The Messy Legal Fight to Bring Celebrities Back From the Dead

From Wired:

Last week, independent production company Magic City Films announced that it would be bringing James Dean back from the dead. Not literally, but digitally, using full-body CGI and existing footage and photos. The Rebel Without a Cause actor will become the secondary lead in a new Vietnam War film called Finding Jack. The two directors, Anton Ernst and Tati Golykh, said they searched for a suitable actor but, after months of research, Dean was chosen for the part.

The news has been met with a barrage of criticism from the Hollywood elite, with Chris Evans calling it awful and the lack of understanding “shameful,” while Elijah Wood just said “nope.” But James Dean isn’t the first entertainer to be digitally resurrected, and he certainly won’t be the last.

In 2017, Peter Cushing, who died in 1994, was brought back to life to reprise his role as Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One. Similarly, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Walker, who both died during production of their respective films, were digitally re-created to finish their movies. Carrie Fisher was also famously digitally re-created for the ninth installment of the Star Wars saga.

On Tuesday, newly-formed IP licensing firm Worldwide XR announced that it holds the rights to more than 400 dead celebrities, actors, historical figures, musicians, athletes, and others. The lid of Pandora’s box has flung wide open, and we could be about to see a whole glut of dead celebrities reappearing on our screens.

. . . .

“We were being approached by some filmmakers who wanted to make their, movie and they wanted to hire James Dean,” says Worldwide XR CEO Travis Cloyd. “It was aligned with our objectives, and we did our vetting, and we read the script, and we talked it over with the family, and it just felt like it was a good time.”

Mark Roesler started CMG Worldwide in 1982 after finding that deceased celebrities had no one to represent them post-mortem. Roesler carved out a niche in representing the estates of dead stars, and the families of these celebrities began approaching CMG looking for representation. Elvis Presley and James Dean became the firm’s first two clients.

These representation rights give the company the “right of publicity” under the US-based state-by-state law, which is at the heart of dead celebrities’ image rights. The right of publicity was enshrined in Californian state law in 1985 and declares that the rights to use a celebrity’s image, including their voice and likeness, will be transferred to the deceased actor’s estate once that actor passes away, with any money from licensing going to the estate. Anyone wanting to use that actor’s image must gain permission from the actor’s estate.

Link to the rest at Wired

3 thoughts on “The Messy Legal Fight to Bring Celebrities Back From the Dead”

  1. Science fiction warned us about this a long time ago.

    I can see it to finish a very expensive movie – that’s what insurance is paid for, and it has been used in movies where recasting or refilming is even more expensive (digital recreation isn’t cheap).

    But for new projects? It shows a complete lack of originality, a ghoulish stealing of pale imitations of the dead who can’t defend themselves. Create your own characters. And if these are weak and spineless, learn how to get better at it.

    Using poor Abraham Lincoln’s image to sell insurance is already bad enough.

    • Test.

      In case test works — I agree with you. I get using the digital versions in the case of Bruce Lee and his son Brandon — that they both needed this done, and for the same reason, was eerie — but recreating a dead person for the sheer hell of it? And how do they know James Dean would have even wanted to be in that movie?

      Finishing an actor’s role in a movie he signed up for (Bruce / Brandon) is one thing, but portraying him as saying things he didn’t agree to say (Dean)? No. I think it’s suspect that the OP conflates the two scenarios.

      I also think it’s a fine line when actors “appear” via splicing in scenes from other parts they played. I’m thinking specifically of the J’adore commercial for Dior, where Charlize Theron strolls into a dressing room at Versailles and air kisses Grace Kelly. Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich are also “there,” and Monroe actually coos “Dior,” which Theron reacts to. I gather that Kelly, Monroe, and Dietrich actually wore Dior, so maybe it’s OK? Maybe.

      But really, just stick with the living. As in, people who can actually give consent.

      • Agreed – consent is a biggie. But I can foresee a family in need of funds that has the legal right to allow this going ahead with it.

        It is my own personal opinion that Harper Lee was very badly served by Go Set a Watchman – she wasn’t dead yet, but I don’t believe she acted in her own interests. Or would have done it – she had her whole life to make that choice. And didn’t.

        Same category, almost.

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