Editor’s note: The below was written prior to a statement released from Willis’ representative which clarified that the actor “has no partnership or agreement with the Deepcake company.” Although the creation of Willis’ digital likeness was curated for commercial use in 2021, its future use will be at Willis’ discretion.
Bruce Willis once said, “Everybody, no matter how old you are, is around 24, 25 in their heart.”
Well, now Willis can be 24 or 25 years old in his heart and on-screen forever.
How so? It begins with the devastatingly sad saga surrounding Bruce Willis’s health, laid out in detail in a recent Vulture article. It tells the story of the Die Hard star’s lost potential for the latter part of his career due to his rapidly declining health and failing mental and physical faculties. This week, the story took a dystopian turn when news broke that Willis is now the first celebrity to sell the rights to allow a “digital twin” of himself for use on-screen through so-called “deep fake” technology.
Regardless of his health, he can now continue appearing in film and TV long after he can physically perform (or, in theory, even after his death). The move feels bleak for Bruce Willis fans but even more so considering the ripple effect it could have throughout the entertainment industry. What sounds like the plot of a Philip K. Dick novel is quickly becoming our new reality. Did Bruce Willis just change movies and TV forever?
Digital Likenesses Are Nothing New
To be fair, similar recreations of entertainers are not new. There was Tupac’s infamous hologram performance at Coachella in 2012 (16 years after his death in 1996). Or the even more relevant controversy around Crispin Glover in Back to the Future: Part II, when he refused to be involved with the film. In response, the studio hired an actor to mimic his performance using a face mold based on his likeness without his permission, and Glover sued in 1990. While the resulting lawsuit never moved far enough in court to establish legal precedent, similar disputes regarding controversial recreations of performers in media invoke it frequently. The contemporary difference is an actor like Glover viewed this type of recreation as an offense and something to establish protections against in 1990. In 2022, Willis and his team presciently recognize that these developments aren’t something to combat but instead reveal a new revenue stream for performers to tap into.
Their embrace of the opportunity represents a paradigm shift in Hollywood — they aren’t ahead of the curve so much as they can see the writing on the wall. The adoption of this technology to recreate legendary performers has been picking up steam for years. When Paul Walker died in 2013, The Fast and the Furious franchise used CGI over his brother’s face to bring him back one last time for a proper send-off. Martin Scorsese may view Marvel films as theme park rides instead of cinema, but he and the studio see eye to eye on the value of de-aging technology. Both have used it so actors like Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, and Robert Downey Jr. can play younger versions of themselves in their films. Disney has explicitly embraced this technology as of late to bring actors like Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher back from the dead to reprise their iconic Star Wars characters. They did the same with Mark Hamill on The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett so that a timeline-appropriate Luke Skywalker could appear on-screen (as opposed to real-life Hamill, who is now in his 70s). Fans (and Hamill) loved it.
Who can blame them? After all, the only thorn in the side of the major studios as they continue to embrace reboot fever are the recurring questions around how to handle the original performers in a way that satisfies fans. In our decentralized media landscape, IP franchise storytelling has become the studios’ best bet for a return on investment. And the main lesson the studios have learned over the last 20 years is the best way to keep fans happy is not to update these stories with new performers but to repackage them with the original. The most recent Star Wars film trilogy tried to appeal to old and new fans by having the original actors reprise older versions of their characters alongside new, younger characters. That strategy enjoyed mixed success, seemingly now thrown out in favor of deep fake technology and TV spinoffs based on characters the original actors are still young enough to play.
Why Not Stick With the Original Actors?
In 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, Steven Spielberg tried to introduce a son (Shia LaBeouf) to carry on the franchise for Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), but after the installment was so poorly received, he’s now just opting to have 80-year-old Ford reprise the role. Just last week, the internet erupted when Ryan Reynolds announced that Hugh Jackman would return in Deadpool 3 to reprise the role of Wolverine, a character he has been playing for over 20 years (and seemingly finished after 2017’s Logan). That’s all to say, if given the option, why wouldn’t Marvel and Disney give fans the pleasure (and likely ensure the continued success of their X-Men franchise) through another 20 years of Jackman/Wolverine performances? And on that note, can anyone imagine anyone other than Patrick Stewart playing Professor X at this point? In the future that Willis just helped push forward, no one has to choose.
Well, no one outside of the actors. The benefits for them following Willis’ lead and selling these rights are apparent: a performer can continue to make money for years, if not decades, outside the confines of age or relevancy. Even if they are no longer working, they can continue supporting their lifestyles and families. For major stars, their estate could continue to monetize performances for decades after their death, providing financial support for future generations of their loved ones. Conversely, the cons are mainly artistic and philosophical. Is an actor’s talent devalued if there is no inherent scarcity to their performances, and they are, in theory, able to simultaneously appear in multiple shows, movies, commercials, video games, etc. in perpetuity? If they aren’t performing the role, is it even a performance? Or, to reference Philip K. Dick again with a similar idea: do androids dream of sheep?