Anybody who’s been obsessed with a movie or TV show has probably bought something with pictures of the cast members on it at some point. (Yes, as a ‘00 teen I totally had a Legolas T-shirt. Be still, my teenage heart!). But have you ever wondered what an actor gets out of their face appearing on merchandise? After all, their face gets used to promote a TV show or a movie, so you’d expect them to get something – right?
We, as inveterate T-shirt lovers, started wondering about this very question – and quickly realised that it’s much more complicated than it appears at first. There are all sorts of legal questions to be answered. Who knew there was so much fuss behind what appears to be a simple fan T-shirt?
Whether you’re a fan looking to buy cool merch, or you’re looking to produce the merch yourself, we’ve looked into the rules of the game behind putting actors on T-shirts. Are you ready to dig in? Let’s go!
Do actors have to let their faces be placed on merchandise if they’re in a certain TV show or movie?
Sort of. (We know, we’re starting off on a really helpful note here).
Like a lot of things in Hollywood, this can depend on how powerful or famous the actor in question is.
Newer actors with less pull may not be allowed as much control over how or where their image is used. More well-known faces can negotiate this a little bit more.
Superstar A-listers have to agree to have their image used in promotional materials for the project but they can exert more control over merchandise. That’s why you’ll often see pictures of the actor on a movie poster but the action figure modelled after the character features a generic face.
Most actors (regardless of status) agree to the contractual obligations that let their likeness appear on merchandise – otherwise, they might risk losing the part. What they realistically might negotiate for will be the approval rights of final designs.
A real-life situation of how tricky this can be: the 2007 Disney movie Enchanted. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about Giselle, an animated princess who comes to life in a mix of live-action and animation (executed brilliantly by Amy Adams). The movie was a huge hit, but for some mysterious reason, Giselle never became an official Disney princess.
Why? It was just too hard (read: expensive) to secure lifetime licensing rights to use Amy Adams’ actual face. There were a few Giselle dolls and outfits sold, but in general, they used the cartoon version of Giselle rather than Amy Adams, and Disney decided to go against making her a permanent part of the princess lineup.
Do actors get paid if their face appears on merchandise?
Yep! (Assuming they have a good agent who negotiates this in their contract). Actors generally get paid a royalty or a percentage of the profits from the merch that features their face. Note that this doesn’t include stuff like movie posters that are used to market and promote the project.
Just like when negotiating how their likeness appears on merchandise, actors who are bigger-name stars are more likely to get better percentages. There are all kinds of conditions that can apply, such as if the actor’s face is the only one that appears or if the whole cast is shown.
These royalties might not apply in all cases. Some merchandise counts as promotional material, which the studios don’t actually make money off of. One classic example? Toys in fast food meals. These usually count as promotion, so the studio wouldn’t have to count these towards merchandise sales.
Actors can sometimes negotiate over the types of promotions that they’ll allow their image to be used in. For instance, an actor may not agree to have their face used to promote anything related to the pharmaceutical industry.
Fun fact: Did you know that lots of George Lucas’ Star Wars earnings are actually from the merchandise? The studios initially didn’t expect the film to do very well at all. So, they offered him some licensing and merchandising rights instead of paying him more money to direct. In the end, Lucas ended up earning way more through these rights than through the $500,000 in directing fees he gave up.
So can I put my favourite actor’s face on a T-shirt?
If you’re planning on making any sort of merchandise to sell with officially licensed characters on it…you may want to re-think your business strategy. As you might expect, movie studios generally aren’t too keen on people using their characters in unofficial ways, particularly if those people stand to make any money off it.
You might have better luck with fan art – although that can get complicated, too!
In general, it’s definitely better to be safe than sorry if you’re making merch to sell! You can potentially get yourself into a lot of trouble.
So, next time you buy a T-shirt with your favourite actor’s face on it, now you know all the work that’s behind it! And if you want to print merch with actors on, you’ve got a better idea of exactly what you’re getting yourself into.
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