HomeEntertainmentMoviesHollywood Should Leave Dead Actors Alone (Guest Column)

Hollywood Should Leave Dead Actors Alone (Guest Column)

When “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” opened recently, audiences didn’t see a reanimated movie Chadwick Boseman. Instead, the title character’s sister, played by Letitia Wright, took over as the superhero. The technology existed for a digitized Boseman to reprise his celebrated 2018 star turn — but having a new, living actor fill the role was the right thing to do, not just for the franchise, but for the medium of film.

The resurrection of dead actors in film through AI – a growing trend – is bad for the acting community and it’s bad for the movies. Fortunately, Hollywood has limited the use of these actors so far. Peter Cushing in ‘Rogue One’, Paul Walker in ‘Fast & Furious 7’ Carrie Fisher in the latest installment of the Star Wars franchise. But there are plans for long gone actors to take on bigger roles.

Acting has always been an extremely competitive profession, so it’s consistent who breaks through. This is partly why some complain that so many actors are the children of famous Hollywood directors and stars. AI-generated actors compound the challenge by stealing career opportunities from aspiring actors.

Economists generally do not believe that the labor market is a zero-sum game. Nevertheless, in certain cases there is a hard limit to the number of jobs in a field. There are only so many athletes that can play in the WNBA or so many cellists are needed for professional symphony orchestras.

There is no strict limit on the number of TV series or movies made. Still, there are signs that the movie market is reaching its limits, with streaming platforms greenlighting fewer projects. If studios can use dead actors — who don’t need trailers, hair stylists, or a percentage of the box office gross — talented new entrants could be squeezed out of the profession.

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Not showcasing new talent is a particular problem if we believe in inclusiveness. On-screen rendering evolves in the right direction, but may fall back as casts from previous eras are staffed.

Furthermore, the public will be deprived of artistic innovations. Just as directing styles evolve, so do the voices of newer generations of actors with different values ​​and perspectives. This is not only a problem for art films that want to convey something profound. Most of the movies people see are mainstream movies, where profit considerations are so important that the plot and dialogue are now often modified with AI software.

In such situations, the importance of the actor is arguably greater than in indie films. This is because, perhaps even more than directors, Hollywood actors are the best bet for any subversion amid the dictates of focus groups and sequels. A staring or wry smile can tell us everything we need to know. Actors must speak the words they are given, but their gift allows them to express truths in their own unique way.

A final concern is that admitting digital doppelgängers of past stars will tarnish their legacy. Corporations don’t care about the integrity of an artist’s body of work. AI-generated actors take on someone else’s voice, empowering software engineers, advertisers, and Hollywood executives.

Looking to the past is, of course, part of the creative process. We support an open culture and allow individuals to use the work of others as inspiration for their own work. Yet there is a crucial difference between taking a deceased person and casting them in a new movie, and simply borrowing ideas or a few lines from someone else’s novel.

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Intellectual property rights are neither the problem nor necessarily the solution. Virtually every state recognizes a “right of publicity” that exists after death, meaning that any actor during his lifetime — or, after death, the actor’s heirs — can sell the rights to use the actor’s identity to the highest bidder. You might think it’s bad taste to use an image of a deceased celebrity to advertise goods, like Audrey Hepburn being employed to sell candy bars or Fred Astaire shilling vacuum cleaners. But those performances took place with the permission of the Hepburn and Astaire estates. Likewise, if a planned movie with James Dean eventually gets made, it will be because a celebrity licensing company has acquired the rights to use his image after death. By granting a right of ownership to dead persons, courts and legislatures have subjected society to the whims of those who own the intellectual property of the dead.

However, without such post-mortem publicity laws, the final result would be similar. Studios could use famous deceased faces in new movies, this time without having to secure the rights of a surviving spouse, child or company monetizing a whole stable of deceased personas. Anyway, without any correction, studios will force more reanimated actors on the public.

Is there a way to stop using dead actors in film? The simplest approach would be to appeal to the bottom line of the movie industry. Perhaps consumers will experience a collective discomfort at the practice similar to the way public reacted negatively to examples of the uncanny valley in film. The idea of ​​exploiting the dead can cause enough commotion that studios change course. As “Black Panther: Return to Wakanda” continues to go strong at the box office, we hope this helps Hollywood take note of the choice not to digitize a respected deceased actor.

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However, a public uprising against reanimated actors seems unlikely. Studios seem to be gradually accustoming viewers to using fallen movie stars so that tastes can be managed and reactions formed. If consumers don’t boycott films with expired actors, then we should consider rules that restrict commercial reanimation of the deceased. These can range from a complete ban on all post-mortem resuscitation to a ban on only those applications that mislead the public into thinking they are watching a live actor. Such restrictions would clash with the wishes of some incumbents who may want to live on in a digital future or secure an after-death income stream for their heirs. But the cost to the market for new acting talent and cinematic innovation outweighs such individual preferences. Dead hands must not control the living.

Mark Bartholomew is a professor of law at the University at Buffalo School of Law. His most recent book is “Intellectual Property and the Brain” (2022). Martin Skladany is a professor of law at Penn State University, Dickinson Law. His most recent book is “Copyright’s Arc” (2020).



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