Like death and taxes, with an emphasis on the former, one other certainty at this time of year is the annual Forbes “Top-Earning Dead Celebrities” list. As is my practice, I won’t recount the whole list here ( http://www.forbes.com/pictures/mfl45hggm/no-1-michael-jackson#content ); instead, I’ll offer just a few observations inspired by this year’s list.
Michael Jackson is in the top spot again. No surprise there. The reported amount, however, is almost half the amount reported on last year’s list (here’s a link to my write-up on last year’s list: http://rightofpublicity.com/every-halloween-brings-another-forbes-top-earning-dead-celebrities-list-and-usually-a-few-surprises ) Jackson’s earnings are claimed to be in the $170 million range over the last year, compared to $275 million last year.
No one familiar with the list will be surprised that Elvis Presley once again took the number two slot. Most of the entries are held by the perennials with only a modest rearranging of the slots each occupies. In addition to Michael Jackson and Elvis, Charles Schultz, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stieg Larsson, Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, George Harrison, Steve McQueen and Albert Einstein all are back for encore performances.
But a few familiar names have fallen away compared to last year’s list. J.R.R. Tolkien ( last year’s number 3), George Steinbrenner (last year’s number 9) and Aaron Spelling (last year’s number 13) did not make the list this year. And, of course, there are a few new entries, assisted by the recent death of the person in question.
Elizabeth Taylor, who died in March, enters the list in her first year of eligibility, taking the fifth spot at $12 million, tying with John Lennon. Her reported earnings are bolstered primarily by her long-running White Diamonds perfume.
Reentering the list after a notable absence is Marilyn Monroe. The entity that bought the rights to Marilyn Monroe, Authentic Brands, reports her earnings at $27 million. Here’s a link to my write up on the acquisition of Marilyn Monroe’s rights: http://rightofpublicity.com/marilyn-monroes-intellectual-property-rights-sold
The Forbes article accompanying this year’s list does a nice job illuminating the point that those deceased personalities with a music catalog as part of the intellectual property assets tend to have an advantage over those who don’t (http://www.forbes.com/sites/dorothypomerantz/2011/10/25/the-top-earning-dead-celebrities/ ). Both Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley received the Cirque Du Soleil treatment, with their touring shows Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour, and Viva Elvis both in rotation over the last year.
A body of written or creative work, like J.R.R. Tolkien, Stieg Larsson or Theodor Geisel’s heirs possess, also serves as a substantial source of revenue for many on the annual list. What is perhaps even more impressive is those personalities making the list who do not have these extra intellectual property elements or body of work from which to draw additional revenue. Such is the power, and value, of the Right of Publicity.