Box Office

What does Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and the Avengers have in common… besides Samuel L. Jackson? Each franchise has had one movie score over $200,000 in box office sales during their opening weekends. In Hollywood circles that is a big deal and a big indicator of a movie’s success, but is it? Is it really? You see box office numbers can be deceiving and it should go without saying that some of Hollywood’s biggest “successes” are also some of audiences’ worst movie-going experiences.

Spider-Man that’s a Lot of Money
Captain America: Civil War, debuted this past weekend with 181.8 million in opening weekend sales. That’s a pretty big deal, but those figures are not exactly a surprise to anyone. Superhero moves are hot these days, sequels usually tend to do better than their predecessors, and of course Marvel and Disney have perfected the art of the “hype.” Spider-Man, the original Sam Rami franchise -pre-emo Peter Parker- was the first movie to break the $100 million ceiling in opening box office weekend sales. This was back in 2002. Ten years later, another Marvel product, The Avengers, broke the vaunted $200 million ceiling setting the bar even higher, and studios have no intention to slow down. Everything from trailers to posters to viral internet videos are meant solely to put butts in seats. In fact, you non-nerds out there -we call you normies- may not even know it but this past Saturday was Free Comic Book Day. Guess, what comics Marvel gave out as part of their promotions? If you guessed Captain America and Civil War comics, you would be correct, and they’re not alone. DC was not far behind with a Suicide Squad comic featuring Harley Quinn, because that’s how you get big box office sales, but why do we care so much about box office sales?

The answer is actually two-fold. First, as Americans we always tend to have a winner mentality. Hollywood knows this better than most -they exploit it with every sports’ movie they have ever made. So, by declaring a movie as having the “biggest” opening weekend, or being the “first” in sales for the weekend, they are driving more people to the theaters for the second and third weekends. We all want to be part of “winning” and we don’t want to be left out of something other people are enjoying. Hollywood is very proactive in promoting their numbers, because they understand that we subconsciously take box office sales as an indicator of quality, or at least acceptability.

Secondly, the world is changing, and it has been changing since Toby McGuire swung after Willem Dafoe through the streets of New York. Think about how the entertainment industry has mutated in the past decade and a half -like a teenage boy bitten by a radioactive executive producer- and how this has affected the movie industry. In the bygone days of DVD and VHS, homes sales used to make up half of a movie’s revenue stream. Between 2012 and 2014 DVD sales saw an almost 10% drop and that number has been steadily declining ever since, while streaming service revenues increased by 32% during the same time frame. Now studios are left to rely solely on box office sales as their home release profits rapidly decline. Unfortunately, what that also means is that movies no longer has to withstand the test of time. All the major money is increasingly being made on the front end. Movies are becoming more and more about spectacle and hype than about quality and sustainability, and that means Hollywood is starting to care less and less about plot and more about using every trick in the book to get your butt in that seat on a Friday or Saturday night, especially if you happen to live in China.

Transformers: Age of External Market Growth
What does Battleship, Transformers, and Johnny Depp have in common… besides Samuel L. Jackson? In the United States each of those things has become box office poison, but scored big overseas. The shift in the entertainment industry has lead to a greater emphasis on foreign markets, especially in Asia and China where more and more Chinese people are finding themselves with disposable income and a taste for Michael Bay explosions. Johnny “Screw you Australia” Depp is the perfect example of this phenomenon. Have you wondered why in the name of the Carousal of Progress Disney is making another Pirates of the Caribbean movie? It’s because A-List celebrities still mean a lot with foreign markets. 2014’s Transcendence, the Depp helmed sci-fi flop only made $24 million in the States, but garnered over $80 million at global box offices. That still didn’t make it a hit, but it proved that Jack Sparrow could turn a profit. Disney is well aware of the power of the foreign markets, considering 54% of Star Wars: The Force Awakens$2 billion total box office came from foreign markets.

Take a look at Transformers: Age of Extinction, the movie no one was asking for. If you watched the latest Transformers abomination you would have noticed that the last half of the movie takes place in China… for no real reason whatsoever. This was done to appeal to Chinese audience. You may also have noticed a trend where movies seem to go out of their way to not offend and even pay tribute to the efficiency and honor of the Chinese government, because any movie that does criticize the Chinese Communist party stands no chance of making it past their censors. In fact, if you saw Iron Man 3 in a theater in Hong Kong, you would have been treated to an additional subplot starring two loyal Chinese scientists that never made it to American screens. The terrible remake of the movie Red Dawn, originally had Chinese villains, but when word reached the studio that the movie would not be shown in China the studio digitally altered the film in post production to make the enemies North Korean.

Why does Hollywood do this? Simply put, money. According to a recent study by the Motion Picture Association of America, almost 70% of a movie’s revenue now comes form overseas ticket sales. America may be still setting the trend for movies, be we are no longer the target audience. What’s even worse is that things like storytelling and nuanced humor go out the window with foreign targeted films. American humor doesn’t translate well into other languages, because concepts of humor are different across cultures, the same with many elements of emotional and subtle storytelling. However, what does translate well is explosions, and if you wonder why we are seeing more movies with CGI and big things blowing-up its because a fiery ball of death is truly our world’s universal language. This new emphasis is also one of the reasons why Marvel has begun releasing their movies one week earlier in overseas theaters. America is slowly becoming the second market to a lot of these big budget movies, because thanks to box office sales, Hollywood is now more eager to get into theaters in Beijing than New York.

Avatar Exemplar
This is all leading to a lopsided system. You see, the problem is that box office earnings -and especially opening weekend earnings- is that they are a bad indicator of a movie’s quality. Batman v Superman made $166.1 million in its opening weekend, despite sitting at a lousy 27% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s true that the movie had a significant drop-off in sales after the first weekend, but not before the studio raked in the cash both domestically and globally, enough to keep the DC train of pain going for a few more movies. Look at Avatar. When it opened it made over $77 million in its first weekend and ultimately grossed more than $2.8 billion. Unfortunately, that means we are now getting three more Avatar squeals coming up in the next few years, despite that fact that no one seems willing to tell James Cameron that people saw the movie for the 3D effects, and not the hackneyed soft-core blue alien Pocahontas story. In Hollywood, box office determines everything from what movies get made to the skin color of the actors that are cast, but is it even a reliable indicator of success?

Actually, there may not be a worse indicator of success, because the numbers can be deceptive. In fact, most opening weekend box office sales tend to be estimates, as the numbers are usually calculated on Saturday night with Sunday ticket sales extrapolated from past data. Also, these raw figures do not take into account things like budget or marketing expenses. So Avatar may have broken records with a $2.8 billion gross income in ticket sales, but if you take into account a $300 million budget, the movie only made a 933% return on investment. That’s really good, but if you look at a move like 1980’s Mad Max, which made $99.7 million on a $200,000 budget, it got a return of 24,837%. Yet, how many “Top Ten Box Office” lists is Mad Max on? In fact, you can break it down further and determine how much money was spent by studios per ticket sold. In 2011, the top three biggest movies were Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows II, ($381 million), Transformers: Dark of the Moon ($352.4 million), and the Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1 ($280.5 million)… Geez, that was a banner year for movies… Yet, if you break down sales by how much each studio spent per ticket sold you find out that Hangover 2 -yes, it truly was a banner year for movies- only cost the studios $2.50 per ticket sold to produce, whereas Transformers cost the studio $4.40 per ticket. Harry Potter and Twilight were able to keep the costs down at $2.61 and $3.12, respectively, because they shot two movies back to back and spread the cost out, but they were still not as profitable as a story about four drunk idiots making the same jokes they did two years earlier in a better movie.

Ultimately, this kind of ranking system says more about us than it does about the movies themselves. We put too much emphasis on which movie made more money, or who had a better opening weekend. Hollywood knows we are influenced by this sort of thing. They know that we all want to jump on the “bandwagon” and see what all the “hype” is about, and maybe the saddest part is that we no longer matter. Sp, even when America “votes with its wallets” against movies like Battleship and Transformers: Age of Extinction, all we do is prove how irrelevant we really are when compared with Asia and other places. These trends show no signs of slowing, so you had best get ready for more Avatars, more Pirates of the Caribbean, more Transformers, and more and more contests between studios to see who has the biggest box office in the boys’ locker room…

But if we can make one suggestion: Someone should really pull James Cameron aside and just tell him the truth already.

There is no doubt we are living in the future. Even Dr. Emmett Brown would agree that we’ve come a long way, but there is still one small thing we never seemed to master, flying cars, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. After all, who would really be able to afford flying car insurance? You see that is the thing about the future, by the time you reach a level of technology to make things possible; society and culture have changed to the point where those are no longer the things people want. So, if we can’t have flying cars, what is the future of our automobiles?

Autos Transform and Roll Out
The short answer is that our cars will become smarter, and there is a lot of new technology on the near horizon that will help with things like fuel efficiency and distracted driving. However, the long answer -and the far horizon- tends to be more interesting. As we talked about above, predicting the steady climb of technology is often easy, especially when compared to predicting the erratic child-drawn squiggly lines that make up the progress of culture and societal needs. In truth, we have the technology to make flying cars, but with things like fluctuating gas prices, frivolous lawsuits, the influence of big car companies, and the near-constant worry of having a Buick fall on your sun deck, suddenly flying cars no longer seem like a good idea. So what is it that people in today’s texting-while-driving, longer-working, shorter-attention-span-having world want from their cars?

Many experts agree that the wave of the future is not flying cars but self-driving cars. What some people are already calling “Autos,” a self-driving car that would be able to function like a robotic chauffeur combined with the intelligence of Siri. So, basically an Autobot, except without their advantage of being able to get up and walk away when the not-famous person in their driver seat tries putting awkward moves on the hot girl in the passenger seat. Seriously, that is like someone hooking-up in the back seat of your head. Regardless, companies like Google, Apple, and Uber are already testing self-driving cars. They already exist and Google has already driven them thousands of miles on California roadways. They are still not perfect, but in a world where most accidents are caused by human error -driver inattention, alcohol impairment, poor decision making, etc- Autos have a remarkable potential to save lives and time.

There are a lot of benefits to self-driving cars. Humans will have more time to spend working, reading, playing with their kids, or just sleeping. In fact the cars of the future could basically become large extensions of our smart phones, with wifi and state-of-the-art info and entertainment options. So, expect to one day pay for that extra data plan for your car, just like your phone. Yet, also think what this means for that hour commute you have each morning and night. Suddenly, that is an extra hour to sleep, read, do work, or play Angry Birds. Long family road trips become family board game time, or family movie nights as the Auto travels to the destination for you. There will be no more need to switch drivers on long road trips, or risk falling asleep during a marathon drives from New York to Miami, and once the entire road becomes full of self-driving vehicles even traffic could start to become a thing of the past.

According to Reuters, the US Commuter spends about 42 hours a year in traffic, and highway congestion costs us about $160 billion each year. Traffic -especially for working commuters- has been linked with increased depression, anxiety, anger, and a sense of social isolation. It also affects people’s sleep and blood pressure, but change is already happening. Last year, Tesla released an update for their S-model which allowed the cars to be switched into a self-driving mode, and many commuters have already begun adapting to this new and potentially life-changing technology. We are not decades away, but years away from what most experts see as a fully autonomous car, and perhaps less than twenty years away from them becoming commonplace, and that is good. Self-driving Autos can alleviate a lot of the factors that make driving such a hassle and could give humans more time to be… well human.

The New Model on the Lot
Now, let’s take it one giant robot step forward. GM just recently invested $500 million into a company called Lyft. It is a ride-sharing service similar to Uber, but more than just being a good investment it shows how GM may be thinking ahead of the curve. Ride-sharing and the Uber model are starting to catch on all over the world and in many areas of business. Often comparable or cheaper than a taxi, Uber allows for quick and easy access to transportation all from the touch of few buttons on your phone. Yet, the ride-sharing giant is not done innovating.

GM’s investment into Lyft was not just about ride-sharing but self-driving. Uber is also investing heavily in self-driving cars, because they see the potential for synergy with their service. As cheap as rides currently are they can still get cheaper, especially when you cut out the human driver. Imagine using your smart phone to summon an Auto to pick you up, no matter where you are: the airport, the club, your weird uncle’s house, etc. Then with no human driver and GPS traffic navigation you reach your destination in record time, all for literal cents on the mile. Suddenly, taking an Uber is no longer about making awkward small talk with your driver but about sitting back and relaxing as your personal Bumblebee or Wheeljack or Optimus Prime -depending how much junk you’re hauling- takes you to wherever you want to go, around the block or around the country.

Now consider how much you pay for you car. There are regular expenses like car insurance, oil changes, and tire rotations, as well as other expenses: regular maintenance, car washes, that time you needed to clean the interior after your buddy had one too many tequila shots, not to mention gas fill-ups, the initial price of buying the car, and things like speeding tickets -which you got while racing home before your friend could tequila all over your leather seats. Thanks, Todd- Some estimates put the yearly expense of owning a mid-sized sedan between $8,000 and $12,000 a year. Ubering is still slightly more expensive annually -about $18,000- but that could change, and if it does we should not be surprised to see an attitude change toward car ownership. Many people living in big cities already do away with car ownership, especially since many cities are already moving away from cars centered designs. In fact, the car culture in America and the percentage of people who have a driver’s license has been steadily decreasing since the 80’s. With this new innovation we could start to see car-less families become the norm, even in places outside of major metropolitan areas. It is entirely possible that owning your own car -at least in urban and suburban areas- will come to be seen as an extravagant and unnecessary expense.

How It Goes Horribly Wrong
Unfortunately, every technology has its flaws and self-driving Ubering Autobots are no exception. We won’t lie, there is a small likelihood they could become sentient and seek our energon cubes, but it is probably more likely that we will just become dumber. One of the main concerns with self-driving cars is that it will be the final nail in the coffin for our sense of direction. Think about it. How often do you use your smart phone’s GPS to help you get where you are going, even if you already sort of know the way? Isn’t it just easier, especially if it helps you get around traffic or roadblocks? We have been losing our sense of direction ever since the days of MapQuest, but in the past ten years the tendency has increased dramatically. A 2008 study by the University of Tokyo found that people asked to reach a destination on foot drew less accurate maps when they were assisted by GPS than when they were not. If cars are suddenly doing all the navigation for us, how long will it be before we completely forget how to get anywhere, in much in the same way no can seem to remember anyone’s phone number anymore.

We also have to accept that this new industry will also mean job loss, and we’re not just talking about all those Uber drivers who will get replaced by smart cars, either. Remember, big business is often the first to adapt new technology and automation, especially if it means saving money. Suddenly, trucking companies, bus companies, delivery companies, maybe even your friendly neighborhood ice cream truck could soon be driven by heartless machines. The transportation industry employs almost 4 million people in this country. That is a lot of people who stand to lose their jobs outright, but that does not even include the number of construction drivers, forklift drivers, valets, parking attendants, crossing guards, NASCAR fans, and others that will be indirectly affected by a driver-less economy. If a smart Auto can do things cheaper, faster, and with less risk then how could humans even compete?

Unfortunately, putting Sideswipe in the driver’s seat also comes with other complications, including moral ones. This tends to be the argument that most people on the Internet often point to when talking about self-driving cars. If your Auto is driving along and suddenly a child runs out into the road to chase a ball, what will the computer do? Will it choose to kill the child and spare the passenger’s life, or crash into a tree to kill the passenger but spare the child? What if there is more than two people in the car? What if it isn’t a child but an old woman who has lived a good life with her six cats? What if the person in the road is your time-traveling grandfather? Does the car take all those factors into account? What is the computer’s priority in those situations? Do they protect the driver or the greatest number of people? Unfortunately, we have no answers yet.

What’s the Point?
Those kinds of questions are kind of the point of any thought experiment on future technology, like Autos. We often think of all the shiny new gadgets we can have but rarely stop to think about their cultural and societal impacts, which in turn will create new shiny gadgets. Technological advancement is not a straight line, but a pyramid, building higher off its own foundation. It also does not exist in a vacuum. Self-driving cars will create a new infrastructure, and vice-versa. New roads, new cities, new moral dilemmas, and new ways of living.

Autos are just a matter of time. Maybe not in five, ten, or twenty years, but they are coming and we will be faced with the new questions they present. That is why we need to consider them now. What will happen to our economy, our brain power, or our moral fortitude? According to a recent survey, even though many people are ready for self-driving cars more than 50% still have serious concerns about their safety, especially if there is a potential that your car could one day choose to save someone else’s life over your own. After all, in a world where your car could turn on you any minute in favor of a pedestrian, your transportation would probably begin to feel less like an Auto-bot and more like a Decepticon.

A lot is being said about artificial intelligence lately, but not in the context of the newest Terminator movie. No one is talking about that. Prominent technologists and scientists such as Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, Steve Wozniak, and others recently presented an open letter at the International Joint Conferences on Artificial Intelligence in Buenos Aires. The missive, endorsed by some of the world’s leading thinkers, calls for a ban on AI weaponry, which they warn could be possible within ten years.

“If any major military power pushes ahead with AI weapon development, a global arms race is virtually inevitable, and the endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow,” reads the open letter.

Now weapons of any kind are bad news, especially ones that can think and kill without any confirmation from an outside human source, but how close are we really to having truly artificially intelligent tanks, planes, or even washing machines? For many the thoughts conjure images of Terminators or Agent Smith, but we at The NYRD do not think the process of AI will be that black and white. Like humans, intelligent robots will most likely be more than meets the eye.

Bill Gates gave a talk on Reddit on a series of subjects but touched heavily on artificial intelligence and automation. Our current level of smart technology is relatively dumb by comparison to what will be coming in the future. Military drones still require human pilots and even current weak artificial intelligence still needs to follow a complex set of coded instructions.

The phone in your pocket, and more advanced systems like IBM’s Watson, perform rudimentary self-driven thinking, but their intelligence is based in very narrow and limited fields. Watson, and to a lesser extent Siri, can pull data from thousands of sources and make educated guesses on how it all fits together according to very specific preprogramed code. In layman’s terms, they are glitch-heads compared to what is on the horizon. That is not say that your GPS is not intelligent to an extent. It is very good at its defined job, better than a human, in fact. Watson may even be more capable than Starscream, but will never be as ambitious, at least not yet. Robo-evolution is coming. Basically, Siri is to Bumblebee as homo erectus was to modern humans, but robots will evolve not in the space of millenniums but decades, and they may do it along some familiar patterns.

According to Gates, “In the next ten years, problems like vision and speech understanding and translation will be very good. Mechanical robot tasks like picking fruit or moving a hospital patient will be solved. Once computers/robots get to a level of capability where seeing and moving is easy for them then they will be used very extensively.” These smarter machines will still not be self-aware, but they will be everywhere, cutting down human labor and need dramatically, which in itself will present other problems. However, futurist, Ray Kurzweil, believes that we will see a strong artificial intelligence in the next two to three decades. He also believe that by 2045 we will have a robot capable of passing the Turing Test, which was devised by Alan Turing -played by Benedict Cumberbatch- one of the fathers of modern computer science.

The most current advancements into building the All-Spark is called deep learning. It is a sophisticated algorithm which allows machines to learn, similar to the way humans learn. The project has its roots in work conducted in the 1950’s by Frank Rosenblatt, who built a type of mechanical brain called the Perceptron, a name of a Transformer ancestor is we have ever heard one. The goal of deep learning is to give robots the tools and abilities to learn about the world themselves, making artificial intelligence less about programming and more about natural development. The concept is similar to how a human children grows to  explore and understand the world around them, but hopefully with less diaper changes. Personally, we also would like to skip the teething stage if we could. This is just one of many theories being tested, but it shows a lot of promise even if it has its critics.

It also means that the way we have always looked at artificial intelligence is somewhat deceptive. The science fiction author David Brin argues that the problem in all our dystopian future scenarios, involving artificial intelligence, is that we usually only get to see the end point. We rarely talk about the journey that was involved to get there, and the journey could be important. Maybe our language of talking about AI is all wrong. After all, what we are really discussing is not the toaster coming to life, no matter what Michael Bay tells you, but the evolution of an entirely new sentient species. In essence, we will answer the question, “Are we alone in the universe?” And the answer will be, “Not anymore.”

The legendary science fiction writer Isaac Asimov attempted to solve the AI problem by createing the Three Laws of Robotics. These laws have been modified a bit over the years but they are still talked about even today by roboticists, science fiction writers, and amateurs alike.

AI Graph

There are a few problems with even these seemingly flawless laws. First, we are still unaware of how robotic intelligence will evolve and preprogramming anything into a thinking and possibly feeling machine could be problematic and even morally questionable. At what point can a truly intelligent and questioning robot disregard its programming? After all, we humans disregard our instincts all the time. Could it be the same for an intelligent robot? Even worse, would the simple attempt cause them to view us as tyrannical. Does it not make us the Megatron in this scenario?

If AI robots are truly alive and sentient, do we have any right to impose our will on them. Apply the Asimov Laws to a human and think about it’s consquences. The problem is not so much with Law 1, but Law 2, and the fact that Law 3, which talks about self preservation, is overridden by Law 2. Ultimately, the inclusion of these laws would mean that no matter how intelligent, feeling, and/or human-like a robot is they will always be subject to the will of us, even when it comes to their own well being. Does that make them our tools or our slaves? If we gave them life, does that mean we have the right to control that life or even take it away again? Can they die, and if so will it be in a traumatically childhood scarring way to the soundtrack of the most 80’s bands you may ever hear?

The truth is that if and when we create artificial intelligence, it will be something completely new and completely different. It is unlikely that it will fall absolutely under our control. This new being’s thought process and views of the world will be its own. Will it have morality? Will it question its own existence? What sort of vehicle mode will it choose? It could be influenced by human thought, but we would be foolish to think that this new species will be completely human in their views and actions. The needs of a machine are not the same as the needs of a flesh and blood creature.

In this way, the Transformers, gives us a good glimpse into what we may be facing. They are not Earth-created machines. Instead they are aliens. Neither Decepticons nor Autobots bend their will to humans or our needs, and whatever we create could be just as alien. Yet, another important key is that the Transformers are as different from one another as humans are. Optimus Prime is noble and self sacrificing, and has a high regard for life and freedom. Megatron is concerned with power and greed. He sees all other beings as lesser creatures. They are the same, but the way they act and talk are different, not programmed but learned. Each is also very human in their own way.

In a sense, they may be made of metal parts, but they are not robots in the way a Roomba is. They are individuals with different hopes and goals. However, even our language is problematic. The word robot comes from the Czech word, robota, which basically means forced labor or serf. It literally means repressed worker. Is that what we will expect of our creations, to be nothing more than laborers to suit our needs? Maybe it is time we stop and readjust our own thoughts on the subject.

Whenever we talk about AI, we always think about it in very human terms. These new AI machines will evolve on our planet and in ways similar to us but their priorities may differ wildly from our own. Hawking and others have suggested that the real danger is not so much in the violence they could do toward us but the indifference they could show us. Just as the Transformers have come to Earth for energon, these new fast evolving artificial beings could potentially use up the resources of our planet faster, and with as much regard for our needs as we currently show for the needs of animals and insects. Thinking machines could see us as their gods, or as their equals, or as their pets. It is possible that AI robots might rise up, but they could just as easily decide to leave us and our world for the stars, until they evolve into a living world with the voice of Orson Welles. Maybe the real danger is not so much that they will destroy us, but that they will fail to notice us at all.

The truth of this issue is that we do not know. There are so many questions and right now we do not have any good answers. We can guess and debate, but ultimately any ideas we have on the reality of AI are completely human. The simple fact that we continuously depict robots as something that will revolt against us says more about ourselves than it does about any potential intelligent machine. Maybe our real fear is that these new thinking machines will not kill us, but judge us for who and what we really are, and maybe that is a lot scarier. Optimus and his ilk accept humanity’s flaws, but the Decepticons point to them as a reason why we are inferior. Perhaps we fear these new beings because we know ourselves and our history, and we fear they could be right.

However, it is worth remaining cautiously optimistic about the future, because our relationship with an AI machines could come down to us and the way we treat this new species. They could be friend or foe, Autobot or Decepticon. It may depend entirely on us. More to the point, we may not get just one type of intelligent robot but a diverse and rich mixture, much like humans. For every Starscream a Wheeljack. For every Soundwave a Bumblebee. For every Ramjet a Ratchet. -We had a lot of the toys as kids,- but the point is that it we will be the ones to set the expectations. That is why Hawkins and Musk helped create that letter in the first place. If we go looking to make weapons, then we should not be surprised if eventually our creations transform into the very things we feared.