Hollywood Should Leave Dead Actors Alone (Guest Column)

When “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” recently opened, audiences didn’t see a revived 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 star turn in 2018 — but allowing a new, living actor to fill the role was the right call, not just for the franchise, but for the medium.

The resurrection of dead actors in movies through artificial intelligence—a growing trend—is bad for the acting community, and it’s bad for the movies. So far, Hollywood has thankfully kept its use of these actors limited. Peter Cushing in “Rogue One”, Paul Walker in “Fast & Furious 7”, Carrie Fisher in the latest installment of the Star Wars series. But there are plans for actors to take on bigger roles long ago.

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

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

There is no strict limit to how many TV series or movies can be made. Still, there are signs that the market for movies is reaching its limits, with streaming platforms giving the green light to fewer projects. If studios can use dead actors — who don’t require trailers, hairstylists or a percentage of ticket sales — talented newcomers could be squeezed out of the business.

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Failing to showcase new talent is a particular problem if we believe in inclusiveness. Representation on screen is moving in the right direction, but may regress if staffed with actors from previous eras.

Furthermore, the audience 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 just a problem for art films that want to communicate something profound. Most of the movies people watch are mainstream movies where profit considerations are so important that the plot and dialogue are now often tweaked with AI software.

In such situations, the importance of the actor is undoubtedly greater than in indie films. This is because, perhaps even more than directors, Hollywood actors are the best bet for any subversion amidst the dictates of focus groups and sequels. A look or crooked 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 allowing digital doppelgangers of former stars will tarnish their legacy. Companies don’t care about the integrity of an artist’s oeuvre. AI-generated actors take someone else’s voice and empower software engineers, advertisers and Hollywood executives with them.

Looking to the past is of course part of the creative process. We support an open culture and give individuals the opportunity to use other people’s work as inspiration for their own. Still, there’s a crucial difference between taking a dead 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 is neither the problem nor necessarily the solution. Virtually all states recognize a “right of publicity” that exists after death, meaning that any living actor—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 in poor taste to use a picture of a dead celebrity to advertise goods, such as Audrey Hepburn being used to sell candy bars or Fred Astaire shilling vacuum cleaners. But these appearances took place with the permission of Hepburn and Astaire’s estate. Likewise, if a planned James Dean movie ends up being made, it will be because a celebrity licensing company acquired the rights to use his image posthumously. By granting a property right to dead persons, courts and legislatures have placed society at the whim of those who possess the intellectual property of the dead.

However, without such post-mortem publicity rights laws, the final result would be the same. Studios could use famous deceased faces in new films, this time without having to secure the rights of a surviving spouse, child or a company that makes money off a whole stable of deceased people. Either way, without some corrections, the studios will force more revived actors on the public.

Is there a way to stop using dead actors in movies? The simplest approach would be to appeal to the film industry’s bottom line. Perhaps consumers will experience a collective discomfort with the practice, similar to the way audiences have reacted negatively to examples of the uncanny valley in movies. The idea of ​​exploiting the dead may cause enough unrest for the studios to change course. As “Black Panther: Return to Wakanda” remains 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, an audience revolt against revived actors seems unlikely. Studios seem to be gradually cultivating viewers to the use of fallen movie stars so that tastes can be controlled and reactions shaped. If consumers are not going to boycott movies with expired actors, then we need to consider regulations that limit commercial reanimation of the dead. These could range from a complete ban on all post-mortem reanimation to a ban on only those uses that mislead the audience into thinking they are seeing a live actor. Such restrictions would clash with the wishes of some incumbents who might want to live on in a digital future or ensure a post-death income stream for their heirs. Yet the costs to the market of new acting talent and cinematic innovation outweigh such individual preferences. Dead hands should not control the living.

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


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