Tuesday’s death of actor Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia in “Star Wars,” set off waves of remembrance among fans – but also speculation over her character’s return in yet-to-be-filmed episodes.
Filmmakers are tapping advances in digital technology to resurrect characters after a performer dies, most notably in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” The film, in theaters now, features the return of Grand Moff Tarkin, originally played by a long-dead actor.
The trend has sent Hollywood actors in the here-and-now scrambling to exert control over how their characters and images are portrayed in the hereafter.
“Celebrities are increasingly involved in making plans to protect their intellectual property rights,” said Mark Roesler, an attorney and chairman of CMG Worldwide, an agency representing celebrity estates. “They understand that their legacy will continue beyond their lifetime.”
Roesler said at least 25 of his clients are engaged in actively negotiating the use of their or their loved ones’ computer-generated images in movies, television or commercials. Employment contracts govern how they can be used in a particular film or commercial, while a performer’s will can address broader issues.
Some actors or heirs worry that overexposure will tarnish a celebrity’s image, Roesler said. Some explicitly rule out posthumous depictions involving sex or violence, while others focus on drugs or alcohol.
“We have seen people address marijuana,” he said. “We’ve seen liquor addressed.”
California law already gives heirs control over actors’ posthumous profits by requiring their permission for any of use of their likeness. As technology has improved, many living actors there are more focused on steering their legacy with stipulations on how their images are used – or by forbidding their use.
Robin Williams, who committed suicide in 2014, banned any use of his image for commercial means until 2039, according to court documents. He also blocked anyone from digitally inserting him into a movie or TV scene or using a hologram, as was done with rapper Tupac Shakur at Southern California’s Coachella music festival in 2012 – 16 years after his murder.
Virtual characters have been used when an actor dies in the middle of a film production, as when Universal Pictures combined CGI and previous footage for Paul Walker’s role in 2015’s “Furious 7” after Walker’s 2013 death in a car crash.
But “Rogue One” broke new ground by giving a significant supporting role to a dead star. A digital embodiment of British actor Peter Cushing, who died in 1994, reprised his role from the original 1997 “Star Wars” film as Tarkin.
Walt Disney Co recreated Tarkin with a mix of visual effects and a different actor.
A Disney spokeswoman declined to comment on whether Princess Leia would appear in films beyond “Episode VIII,” set for release in 2017. Fisher had wrapped filming for the next “Star Wars” episode before she died. She suffered a heart attack on a flight from London to Los Angeles.
Fisher had been expected to play a key role in the ninth installment of the sci-fi saga, due for release in 2019.
Fisher’s attorney, Frederick Bimbler, did not return requests for information on any stipulations the actress may have made about use of her image.
Disney bought “Star Wars” producer Lucasfilm in 2012 for $4 billion. The two new films since released have sold some $2.7 billion worth of tickets and boosted sales of toys and other related merchandise.
Disney would need to negotiate “re-use fees” with Fisher’s estate to resurrect her character for future films, said Mark Litwak, an entertainment attorney in Los Angeles.—Reuters