 8-show booking (all for The Enchanted Bookshop), which is much higher than I've ever seen before. I also had several 6-show bookings.

Also, streaming has become a popular addition for a lot of schools and that may have boosted my average number of performances per production as well.

Whatever the reason, I'll take it.

The top five

The Enchanted Bookshop was my best-selling play for the sixth year with 107 productions. That's down 31% from the 156 it got in 2018-2019, but it's still triple digits and should be enough to kept it on top of Pioneer's list of top-selling full-length plays. I already have 35 productions booked for next year and I even have one production booked the year after that (talk about planning ahead!).

Second place was shared by two plays: my new coffee shop comedy, Whole Latte Love, and my perennially popular collection of driver's ed skits, You're Driving Me Crazy!, both at 28 productions. What's more, You're Driving Me Crazy! gave me my 21st country with the International School of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia doing a show in December (it's also been done in South Korea, The Philippines, Panama, the UK, and Australia). 

My restaurant farce Million Dollar Meatballs continues to do amazingly well, snagging 26 productions to come in third. Not bad for an eight-year-old-play.

Placing fourth was another one of my new plays, It's a Madhouse!, which got 19 productions. That makes me very happy. After a few dry years with my new plays, it seems that I've finally figured out what producing groups are looking for. For that reason, I'm veering away from multi-set genre plays (The Stinky Feet Gang, Wicked Is As Wicked Does, and Real Pirates Don't Wear Tiaras all had disappointing results) to focus more on single-set contemporary or near contemporary comedies (The 1950's setting of It Happened on Route 66 counts, right?).

Final thoughts

All of my plays had at least one production, although the still struggling Babka Without Borders got exactly one. A few months ago, I discussed a possible title change with my editor. I may need to start thinking about that again.

One last point. Virtual plays were all the rage during the height of the pandemic. For obvious reasons, of course. The thought then was that they'd remain popular even after the pandemic ended as an easy-to-product alternative for schools that don't have that much money to spend on their theater programs.

Well, it didn't turn out that way. In fact, the bottom seems to have fallen out of the virtual play market. Or maybe that's just me. In any case, my only virtual play You're Virtually Driving Me Crazy! dropped from a very respectable 21 productions in its first year two years ago to one lonely production this year.

But the rest of the play market is on fire, and I'm here for it. A very big and heartfelt thanks to all of you who've helped make this my best year yet. Your support means the world to me.