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SAG Strike Getty 5.jpg

Why Is the Entertainment Industry So Desperate To Own Dead Celebrities?

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | November 10, 2023 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | November 10, 2023 |

SAG Strike Getty 5.jpg

After close to four months, the SAG-AFTRA strike has (tentatively) come to an end. The negotiations were long, tough, and often waylaid by high-level studio head jackassery. We’ve seen, over these past few weeks, how necessary union solidarity has been in clawing away at the advanced degradation of labour rights. What happened to the actors was no different than how striking Starbucks baristas or Amazon warehouse teams have been treated by their bosses. Ultimately, it was all about the same thing: the right not to be wholly consumed by your employer.

Certain details, however, were very specific to SAG-AFTRA. One sticking point in negotiations was the AMPTP continued eagerness to push forward AI as a key foundation of the modern entertainment industry, from the creation process to marketing and beyond. Prior to the tentative agreement being reached, The Hollywood Reporter was told by multiple union sources that SAG-AFTRA would not accept the AI clause included in the offer: It said:

‘The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers is seeking to secure AI scans for Schedule F performers—guild members who earn more than the minimum for series regulars ($32,000 per TV episode) and feature films ($60,000). The companies’ suggested clause would require studios and streamers to pay to scan the likeness of Schedule F performers. SAG-AFTRA is seeking to attach a compensation for the re-use of AI scans as AMPTP member companies would also need to secure consent from the performer. The language currently in the AMPTP’s offer would see the studios and streamers secure the right to use scans of deceased performers without the consent of their estate or SAG-AFTRA.’

Essentially, they wanted to have total ownership of dead actors’ images, regardless of whether or not the person or their estates and families agreed to it. Even by the low standards of this ghoulish industry, this was unsettling. As we saw with the WGA strike, the studios are desperate to implement measures that will allow them to cut costs — and people — at every turn, regardless of quality, ethics, or artistic merit. It was important that SAG-AFTRA not budge on this detail for many obvious reasons, but it won’t stop AMPTP or its cohorts from trying to steal dead celebrities.

Long before AI grew to its current level of sophistication, the entertainment world has used dead celebrities for all manner of purposes, primarily advertising. A 1990 ad campaign for Diet Coke featured Paula Abdul and Elton John dancing with Groucho Marx, Humphrey Bogart, and Louis Armstrong, all of whom had been dead for at least a decade. Gene Kelly was made to breakdance his Singin’ in the Rain routine for a Volkswagen ad, while Fred Astaire danced with a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner. A CGI Audrey Hepburn shills for Galaxy/Dove chocolate. On UK TV, Albert Einstein is currently trying to persuade viewers to change to smart meters to save on their energy bills. Some of these used old footage of the stars, others hired impersonators.

A lot of this happens with the permission of the deceased person’s family, but that’s not always the case. Astaire’s daughter was dismayed by the vacuum ad, feeling that ‘after his wonderful career he was sold to the devil.’ Frequently, the family has nothing to do with it since those rights aren’t even owned by them. There’s big business in brand companies outright owning the physical forms of long-dead celebrities. Marilyn Monroe’s likeness is owned by Authentic Brands Group, a brand management company that also owns Muhammad Ali and Elvis Presley. They haven’t been shy about putting Monroe’s face on all manner of products and ads, from Dior to Chanel No. 5 to Coca-Cola. On the ‘official’ Monroe Instagram page, you can see posts dedicated to ‘her’ line of make-up brushes.

As we’ve discussed before on this site, none of this seems like something Monroe herself would have endorsed. When she died unexpectedly at the age of 36, her estate was left to her friend and acting teacher Lee Strasberg, with instructions that her belongings be distributed among those she was closest to. That never happened, although Lee Strasberg didn’t sell any of her things in auction. When he died, Anna Strasberg assumed responsibility for the estate, which had been in storage for many years. Almost immediately, Monroe’s possessions went on sale at Christie’s and her likeness was sold off. Yes, there were NFTs. Imagine if a studio decided to ‘revive’ her for a film role she definitely would have hated.

A few years ago, it was announced that James Dean was going to ‘star’ in a new film despite having been dead for several decades. The plan was to recreate Dean with full-body CGI and insert him into a new story. Dean’s likeness is owned by CMG Worldwide, whose list of ‘clients’ includes Jane Russell, Christopher Reeve, Judy Garland, and Aaliyah. Mark Roesler, CEO of CMG Worldwide, told The Hollywood Reporter that ‘this opens up a whole new opportunity for many of our clients who are no longer with us.’ That’s technically true, but requires a hell of a lot of wilful ignorance to work. AI would have been pure fantasy to Monroe and Dean, who died decades ago. How do we know what they would have wanted? Hell, we know Monroe’s feelings on being appropriated and exploited for purposes out of her control and that hasn’t stopped companies from slapping her face on cheap brushes to make a profit.

Movies have reconstructed dead actors for posthumous performances. It happened to Peter Cushing in Rogue One and Carrie Fisher in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Both examples were unsettling for many reasons, and proved divisive among viewers. Sure, it was a fun experiment but it wasn’t really a Peter Cushing or Carrie Fisher performance. There was no light behind the eyes. Humans know the difference between real and unreal, and shock horror, they tend to gravitate towards the former.

Quality has never been the priority of Hollywood or its most craven CEOs. The strikes have certainly revealed that to those who were once blissfully ignorant. What is so disheartening about the hunger for AI replicants of the deceased is how predictable this path has long been. Robin Williams’ family had to legally ensure his image would not be used improperly following his death. For those without the clout of celebrity, the lack of autonomy is in full force, with extras revealing how many of them had had their bodies and faces scanned with no explanation, only to discover plans to use their images in perpetuity without compensation.

Because ultimately, this is the most logical conclusion of the Hollywood game: total ownership of others, preferably at zero cost. This is the studio system of the modern age, only far more ghoulish, because at least the stars of the Golden Age got to, you know, make choices about their lives. It’s exploitation in its most distilled form, so slick and efficient that the studios hope you won’t notice. But how could we not, when their plans are a form of resurrection that we’ve already shown our discomfort with over a period of decades? It’s already an iffy prospect when a celebrity’s family decides that their beloved would definitely have shilled for a car company, but a bunch of suits declaring that, for example, River Phoenix would have been the perfect fit for a film full of animal violence is abjectly cruel. And let’s not pretend they wouldn’t do that. This is a business that degraded marginalized voices for over a century, perpetuating all forms of bigotry, and covering up a ceaseless rampage of abuse.

Hollywood has long proven that it hates people who speak out, so of course they want AI clones who only say what they’re told to. It’s crucial that SAG-AFTRA continues this fight well into the future, long after AI has become a gimmick, because AMPTP certainly doesn’t plan to stop the cycle. Until then, expect a lot of actors to be making detailed changes to their wills.