In December, movie blogs buzzed with speculation that George Lucas would be bringing back to life dead stars to act in new movies. The rumor arose from comments made by former Lucas collaborator Mel Smith to London's Daily Mail.
"He's been buying up the film rights to dead movie stars," said Smith of Lucas, "in the hope of using computer trickery to put them all together in a movie, so you'd have Orson Welles and Barbara Stanwyck appear alongside today's stars."
Such technology has made giant strides in recent years, using computers either to match and merge old footage seamlessly with new—Fred Astaire dancing with a vacuum cleaner--or to generate images from scratch and without any real-world precedent.
Within days a Luscasfilm spokesman slapped down the story, dismissing the assertion as "completely false."
But is it?
Agent-to-the-dead Mark Roesler thinks not.
Following the Daily Mail story, Roesler, whose CMG agency has represented the estates of such defunct greats as Ingrid Bergman, James Dean, Errol Flynn and Bette Davis, says he contacted Lucasfilm. "We reached out to them. The discussions were such that Mr. Lucas said those reports were not factually accurate." In what way not? "They were premature. You can read between the lines that this is something he is looking into."
Jamie Salter likewise doubts Lucasfilm's denial.
Salter, chairman and chief executive of Authentic Brands Group, announced January 13 that he had forged a deal with the Monroe estate described as being worth close to $50 million to market new Monroe products, including new movies. He thinks Lucasfilm made its denial because the story "escaped" prematurely, before Lucas was ready to announce his plans and before he had succeeded in signing up all the dead stars he wants.
Salter says he considers himself fortunate to have signed Monroe (1926-1962) before Lucas could get to her. "I had Marilyn Monroe locked up before he told the world he'd like to do a Marilyn Monroe movie," he gloats.
Salter's company will team with another company, NECA, to introduce new Monroe-inspired consumer products, including handbags, footwear and sun glasses. "These would all be collaborations with some of the better manufacturers--Gucci, Christian Dior," Salter says. "We've had her only seven days, but we've already inked a deal with Dior."
He wants to steer clear of cheap stuff, such as shot glasses. "We're going to focus on great white sheets--not sheets with Marlyn's face all over them, but really nice 300 thread-count." A new line of Monroe clothing would be "timeless, elegant, like BCBG or Halston Heritage." As for jewelry, there could be reproductions of some of MM's own pieces.
That dead stars are making money from new ventures isn't news.
For the past decade, Forbes magazine has published an annual ranking of the top-earning dead celebrities. Its most recent list puts Michael Jackson at #1, with gross earnings of $275 million. That take comes from his stake in the Sony/ATV music catalog (which includes more than 250 compositions recorded by the Beatles), and Sony's hit film "This is It" depicting Jackson's premortem rehearsals for his final concert tour. The Gloved One's posthumous earnings exceed the combined earnings of Forbes' two richest living performers, U2 and AC/DC.
What is new is the possibility that a dead star could carry a full-length feature film.
Up to now, the dead have done only cameos, owing to the cost and complexity of reconstituting and manipulating their images for lengthier performances. Sir Laurence Olivier appeared for only seconds in 2004's 'Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow'.
Eric Barba, the visual effects supervisor at Digital Domain responsible for such films as "TRON: Legacy" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," says so many nuances are involved in re-creating a dead star that it's a hard trick to pull off successfully.
Among unsuccessful efforts, he cites his own reanimation of popcorn king Orville Redenbacher, who, though dead, starred in a new series of Barba-supervised commercials four years ago. Creating Redenbacher's likeness, says Barba, was the easy part. Imbuing it with life was hard. One actor supplied Redenbacher's voice, another his facial manifestations, another his body. There were three different performances to integrate. The result, says Barba, "was considered odd. Even my own people couldn't tell me what was wrong." Wags dubbed it Orville Deadenbacher.
Yet progress is being made with every new attempt. The technology, says Roesler, "continues to improve day to day." Salter expects to see a full length feature film starring somebody dead in "the next couple of years."
One reason: demand. Roesler says advertisers and directors appreciate the upside to working with the dead. With a live star, something can always go wrong—a wardrobe malfunction, a traffic incident, a stay in rehab. The dead are well behaved. They show up when called. And their place in the public mind is secure--as immutable as Mt. Rushmore.
To preserve Monroe's integrity, Salter says he will be choosy what roles he allows her to accept and will stand guard against situations he deems inappropriate. "When she's on the set, we'll manage her. She's not taking off her clothes, I can tell you that!"
Would he be friendly to the idea of Monroe's being teamed with a live co-star? "Madonna? We'd be honored." How about with some other deceased great--maybe Sonja Henie, the skating champ? Can we look forward to Marilyn Monroe on Ice? "You could."
Salter says he'd be delighted to see Monroe star in a Lucas picture, and that he's ready to propose attractive terms: "I'll make him a better deal then he'd get with Angelina Jolie."