Cirque du Soleil president says AI in entertainment world a low risk to company
MONTREAL — The head of Cirque du Soleil says artificial intelligence poses a low risk to the renowned Quebec company, even as debate is emerging about intellectual property protection for artists.
"We don't have all the answers yet, but I would be lying if I said I'm very worried, given the strength of the brand," president Stéphane Lefebvre said in an interview Tuesday.
"There are a lot of people in the past who wanted to do things that looked like Cirque du Soleil, even without artificial intelligence," he said. "There may be a lot of people who want to create similar circus shows, but without having the Cirque brand, the Cirque's seal of quality, it would become more complicated for people."
Artificial intelligence has raised hackles throughout the art and entertainment world, with AI platform users now able to create images, text and music inspired by — and sometimes nearly indistinguishable from — the pros.
Recently, a fake duet imitating the voices of Drake and The Weeknd went viral on social media, causing a stir in the recording community.
On the sidelines of a speech delivered to the Canadian Club in Montreal, Lefebvre acknowledged he's enjoyed experimenting with AI chatbots to tell a story or two to his kids.
He also said Cirque du Soleil would not completely close the door on the technology, but that he views it more as an administrative aid than an artistic one, pointing to potential legal pitfalls.
“We're trying try to see how we can use artificial intelligence to help us outside of the creative sphere,” he said.
In his speech, Lefebvre discussed Cirque du Soleil's recovery and current strategy. The 39-year-old circus troupe scrapped performances around the globe and cut nearly 3,500 employees after the COVID-19 pandemic struck, but began to add shows again in the summer of 2021.
The Montreal-based company aims to see its brand on other platforms beyond live entertainment, including video distribution and video games, he said, teasing an announcement in the latter industry for later this month.
MGM Studios has produced a documentary about Cirque du Soleil's return to the stage. Other video projects are in the pipeline, Lefebvre said, but he declined to offer specifics.
After the pandemic-induced shutdown, Cirque exceeded “all our expectations," Lefebvre said in his address, which was capped by a short acrobatic performance by Cirque artists.
In late 2020, Cirque was sold to a group of its creditors led by Catalyst Capital Group after the Montreal-based outfit was forced to file for creditor protection, having racked up a debt of US$1 billion.
The company now finds itself on more stable financial footing. In March, it managed to reduce its debt by US$100 million and to refinance it at lower rates, despite monetary tightening by central banks. Cirque du Soleil's total debt stood at US$550 million as of last month.
Lefebvre said demand remains strong for Cirque shows, despite the ongoing economic uncertainty. He attributed the interest to an entrenched desire for spectacle in the flesh, rather than to a post-confinement pendulum swing.
“People want to live experiences, to live them and to show everyone that they have had this experience. I think it's a strong trend and we're not going to go back."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 2, 2023.
Stéphane Rolland, The Canadian Press