The Big Business of Dead Celebrities

R.I.P. but Keep Earning Millions

The Big Business of Dead Celebrities
January 9, 2015

When it comes to death, you may have heard, “You can’t take it with you,” or “You’ll never see a hearse towing a U-Haul trailer.” Despite these truisms, a dead person’s heirs can continue to fill up their U-Hauls with money earned off the deceased’s work or likeness. This is especially true if the deceased is a celebrity.

There is big business in the world of dead celebrities. Recently, Forbes published the names and earnings of late celebrities who make up its Top-Earning Dead Celebrities list. These 13 deceased celebrities earned more than $363 million combined for their heirs and estates over a recent 12-month period.

The “Kings” Top the Lists

Topping the list again is Michael Jackson, who earned $140 million over the past year — even though he has been dead for more than five years. Jackson has earned triple-digit millions for his estate every year since he died, primarily from his share of the Sony/ATV and his own Mijac publishing catalogs. His second posthumous album, Xscape, was released this year and debuted at number two. Jackson’s hologram appearance on stage at the Billboard Music Awards no doubt helped keep him top-of-mind for many fans.

Right behind the King of Pop on the list was The King of Rock ‘n Roll, Elvis Presley, who earned $55 million over the past year. Remember, Elvis has been dead since 1977 but there appears to be a never-ending demand for all things Elvis.

If number three on the list can sing, we’ve never heard him. Charlie Brown’s “father” Charles Schultz ranked with $40 million in earnings over the past year. The cartoonist’s estate continues to earn money from Peanuts syndicated comic strips, published both in print and online, as well as from ads by MetLife that feature Snoopy and the rest of the Peanuts gang.

Elizabeth Taylor, who died in 2011, was fourth on the list. She earned $25 million last year for her estate, thanks to continued revenue from reruns of her movies and her line of perfume. Meanwhile, reggae legend Bob Marley, who died in 1981, placed fifth with $20 million in earnings. This includes revenue from the Marley Beverage Company, which manufactures and sells a line of healthy, natural fruit drinks. In addition, more than 75 million Bob Marley albums have been sold in the past two decades alone.

Here is the rest of the Top-Earning Dead Celebrities list:

  1. Marilyn Monroe — Earnings: $17 million. Year died: 1962

  2. John Lennon — Earnings: $12 million. Year died: 1980

  3. Albert Einstein — Earnings: $11 million. Year died: 1955

  4. Theodore Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss) — Earnings: $9 million.
    Year died: 1991

  5. Bruce Lee — Earnings: $9 million. Year died: 1973

  6. Steve McQueen — Earnings: $9 million. Year died: 1980

  7. Bettie Page — Earnings: $9 million. Year died: 2008

  8. James Dean — Earnings: $7 million. Year died: 1955

Who Gets the Money?

So where does all this money go? It depends on many factors, but mainly on how the celebrity set up his or her estate before dying. Sometimes, though, corporations can buy the rights to a dead celebrity’s earnings. For example, Authentic Brands Group bought the rights to Elvis Presley’s earnings last year for $125 million, which looks like it could be a very good long-term investment. According to ABG, a hologram of Elvis will be performing in the spring, possibly in Las Vegas, which could increase his earning power.

If Elvis can still sell concert tickets, why can’t dead authors sell new books? For example, at least 12 new books have been published under the byline of Robert Ludlum, who wrote the books that spawned the Jason Bourne movie franchise, since he died in 2001. If Ludlum is dead, who wrote them? Most likely, an anonymous ghostwriter or ghostwriters. It has been reported that Ludlum left behind unpublished and unfinished manuscripts and notes for future books that he planned to write. The copyright page of one of these books states that his estate “has worked with a carefully selected author and editor to prepare and edit this work for publication.” We guess that Ludlum’s byline sells more books than if they were presented as written by someone else who happened to be alive.

While it is true that dead celebrities are big business, it’s just too bad for them that they’re not around to reap the rewards of their success.

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