For a movie that takes painstaking care to recreate the vibe and aesthetics of 1970s television, the firestorm engulfing the newly released indie horror film “Late Night with the Devil” is a thoroughly modern one. Co-written and directed by brothers Cameron and Colin Cairnes, the film’s depiction of a talk show taping gone supernaturally wrong had earned rave reviews after screening during last year’s SXSW festival. But since its wider debut this month, many viewers and critics have focused less on the film’s practical effects and chilling narrative than its use of artificial intelligence-generated images during key moments of the story.  

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The Cairnes confirmed they had “experimented with AI for three still images” in a statement to Variety last week. The stills were “edited further and ultimately appear as very brief interstitials in the film,” they said, while lauding “Late Night with the Devil’s” “amazing graphics and production design team.” The use of AI art has still been enough to sour audiences. Letterboxd user “based gizmo” complained they “can’t enjoy the amazing performances and clever ending” knowing that the film contained AI art, Variety said, crediting the review for having “kickstarted” the controversy.

Moreover, the incident has opened a broader debate over AI in cinema. “Late Night with the Devil” was filmed before last year’s actors and writers strikes helped focus attention on its use in cinema and television. Even so, it has become a flashpoint as studios — and the world at large — work to navigate this contentious terrain.   

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‘A major threat to artists everywhere’

The use and misuse of AI is a “fraught topic in many industries, especially at this moment in Hollywood” The Daily Beast said. There in particular, “union contracts have fought for protections against AI-assisted or -generated work” although to date those have focused on acting and writing, and don’t “cover the use of it in art and illustration.” To that end, “Late Night with the Devil” may be the “first feature film lambasted for AI art,” CBR said, adding that similar controversies have already occurred in the comic book and playing card industries. 

While AI may be a “major threat to artists everywhere,” it is especially so in the film industry where if it’s applied “even on a basic level to cut costs and time, that means that jobs are being cut and less people are working,” No Film School‘s Grant Vance said. The filmmakers had “no excuse” to release the film widely with AI art, “since it had all this time between SXSW 2023 to now to hire a graphic artist,” film journalist Rendy Jones said on X. Although instances of AI art in television have prompted “hollow” excuses, “we’re lucky that AI is still in the phase of its development where it’s relatively easy to tell when an image is, in fact, artificially generated,” The AV Club said. Still, it will “be interesting to see how this decision impacts the movie’s success at the box office — if it does at all.”

Boycotting won’t ‘accomplish anything’

There has also been a notable backlash to the backlash over what some critics see as misplaced frustration. Using AI in 2022 when the film was made “wasn’t quite the hot-button issue it is now,” film critic Eric Snider said, cautioning that “if they use it after this, maybe then I have a problem.”

Because the film was created without major studio backing, “boycotting an indie over [using AI] seems harsh,” Jones said. “Where was this vitriol hate when Marvel did it last year?” The juggernaut studio used AI-generated images in the title credits of its “Secret Invasion” series. Boycotting “Late Night with the Devil” isn’t going to “accomplish anything but making indie films, especially genre, harder to see in theaters,” agreed film critic and distributor Justin LaLiberty on X. Raging against AI may be correct, he added, but in practice “those changes come elsewhere.” 

Ultimately, “AI is a concept, one that is implemented in many ways,” The Daily Beast said, adding “the vast majority of those ways aren’t just ethical, but they’re also exciting.”

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