The Messy Legal Fight to Bring Celebrities Back From the Dead


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.

Wired UK

This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.

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.

Worldwide XR, which recently formed out of a merger between business and marketing agency CMG Worldwide and content creation studio Observe Media, says on its website that, besides having access to Dean, it also owns the rights to Aaliyah, Bette Davis, Bettie Page, Burt Reynolds, Chuck Berry, Ingrid Bergman, Malcolm X, and a whole lot more.

“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.

Prince, for example, died without a will, and his estate is now held by estranged relatives, many of whom he was reportedly not close with. These relatives now control the rights to Prince’s post-mortem identity. Another example is model Bettie Page, who is one of the biggest dead celebrity earners ever and whose rights are owned outright by Worldwide XR. Her meteoric post-mortem rise occurred thanks to huge investment in her identity.

“Once you successfully represent one dead celebrity, other estates will look to that company that did well with someone else,” says Jennifer Rothman, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University and the author of The Right of Publicity: Privacy Reimagined for a Public World. “It’s also true that CMG has been very active in promoting these laws.”





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