How AI is revolutionising entertainment, according to Charisma CEO Guy Gadney

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We’ve all been there. You’re glued to the sofa, five hours into the latest must-binge series when the show takes a dramatic turn and you’re suddenly yelling at the screen – but what if the screen yelled back? It’s an alluring prospect – and one that’s closer than you might think. “Our vision is to transform linear broadcasts using creative artificial intelligence,” explains Guy Gadney, Creative Enterprise Evolve participant and co-founder and CEO of groundbreaking storytelling platform Charisma.AI. “What Charisma does is bring characters from TV and film to life in such a way that audiences can talk to them through their screens – and characters can talk back. By breaking down the fourth wall, audiences can enter, change and impact the story.”

Sound a bit Black Mirror? That’s because it is – literally. You might remember screenwriter Charlie Brooker using this two-way storytelling method on Netflix back in 2018 with the choose-your-own-path Bandersnatch episode of his popular dystopian series. A handful of other shows quickly followed in its footsteps, and while AI storytelling may still be in the early stages of permanently revolutionising our viewing habits, Gadney assures us it’s far from a one-off gimmick. “Over the next few years, this’ll be the most enormous revolution in storytelling,” he suggests. “Interactive media is everywhere. It’s ubiquitous – and yet there still needs to be a bridge from linear streaming platforms into a non-linear interactive experience. Our view is that every TV show should have at least one episode that allows its audience to dive deeper into it.”

It’s here where Charisma’s revolutionary software comes into play, allowing content makers and streaming services alike to develop new and immersive digital narratives, guided by users. “People can use Charisma as a platform to write their stories in the same way that if you were writing a book you might use Word or if you were writing a screenplay you’d use Final Draft,” says Gadney, detailing how creators can use their AI as a practical day-to-day tool. “We also work directly with large media organisations, like Sky and the BBC, to provide a full service where we write and co-produce new forms of entertainment. Our view is that this will impact the entire industry.”

While the on-going pandemic has seen streaming subscriptions skyrocket, competition for customer retention has never been more fierce. By inviting viewers directly into the action, Gadney is convinced that platforms can secure the edge needed to succeed far beyond COVID-19. “All major companies have produced a streaming service and they’re all looking for incremental differentiation that’ll mean a subscriber is going to renew their subscription rather than taking up a competitor’s service,” he reasons. “Netflix is already well down the track of commissioning interactive drama, comedy and kids’ shows. To date, these have all been episodes off the back of major series – but we know they’re looking at original content as well. We’re perfectly positioned to ride that wave.”

Guy is currently raising finance to support the next phase of company growth. For investors, it’s an opportunity that’s ripe for return coupled with a sector that’s only going to grow as technology evolves and audiences seek more from their media. “It’s quite an attractive proposition and I think investors understand that,” says Gadney of the pitching process. “There are a couple of buzzwords that we hit, like ‘media technology’, ‘artificial intelligence’ and ‘immersive media’ – those sectors within their own right are enormous and we span all of them. I also think that 2020 has kicked over a lot of skeptics around screen-based interactivity,” he adds. “What a lot of folks saw, maybe because their kids were at home playing Fortnight or because they got back into gaming themselves, was how social and mainstream it is. It’s important the TV production sector understands this because the people commissioning are recognising that there’s competition for people’s attention on screen,” reveals Gadney. “In the future, production companies will need to innovate their products to get commissions.”

Despite the disruptive nature of 2020, Charisma has continued to hit a number of key company milestones that prove the viability of its product in a tangible real world environment. “We launched a major interactive drama with Bulletproof on Sky and an interactive comic book platform, both in March. We also had projects launched on the BBC,” says the company co-founder, listing Charisma’s big wins during a tricky twelve month period. “I think what those have done is proven our model. We’re not pitching an idea – we’re pitching a tested and complex piece of technology.”

The company is also in the midst of receiving extensive support from Creative Enterprise Evolve, Creative England’s programme for innovative screen companies seeking investment “It’s been transformative,” says Gadney, candidly reflecting on his Creative England experience so far. “The way our mentor Travis [Baxter] has been forcing us to clarify what we do is incredibly valuable. In essence, we’re bridging technology and media – and a lot of that is around language and making sure we can describe things in ways that emotionally resonate. Evolve is exactly what we need right now as we move into the marketplace.”

Stack these factors alongside a creative sector that’s poised to herald in the next major shift in entertainment and Charisma’s future certainly looks bright. “There’s an incredible opportunity as AI starts to run through entertainment, and we’re positioned to enable that for all of the production sector and our own customers,” says Gadney of the inevitable change facing the TV and film landscape. “In the same way Netflix and other streaming platforms have transformed our viewing habits, the next wave is starting now and will change them again with the complete demolition of the fourth wall. We already behave like this; we shout at the TV screen, we cry at the TV screen… we’re tapping into a very human behaviour – and that’s exciting.”