Monday, January 2, 2017

Actors who embody Intellectual Property have no right to protect their likeness

Because of the reliance on existing Intellectual Property to prop up the ailing movie industry, writers are mostly superfluous. Movie scripts today are engineered like Mad-Libs; in fact, story beats are broken down by page number. With a franchise you take Intellectual Property A and put them up against Intellectual Property B, introduce Intellectual Property C in a supporting role with the possibility of getting their own film down the line, and so forth. It takes some skill to write, but it’s not necessarily a creative skill so much as an engineering skill. It takes practice to put a round peg through a round hole, but once you’ve figured it out you can make tons of money and get your name on some successful stuff.

The writer Bret Easton Ellis actually said that (he heard!) there were problems with the new “The Batman” movie script by the actor Ben Affleck and the comic book writer Geoff Johns:

“I was having dinner with a couple of executives who know other executives who are working on the [forthcoming] Batman movie, The Batman,” Ellis tells me. “And they were just telling me that there are serious problems with the script. And that the executives I was having dinner with were complaining about people who work on the Batman movie. And they just said they went to the studio and they said, ‘Look, the script is … Here’s 30 things that are wrong with it that we can fix.’ And [the executives] said, ‘We don’t care. We don’t really care. The amount of money we’re going to make globally, I mean 70 percent of our audience is not going to be seeing this in English. And it doesn’t really matter, these things that you’re bringing up about the flaws of the script.’ So I do think global concerns play a big part in how movies, and what movies, are being made, obviously.”

He later “walked back” these comments. On the episode of his podcast in which he interviewed Owen Gleiberman, the film “critic” who bragged about crying at the end of the terrible corporatist propaganda film “Toy Story 3,” Ellis said that Affleck sent him an email about the incident, to clear up any misgivings about the state of the project. Ellis said that he took this as a good sign that people in Hollywood still care about movies, but he was being overly optimistic. In fact the brouhaha over Ellis’s comments shows that people in Hollywood care about Intellectual Property, not movies themselves. At least not movies as art— but movies as commercials.

Ben Affleck as a piece of Intellectual Property. Corporate-owned Intellectual Property.

The reliance on Intellectual Property to carry the film industry is only intensifying, with studios announcing franchise films years in advance to build buzz, and co-opting supposed independent film criticism or news sites as promotional and marketing arms (the shameful Justice League whoring across multiple sites is a good example). And CNBC is happily anticipating that “2017 may be the year of comic book nirvana for superhero movies.”

With writers being necessary primarily to construct works out of pre-existing materials, they’ve become largely irrelevant. But surely the same can’t happen to the actors, too?

For an actor, embodying I.P. in a film is a great way to raise their exposure and generate more income. There’s also very little in the way of challenge. The actors in I.P. films rarely have to stretch themselves emotionally. Naturally some baseline of charisma and talent are necessary. But beyond that they’re simply saying their engineered lines in front of green screens, collecting their paycheck, and moving on.

As CGI technology has become move advanced and less expensive, works based on existing I.P., in particular fantasy and SF works, have become easier to create. This technology also makes it possible to digitally resurrect dead actors who could, conceivably, continue to portray I.P. long after their death. Now they’re worried about how their images will be used after their death, and they’re trying to do something about it.

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."

What are celebrities’ “intellectual property rights”? The rights to their own image or likeness? But if their meat is being used to embody a piece of existing I.P., then doesn’t their likeness—in that context, at least—belong to the corporation that they’re working for at the time they create the two-and-a-half hour commercial they’re working on?

If not, then why are the corporations that create movie products and own the I.P. in question, not locking down the “rights” to these actors’ likenesses? For millions upon millions of people, Tony Stark looks like Robert Downey, Jr. He doesn’t look like Don Heck’s drawing of Tony Stark. Or even Bob Layton’s. Robert Downey, Jr.’s look has become integral to that piece of I.P.

The same is true of Carrie Fisher, the first to embody Princess Leia. Before the first “Star Wars” movie, that piece of I.P. didn’t exist. Then it did, and it looked like the actress Carrie Fisher. Princess Leia’s image has appeared on thousands of licensed properties, and it’s recognizable as Princess Leia, even by those who don’t know Carrie Fisher’s name.

This isn't a picture of Anjelica Huston. It's Morticia Addams.

In an interview way back when “The Addams Family” movie had just come out, the actress Anjelica Huston talked about seeing Morticia Addams on an Addams Family cereal box and at first feeling like a sell-out. Then she said she felt okay about it, because in her mind it wasn’t HER on that cereal box, it was Morticia Addams as embodied by her on that cereal box (I’m paraphrasing and I can’t find the interview online so you’ll have to rely on my memory!). Once an actor embodies a piece of I.P. onscreen, their likeness is tied to that I.P., which is owned by the corporation that financed the film in which the actor appears.

In this context, actors have no individual “intellectual property rights” to “protect.”

Addams Family cereal box pic source.

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