The Back to the Future trilogy is among the most visionary movies of the 20th century. A movie trilogy started in 1985 which was considered way ahead of its time, and it remains a classic time travel and science fiction story to this day.
While the movies were established on a strong foundation of science and fiction alike, it was also relevant in the legal field and helped establish a strong precedent for actors’ image rights in Hollywood.
Image rights (also known as Publicity rights), is an intrinsic value attached to the persona of an individual which could include their face, voice, signature, their likeness, etc. Image rights of household names have a considerable value attached to them, for instance, Morgan Freeman’s voice is considered as the most distinguishable voice in Hollywood, which makes him an ideal candidate for narration. Therefore, Freeman has the rights over his voice and if any movie or TV series were to imitate his voice without it intending to be a parody, then it is a violation of Freeman’s image rights.
The first part of the trilogy called Back to The Future saw a strong cast of Michael J Fox as the protagonist along with Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover playing supporting roles with significant screen time. The movie was an undoubted success and generated great interest in the minds of the people as the movie ended on a cliffhanger hinting at future sequels.
For the sequel aptly named Back to The Future II, the cast remained pretty much the same with the small exception of the protagonist’s love interest being recast with Elisabeth Shue playing the role instead of Claudia Wells who played the role in the first movie. Recasting was not an issue for the filmmakers since the role had very little screen time in both parts. Among the lead characters, George McFly was surprisingly recast, now being played by Jeffery Weisman instead of Crispin Glover.
Recasting a primary role in the movie is an uncommon practice and in this case the actor and producers both have opposite accounts to provide for them not coming to an agreement. The producer (Zemeckis) claimed that Glover demanded to be paid as much as the protagonist and Glover argued that his complaints about the climax of the first movie was the catalyst to his departure from the franchise.
Since a major role had been recast, the writers decided to tweak their original idea to reduce the screen presence of George McFly, such changes in the storyline along with other hindrances explain the four-year wait for the second movie’s release. Even with a new adaptation, the filmmakers were unable to work around the recasting of George McFly and eventually decided to kill the said character halfway through the second movie.
The actor who played George in the second movie was given prosthetic makeup which was used by Glover in the first movie. The filmmakers wished to trick the audience into believing that Crispin Glover himself was playing the role and not Weisman. It was still difficult to replicate the facial features of George that the audience had seen 4 years prior, so the filmmakers decided to use camera tricks to blur or hide the face of the actor whenever he was on screen and made use of unreleased footage from the first movie showing Crispin Glover himself as George.
When the movie was released, Glover was baffled by how the role was side-lined and furthermore due to the ambiguous nature of the recast, the audience believed that it was Glover himself who played the role in the second movie. Glover was unhappy with the fact that his likeness was usurped by the filmmakers without his consent and filed a suit in the year 1990.
Crispin Glover sued Universal Studios, which produced the movies. In the preliminary hearing, the plaintiff argued that his likeness was exploited without his permission. Weisman who played George in the second movie elucidated that he was jokingly referred to as Crispin by the directors and producers, proving that the filmmakers intended for Weisman to look like Glover, the judge refused to entertain Universal Studio’s plea to reject the suit. But the parties decided to settle their dispute with an out of court settlement with Universal paying Glover approximately $760,000.
While this case did not set a legal precedent, it did invoke the Screen Actors Guild to proactively insert clauses in the agreements between the parties which refrains the film studios from using the likeness of the actors without their permission.
Glover and his representatives had recognised the potential of the computer and how it could be a complete game changer in the new millennia.
The accounts of Glover’s replacement showed that in the 1980s, the filmmakers including the producers were incredibly callous with their utilisation of the unused footage from the first movie and did not try to hide the fact that they wished to emulate the persona of Crispin Glover. This suit was an ominous signal to the Screen Actors Guild of Hollywood to negotiate for stronger image rights for the industry.
With this case, we saw a significant change in the outlook of the filmmakers towards the image rights of their actors, and now actors hold a higher negotiating power when allowing any organisation to use their likeness. One can only wonder what developments we could have seen in the movies and ancillary industries if this case had swayed in the favour of the filmmakers. Since Glover held his ground against a behemoth of a movie studio, the actors of Hollywood shall always consider him a ‘hero’ in securing stronger image rights for the entire industry.
Written by Omkar Apugol Sources