Do you know who the highest earning dead celebrity of 2016 is?
It’s Michael Jackson. He’s earned around $825 million, most of it coming from the sale of the Beatles back catalogue to Sony music.
In fact most of the highest earning dead celebrities for 2016 are from the music industry. The highest grossing non-musician is Charles Schluz, creator of the Peanuts comics. But what I’d like to talk about are the actors.
With most dead celebrities the reason their estates continue to make money are because of something that celebrity had created during his or her life (For example the above mentioned music and comics.) But occasionally the direct image of the celebrity is used to hawk a product.
To a certain extent this has been happening for years for things like T-shirts, posters and other similar items.
But then in 1991, Coca Cola created a new advert with Elton John and a host of dead celebrities such as Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart and Louis Armstrong.
The “dead celebrity” industry would then explode. For example in 1998 Pizza Hut used a digitally created Elvis Presley to promote their new “Edge”Pizza.
And more recently Audrey Hepburn has taken a great liking to Galaxy Chocolate. (Which I believe is called Dove Chocolate in the United States.)
Obviously the profit in these dead celebrities is now astronomical, with Adage.com estimating it at $3 billion. (Though interestingly some of the money is used for good causes. For example Albert Einstein granted his image to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
But this article isn’t meant to be a trip down memory, but rather an exploration of something interesting I discovered about the upcoming Star Wars: Rogue One. Check out the TV spot below.
Specifically there is this scene:
For those of you that aren’t massive Star Wars fans, it’s widely believed that the out of focus character in this photo is Grand Moff Tarkin, a character who appeared in Star Wars: A New Hope and was originally played by Peter Cushing (who passed away in 1994.)
Now I want to stress what I’m about to say is based entirely on rumour and I am more than happy to be proved wrong. But word on the grapevine is that, not only will the character of Tarkin come back, but Peter Cushing himself will be recreated through CGI and will be voiced by Stephan Stanton (the actor who voices the character in the Disney cartoon Star Wars: Rebels.)
Assuming that this is true, this (as far as I’m aware) goes well beyond anything that has been done before with the image of dead celebrities. Up until this point CGI has generally been used only on actors that have unfortunately died during production. For example Oliver Reed in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and Paul Walker in James Wan’s Furious 7.
In the case of Reed/Walker, I personally find the use of CGI to be acceptable since both actor had already read the script and signed on the dotted line. They knew what they were getting into. And yes, while there were changes to the films in order to accommodate their premature deaths, the fundamental portrayal of their characters is mostly unchanged.
But in the case of Rogue One, I can’t help from feeling uncomfortable. Cushing didn’t agree to come aboard this film. He didn’t read the script or have any influence over how he was going to be portrayed. Acting is not a simple cut and paste job. Every hand moment, every twitch of cheek, every rise of eye brow helps contribute to a realisation of a character.
I appreciate the ridiculousness of complaining about something that might not even be happening, but it does lead to the question: How far can we go?
In the case of Rogue One, if Cushing makes an appearance, I doubt it would be for anything more than a minute or so. But what if it was longer? The entire film maybe? We are legitimately at a point where an entire film could conceivable star a celebrity that’s been dead for decades.
But at what point do we start betraying the ideals and beliefs of the actor and cross the line in crass commercialism? (you know, assuming you don’t already think the entire industry has crossed that line!)
Case in point, the advert Johnnie Walker released in 2013 starring the dead-for-40-years Bruce Lee.
Bruce Lee, however, was teetotal and it’s highly unlikely he would have agreed to do this. His daughter though, felt otherwise as she was the one that granted permission.
In the end there is no easy answer to this problem. Far too much money is on the line for the industry to just throw these celebrities away. But perhaps, in future, maybe our obsession with celebrities will pass and we can allow the dead to rest in peace.