A Decentralized Disney Is Coming. Meet the Artists Using AI to Dethrone Hollywood

Andrew Fiouzi
Andrew Fiouzi is an editor at dot.LA. He was previously a features writer at MEL Magazine where he covered masculinity, tech and true crime. His work has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Long Reads and Vice, among other publications.
A Decentralized Disney Is Coming. Meet the Artists Using AI to Dethrone Hollywood

When I first spoke to Jamil Mehdaoui, an architect and former Oculus employee, he’d just returned to Paris from a weeklong pilgrimage into the future of movie making. Mehdaoui describes his work as “a collaborative process” between himself and the artificial intelligence that brings dream worlds to life with just a few key words. On Zoom, he occasionally appeared frustrated. Eager. Unsure. Hopeful.

Like millions across the world, Mehdaoui is experimenting with Midjourney, a text to image program that generates images from a repository of data that spans the entire history of art and human existence as it’s cached online. Unlike millions, Mehdaoui is attempting to use this tool to make the first ever AI-generated feature film. And appropriately, he’s chosen to remake Pinocchio — the story of the first ever artificial boy.

Like the more well-known text to image AI tool — DALL-E — Midjourney’s output depends on art that’s already been made and photos already taken. But since Midjourney can’t read Mehdaoui’s mind (yet), it takes time to find the right levers to pull in order to get the AI to do what he wants it to.

For example, Mehdaoui was initially focused on prompting the AI to generate images of a boy fashioned from gnarled, raw wood. The troubles were myriad. First, Mehdaoui says, “The moment you ask the AI for Pinocchio, you lose control. It puts you in Disney’s hands.” Meaning the images the AI generated were often too familiar. Too recognizable. The other issue was getting the AI to see or rather interpret beyond such a generic descriptor as “boy that looks like a log.” So, for days, Mehdaoui tinkered with his prompts until his fragmented vision, the one cradled only in his mind, came to life, authored by artificial intelligence.

As the director of the movie, Mehdaoui has full creative control over his AI-generated Pinocchio. But there’s no studio backing his project. Instead, he’s one of 750 artists, architects, AI engineers, storytellers, animators, game designers, interoperability explorers and business folks who have joined together to dethrone Hollywood.

The Culture DAO is a “metaverse guild” assembled by Edward Saatchi, the chief executive officer (CEO) of Fable, an artificial intelligence-powered virtual being company, and the founder of Oculus Story Studio. Members of the DAO include current and former storytellers from Pixar, Lucasilm and Oculus, many of whom are currently working on an amuse-bouche of fairy tales, horror flicks, animations and live-action shorts.

Saatchi assembled the guild out of a concern that the most zealous artists interested in AI might waste too much time playing around with new features. “You could go two years, making very small demos and creating nothing substantial that’s going to last for 100 years,” he says. And since Saatchi believes AI-generated media is the beginning of a new art form, it was important, he says, to “encourage artists to find personal stories they want to tell that are empowered by AI.”

One of those artists is Scott Lighthiser — a VFX artist who studied production in college and has been experimenting with filmmaking techniques ever since. “But when Stable Diffusion [another AI powered text to image model] was released I could generate super realistic cinematic images,” he says.

Unlike Mehdaoui, who’s using AI text to image programs to animate a feature film, Lighthiser is working iteratively on developing short live-action clips. He’s posted a few of these videos on Twitter. The response has largely been one of shock. It seems few people expected the AI to be this good, this quickly. The first video shows how Stable Diffusion can add a layer that further immerses Lighthiser’s own face into a purple-skinned character. The second flaunts Stable Diffusion’s ability to quickly disguise Lighthiser’s body, rendering variations of a hissing monster. That Lighthiser was able to create these short clips on his own, a week apart, is part and parcel of how the Culture DAO plans to take on Hollywood.

“Being able to make animated movies not in seven years but in several weeks or being able to make live-action, effect heavy, content not in several years with hundreds of millions of dollars but in several weeks and with thousands of dollars, I think is going to massively democratize what’s possible,” says Edward Saatchi.Their recent progress aside, Saatchi’s proposition to decentralize Hollywood by democratizing access to the resources of a studio is still in its infancy. The Culture DAO’s current slate of content is mainly focused on horror and animation. Horror because audience expectations around having stars and a big budget are lower and the AI program offers some really creepy effects. And animation because the output is more technically suited to AI text-to-image programs.


AI Pinnochio movie poster Image courtesy of Jamil Mehdaoui

But even in this time of great daydreams and ambition, not everything is going according to the plan. Since our initial conversation, Mehdaoui has already had to parcel his concept for the first feature length AI film into seven serialized episodes. And though Lighthiser’s short clips suggest a light at the end of the tunnel, they’re far from a finished product. “If we're talking about shooting an empty room and processing it to look like a 19th century Victorian mansion, I don't think we're there yet but probably pretty close,” says Lighthiser. “I think using AI in conjunction with LED Volume technology has the potential to be extremely powerful. But eventually you'd want to be able to take your phone out, point your camera at a barn and say ‘turn the barn into a spaceship’ and it renders it in real time.”

Naturally, there will always be detractors who argue any AI-generated art is merely “visual gibberish.” In fairness, much of what appears on Twitter does appear that way. Others critics have genuine ethics and copyright concerns. Like—what happens if everyone’s AI art steals from the same artist?

But Saatchi says these concerns are the growing pains at the frontier of a new artform. This moment, he says, is like the early days of Pixar. Back when the technology company failed to sell computer hardware and pivoted toward creating computer-animated shorts.

If even half of what the Culture DAO is promising becomes reality, Hollywood’s place as the entertainment capital of the world is imperiled. Most of the members of the DAO are spread all across the world. To some degree, this reckoning is already underway: In August Belfast-based composer and computer artist Glenn Marshall won the Jury Award at the Cannes Short Film Festival for his AI film “The Crow.”

More recently, Fabian Seltzer, co-founder of the Culture DAO along with Saatchi, was in the news for his AI-generated, choose-your-own-adventure movie fashioned after 70s-era sci-fi films. Both projects were essentially created out of an individual's home office.

“What I saw at Pixar—what I see in VFX— is that brilliant people who might not be entrepreneurial enough to start up their own studio, are being crushed in their creativity because it’s such a factory system,” says Saatchi. “It’s shifted to being about cost management and the creativity has gone down and these projects require so many people and so many resources.”

With AI, however, the number of people it takes and the amount of money required to make a Pixar-quality film doesn’t just have the potential to be cut in half, it might well be a fraction of the $200 million budgeted to produce many of these movies.

Saatchi’s message to the folks in Hollywood? “It’s time to get out and develop your own project.”

🏰 Disney's Epic Investment Stands Out Amidst Gaming Industry Layoffs

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

🔦 Spotlight

In the midst of widespread gaming industry layoffs, a glimmer of positive news emerges as Disney announces a significant move: a $1.5 billion investment in Epic Games. 🏰💰🐭

Image Source: Disney

Disney's $1.5 billion investment in Epic Games, disclosed late Wednesday, signals a strategic alignment aimed at expanding the success of "Fortnite." The deal enhances Epic's growth prospects after financial setbacks, including layoffs, and strengthens the partnership between the two companies. With Disney gaining a larger equity stake in Epic, the collaboration will broaden the integration of beloved Disney franchises like Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, and Avatar into the game, potentially boosting its appeal and longevity. This significant investment underscores Disney's commitment to interactive entertainment and signifies a shift towards games as a primary revenue stream, aligning with the growing trend of digital engagement among younger demographics. Moreover, the potential for crossover sales of physical Disney products within "Fortnite" and the exploration of new content distribution channels are just some of the opportunities arising from this partnership.

For LA tech, the Disney-Epic Games partnership represents a validation of the region's burgeoning tech and gaming ecosystem. The substantial investment in Epic, who maintains a large Los Angeles office with 1,000+ employees (according to LinkedIn), reflects confidence in the LA’s talent pool and innovation potential. Additionally, this partnership between two industry giants fosters an environment for further collaboration, investment, and growth within LA's tech sector. As Disney and Epic Games deepen their ties and explore new avenues for content integration and distribution, it not only elevates the prominence of LA as a tech hub but also stimulates economic growth and job creation in the region. This partnership highlights LA's unique position as a hub where technology and entertainment converge. With its ability to integrate diverse industries, LA is driving innovation and expansion in digital entertainment. 🚀💸🎮

🤝 Venture Deals

LA Companies

  • ProducePay, a financing and marketplace platform for the fresh produce market, raised a $38M Series D led by Syngenta Group Ventures joined by Commonfund, Highgate Private Equity, G2 Venture Partners, Anterra Capital, Astanor Ventures, Endeavor8, Avenue Venture Opportunities, Avenue Sustainable Solutions, and Red Bear Angels. - learn more
  • Blush, an invite-only dating app that drives users to local businesses on dates, raised a $7M Seed Round from individuals like Naval Ravikant. - learn more
  • Mogul, a startup founded last year that provides an overview of an artist's royalty earnings and identifies areas where money is owed but has not yet been collected, raised a $1.9 million seed round from Wonder Ventures, United Talent Agency, AmplifyLA, and Creator Partners. - learn more
  • Avnos, a hybrid direct air capture startup, raised a $36M Series A led by NextEra Energy and joined by Safran Corporate Ventures, Shell Ventures, Envisioning Partners, and Rusheen Capital Management. - learn more
  • AI.fashion, startup whose mission is to help retailers enhance the online shopping experience by providing consumers with virtual try-ons and personalized fashion recommendations, raised a $3.6M Seed Round led by Neo. - learn more
  • Suma Wealth, startup that aims to demystify financial topics and provide culturally relevant content, virtual experiences, and resources to help Latino users navigate financial challenges and opportunities, raised a $2.2M Seed Round . Radicle Impact led, and was joined by Vamos Ventures, OVO fund and the American Heart Association Impact Fund. - learn more
  • 222, a startup that helps users discover their city and meet new people through unique social experiences, raised a $2.5M Seed Round. Investors included 1517 Fund, General Catalyst, Best Nights VC, Scrum Ventures, and Upfront Ventures. - learn more
  • LimaCharlie, a security operations cloud platform, raised a $10.2M Series A led by Sands Capital. - learn more
  • Polycam, an app that uses a smartphone’s sensors to capture 3D scans of objects, raised an $18M Series A co-led by Left Lane Capital and Adjacent, and joined by Adobe Ventures and individuals like Chad Hurley and Shaun Maguire. -learn more.

LA Venture Funds

Actively Raising

  • ReelCall, Inc., an entertainment technology company focused on powerful apps and platforms that help build and maintain the professional network of connections vital to career growth, is raising a $850K Pre-Seed Round. - learn more
  • CZero, a startup building software to decarbonize logistics for logistics businesses and goods business through a vetted marketplace and optimization software. - learn more
  • Couri, a technology startup addressing last-mile delivery issues, is raising a $450K Pre-Seed Round at a $2.2M post money valuation. - learn more
  • Sweetie, a marketplace to help people plan date nights, is raising a $1.5M Pre Seed Round. - learn more
  • StartupStarter, an investment platform that provides real-time data and analytics on startups, is raising an $850K Angel Round. - learn more

If you’re a founder raising money in Los Angeles, give us a shout, and we’d love to include you in the newsletter!

Venture Waves, Climate Tech Wins, and Silicon Beach's Ongoing Evolution

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Anduril Seeks $1.5B in VC Funds

Defense company Anduril Industries Inc., based in Costa Mesa and founded by Palmer Luckey, is seeking to raise $1.5 billion in fresh funds to boost its valuation to $12.5 billion or more, according to sources quoted by The Information. This fundraising effort, if successful, would mark one of the largest venture capital rounds of the year.

Image Source: Anduril

Anduril recently secured a contract to develop and test small unmanned fighter jet prototypes under the Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program, beating out major defense companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. Alongside General Atomics, Anduril will design, manufacture, and test these aircraft, with a final multibillion-dollar production decision expected in fiscal year 2026. This program aims to deliver at least 1,000 combat aircraft to fly in concert with manned platforms and is part of the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance initiative. Central to Anduril’s success in this contract is the Fury autonomous air vehicle, acquired through the purchase of Blue Force Technologies. This victory underscores Anduril's rapid advancement in the defense sector, aligning with Luckey's vision of building faster and more cost-effective defense assets. - learn more

Los Angeles Ranks Number 1 in Emerging Climate Tech Hub

The 2024 Emerging Climate Tech Hubs Report by Revolution highlights Los Angeles as a burgeoning center for climate tech innovation. LA's growth in this sector is driven by its diverse talent pool, strong research institutions, and a culture of environmental consciousness. The city's unique mix of legacy industries, such as entertainment and aerospace, alongside emerging tech companies, positions it as a pivotal player in the climate tech landscape. This shift reflects a broader trend of decentralized climate tech funding across the U.S., reducing the historical dominance of California's traditional hubs. - learn more

Silicon Beach: Looking Back, Moving Forward

Assessing the overall health of the startup market is challenging, especially as venture capital funding has decreased by an average of 61% from 2021 to 2023 across the top VC markets in the US. Markets with robust ecosystems in AI, SaaS, Biotech, Healthtech, and Fintech appear to be weathering the downturn better than those focused on Consumer and Gaming industries, areas where Los Angeles traditionally excels.

Percent Change In VC Funding By Region

CB Insights

LA Times paints a rather bleak outlook on the Los Angeles tech scene noting venture capital funding in Greater Los Angeles plummeted 73% from 2021 to 2022. Silicon Beach, once a vibrant tech corridor, currently faces high vacancy rates and lacks late-stage financiers, especially in the AI sector. However, there are positive signs, including growth in aerospace startups and increased venture capital investment in early 2024, suggesting a potential rebound for LA's tech ecosystem.

While LA may not be exceeding expectations during this period, its tech ecosystem warrants a nuanced evaluation, given the broader market dynamics and its strong performance in specific sectors. Reach out to us with your thoughts.

🚀 SpaceX gears up for another stellar year, active raises, and more

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Happy Friday Los Angeles! You made it through the first week of 2024!

🔦 Spotlight

Elon Musk may be a divisive (albeit entertaining) figure, but the continued success of SpaceX is pivotal for the aerospace industry in Los Angeles and more broadly around the world.

Image Source: SpaceX webcast

What happened with SpaceX in 2023?

  • Elon Musk challenged Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg to a cage fight.
  • SpaceX launched 96 successful missions with its Falcon series of rockets, a 57% increase over its previous annual record.
  • SpaceX conducted two test flights of the largest and most powerful rocket ever built, Starship.
  • Roughly two-thirds of SpaceX's launches in 2023 were devoted to building out Starlink, the company's satellite-internet megaconstellation.
  • Isaacson’s Elon Musk biography was published in September including everything from Musk’s tumultuous relationship with his father to his work ethic and “demon mode”.

Moving forward what can we expect from SpaceX and its controversial founder? Continued innovation pushing the aerospace industry to new limits? Yes. More drama? Without a doubt.

Here is some of what is to come in 2024:

🤝 Venture Deals

Just Announced

Check back next week!

LA Exits

  • CG Oncology, an Irvine, CA-based developer of immunotherapies for bladder cancer, filed for a $100M IPO. It plans to list on the Nasdaq (CGON) with Morgan Stanley as left lead underwriter, and has raised around $317m in VC funding. - learn more
  • McNally Capital agreed to sell Advanced Micro Instruments, a Costa Mesa, CA-based maker of gas analyzers and sensing technologies, to Enpro (NYSE: NPO). - learn more

Actively Raising

  • ReelCall, Inc., an entertainment technology company focused on powerful apps and platforms that help build and maintain the professional network of connections vital to career growth, is raising a $850K Pre-Seed Round. - learn more
  • CZero, a hard-tech startup that is developing a technology for decarbonizing natural gas, is raising a $1.5M Seed Round. - learn more
  • Couri, a technology startup addressing last-mile delivery issues, is raising a $450K Pre-Seed Round at a $2.2M post money valuation. - learn more
  • Sweetie, a marketplace to help people plan date nights, is raising a $250K Angel Round. - learn more
  • StartupStarter, an investment platform that provides real-time data and analytics on startups, is raising an $850K Angel Round. - learn more

If you’re a founder raising money in Los Angeles, give us a shout, and we’d love to include you in the newsletter!

📅 LA Tech Calendar

Sunday, January 7th

Wednesday, January 10th

  • Startup Cafe: Networking with a Kick - Entrepreneurs, Startups, and Tech Enthusiasts join together to meet and connect with like-minded people, industry professionals and investors, while enjoying a nice cup of coffee in Venice at The KINN. This week’s interactive discussion about AI’s evolution in entertainment will feature Dr. Sam Khoze and Rachel Joy Victor.
  • Venice Tech Happy Hour- Join Startup Coil and FoundrHaus Wednesday evening and enjoy the sunset from the rooftop, grab a bite overlooking Abbot Kinney, and mingle with other tech enthusiasts and entrepreneurs by the bar on the patio.

Have an awesome event coming up? Reach out to be featured on next week’s Newsletter!

📙 What We’re Reading

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