Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Death as a career move

By Susan Daly

Wednesday July 22 2009

So the gold-plated casket has been carried from the building -- but Michael Jackson's not gone away you know. In a year's time he will probably score another number one, topping the chart of the biggest-earning dead celebrities.

The US business magazine Forbes compiles a list every year of the deceased famous faces whose estates have raked in the most millions in the previous 12 months.

It is ironic that Jackson might join this moneyed elite, considering the $500m debt he was drowning in at the time of his death. The gruelling 50 concerts he had been due to play at London's O2 arena were to pull him out of that quagmire.

By dying, Jackson released a tidal wave of nostalgia-fuelled buying. Within days of his passing, was recording orders for his back catalogue in the region of 700 times their previous rate of sale.

AEG Live, the concert promoters for his O2 gigs, pulled off a coup by offering more than 750,000 fans who had bought tickets the choice of a special 'souvenir' ticket or accepting a refund. At last count, almost half of the fans chose the souvenir ticket.

Early this year it emerged that Jackson had recorded over 100 songs in secret, which are only to be released posthumously as a legacy for his children.

Hopefully, Jackson's advisors have protected his brand for posterity. Niall Clerkin of Clerkin Lynch, a Dublin firm of solicitors with expertise in the entertainment business, says: "If you have intellectual property, you need legal advice on how best to protect it.

"The evidence is on the Forbes list -- it is obvious that there were people out there who had good ideas, but they didn't make it to that list. They or their advisors didn't take the steps to protect what was rightfully theirs."

Jackson has a lot to protect -- he's a good example of the powerful mix of an unmistakable brand image and of serious royalties from decades of hits. Sure, his image had taken something of a hit with a cocktail of alleged abuse, disastrous cosmetic surgery and overall weirdness. But as with Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, both Forbes list regulars, his fans are likely to cling to his image when his career was at its peak, circa Thriller and Bad.

Neither Elvis nor Marilyn's deaths found them at their finest hour either -- she was severely depressed; he was an obese drug addict.

Posthumously, however, they are forever the sexy snake-hipped soulster and the fun blonde in the billowing white dress.

In Elvis's case -- like Jackson -- a mixture of image and licensing and publishing deals earned him the top spot with $52m earnings in one year.

James Dean (at number 12 in the list with $5m) died in 1955 but his iconography is desirable to marketers looking for rebel cool for their products. He and Marilyn (who earned $6.5m to put her at number nine) were both recently used in an ad campaign for Mercedes-Benz.

It helps that they were big stars when they died -- but it is also the case that they are established trademarks.

In 1979, a famous case taken by the son of Dracula star Bela Lugosi against Universal Pictures over their vampire merchandise changed how fame could be inherited.

Lugosi's son lost his case, but a paragraph from the judgement caught the eye of showbiz lawyers. It said that had Lugosi sold his image in his lifetime, then he would be a trademark that could be passed on to his descendants.

Lugosi had never endorsed anything in his life, but it opened the door to riches for the heirs of dead stars who had.

One such family was the kin of comedian WC Fields, who started to rake in the cash when the US Postal Service put him on a stamp not long after the Lugosi case.

Special anniversary events can also revive an extinct star's capacity to earn. Marvin Gaye's estate has been a modest earner since he was killed by his father in 1984. He made the 2008 Forbes list (for earnings in 2007) on the back of the 30th anniversary of Motown Records.

Just as Gaye will probably be a one-hit wonder on the Forbes list, so too will Heath Ledger whose death came in his biggest money-making year. His daughter Matilda can expect her trust fund to have been swelled by $20m from his share in the takings of The Dark Knight.

But celebrity isn't the only criteria for making money. Two regulars on the list are Charles M. Schulz and Theodor Geisel, who were 2nd and 6th on the 2008 list, earning $33m and $12m respectively. Who, say you? Some might recognise Schulz as the creator of Peanuts cartoon character Charlie Brown. Geisel is the author behind the Dr Seuss books, now expanded into a huge merchandising empire.

And who is this at number four, with earnings of $18m? Albert Einstein! His steady presence in the earning league is not, as you might think, from the use of his brush-haired image on everything from tea towels to coffee mugs.

In fact, much of the money is being made by the Disney-owned Baby Einstein company which sells educational toys.

So, clever management and an entrepreneurial spirit seem to be key to keeping a celebrity working hard for their money after death (and they no longer claim expenses -- score!).

On the most basic level, the Irish Patents Office says that anyone who has an idea or creation they want to protect should register it immediately.

In Ireland, the copyright of a literary work lasts for 70 years; and a musical work is licensed to its registered creator for 50 years.

In the United States, musicians are lobbying to increase that copyright to 95 years. Some record companies are getting around the post-50-year free-for-all by releasing 'remastered' versions of works.

But never fear -- there are still plenty of artistic works out there we can all enjoy for free: Shakespeare and Mozart are way too late to claim their royalties.

Lucky for some: The 13 'Forbes' 2008 top-earning dead celebs...

1. ELVIS PRESLEY ($52m) Graceland, royalties and merchandise make him the King.

2. CHARLES M SCHULZ ($33m) What would Charlie Brown do with all that money?

3. HEATH LEDGER ($20m) The Dark Knight made sure he was no Joker.

4. ALBERT EINSTEIN ($18m) Puts a price on Einstein's desire for the "free, unhampered exchange of ideas".

5. AARON SPELLING ($15m) His TV legacy keeps him switched on.

6. THEODOR GEISEL -- Dr Seuss -- ($12m) The Cat in the Hat makes him snug as a bug.

7. JOHN LENNON ($9m) Although the Jackson estate still has the Beatles catalogue ...

8. ANDY WARHOL ($9m) The pop artist's 15 minutes of fame are not yet up.

9. MARILYN MONROE ($6.5m) Posthumous millions are a girl's best friend.

10. STEVE McQUEEN ($6m) Somebody down here still likes the quintessential anti-hero.

11. PAUL NEWMAN ($5m) Newman actually made $120m from Newman's Own food range in this year -- but all those proceeds went to charity.

What a guy.

12. JAMES DEAN ($5m) The rebel yell still sounds after all these years.

13. MARVIN GAYE ($3.5m) What's going on? The 30th anniversary of Motown.

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