Carrie Fisher, 'Star Wars' and the Legal Issues of Dead But In-Demand Actors
The late actress' 'Rogue One' cameo sparks concern as CGI allows departed stars to continue to act: "Celebrities need to be thinking about legacy planning, which is different from estate planning," says one attorney.
When Carrie Fisher died last December, Princess Leia didn't have to die with her. The 60-year-old Star Wars actress already had shot her scenes for Episode VIII — she'll posthumously be back onscreen in December — and there even was talk of her being digitally resurrected for an appearance in Episode IX. After all, filmmakers already had succeeded in re-creating a 19-year-old Fisher for her cameo in Rogue One.
In the past, when a star died, his or her heirs could keep their loved one alive — and make money — by marketing their image on posters, action figures and T-shirts. These days, thanks to CGI, dead stars can continue to act — like the late Peter Cushing in Rogue One — and that's creating a whole new world of legal questions. "Celebrities need to be thinking about legacy planning, which is different from estate planning," says attorney Daniel Scott, who specializes in trust and estate law. "It's the planning around that celebrity's public persona."
That planning can be complicated by the fact that the law hasn't quite caught up to technology — the right to re-create a star digitally isn't a part of most Hollywood deals. But it could be someday soon. "CGI might make its way into the typical contract that actors make with studios," says attorney Mark Mizrahi. "Especially if you're in a weak position — you might sign it away."
Until then, if a studio were to bring a star like Fisher back to life without permission from her family, it could face lawsuits ranging from invasion of the right of publicity to trademark infringement. Posthumous protections vary by state, so Scott says it's vital for stars to appoint someone they trust — like, say, a lawyer — to police their post-death career. "I think most artists care about their body of work and their legacy," he says. "It's about achieving that immortality."
If a star hasn't left specific instructions, it's up to the heirs — if there are any — to make the decisions. But, as with everything in life, there are tax implications to being dead: The IRS takes 40 percent on the value of an estate, due nine months after death. "A star's name and likeness is a potentially valuable but extremely illiquid asset," notes attorney Laura Zwicker. One tax strategy, she says, is to set up a charity for your afterlife alter ego. "If the name and likeness rights go to charity, there's no tax on that," she says. "Robin Williams did that."
In Fisher's case, her posthumous acting jobs likely will be decided by daughter Billie Lourd and brother Todd Fisher. But while both were willing to have Carrie star in Episode IX, it turns out Leia will be sitting that one out. Star Wars producer Kathleen Kennedy recently broke the news that The Last Jedi will be Fisher's final appearance in the franchise. At least for now.
This story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.