Lots of celebrities (and even lots of quasi-celebrities – Kardashian Family, I’m looking at you) make a lot of money every year on everything from appearing in films to personal appearances to putting their name on clothing and perfume and wines. But it’s only in recent years that the estates of some deceased celebrities started realizing tremendous income by marketing (or continuing the marketing) of products or services that the celebrity had been involved with prior to his or her death.
Since 2001, Forbes Magazine has been ranking the top-earning dead celebrities. The magazine’s criteria is simple – the celebrity in question must make at least $5 million annually to be considered for inclusion on the list. Sometimes an artist – like Elvis Presley or Tupac Shakur – is included on the list because of previously unreleased tracks or new compilations of their music being issued.
Other times, it’s because the celebrity is iconic – think Marilyn Monroe or James Dean or Fred Astaire – and various companies will license the likeness of these entertainers to use in their marketing campaigns. And there are repeat appearances by artists like Rodgers and Hammerstein, whose music continues to be recorded and whose musicals continue to be revived both on Broadway and in regional theater.
Elvis Presley topped the very first Forbes list of richest deceased celebrities in 2001, with estimated earnings of $35 million in 2000. Famous authors like Charles Schultz (he of the “Peanuts” fame), Theodore Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss) and J.R.R. Tolkien (author of the Lord of the Ring books) all also appeared on that first list.
Elvis Presley had topped the Forbes annual list more often than any other celebrity and remained in the top spot from its inception until 2005. (In 2006, Kurt Cobain held the top spot and in 2010, fashion designer Yves St. Laurent topped the earning list with $350 million in posthumous income). In 2011, Michael Jackson was the highest grossing deceased celebrity, earning $170 million and in 2012, Elizabeth Taylor moved into the number one spot, earning $210 million (more than half of it from the auction held at Christie’s New York in December 2011, in which her jewelry was auctioned off, including a pearl Cartier necklace which sold for nearly $12 million).
While some trends never go out of style (which is why you see repeat appearances by Elvis Presley and Dr. Seuss), some celebrities appear on the list only once or twice, usually immediately after their death (which was the case for the one-and-only appearance of Yves St. Laurent). Elvis has appeared every year on the list.
The 2 deceased Beatles, George Harrison and John Lennon, both have turned up numerous times on the list, partly because of the royalties that continue to come in on the Beatles’ catalog of songs but also because of what’s becoming a new dead-celebrity-trend: the Cirque Du Soleil shows.
Elvis, Michael Jackson and the Beatles have all had Cirque Du Soleil shows based on their songs play (or about to play) at various venues in Las Vegas and throughout the world. While the Elvis show is no longer playing, a new Michael Jackson show (One, scheduled to premiere in late June 2013) and Love (the Beatles show, which has been playing at The Mirage in Las Vegas since 2006) are expected to continue to bring in huge amounts of money for the estates of these artists.
(On a side note, at one time Forbes had the unfortunate idea to conduct an online poll every year, asking viewers to vote on what currently living celebrity they thought would be an even bigger money-maker in death. That poll seems to have vanished, which is a good thing, if you ask me.)
There are certain dead celebrities that could likely bring in even more money than they currently do (and some, like Lucille Ball, don’t even appear on the list at all) but their families are extraordinarily protective of licensing their name or likeness for use by others. There’s an argument to be made, I suppose, for both sides of the dead-celebrity-making-money argument but, like it or not, as long as people are buying White Diamonds (Elizabeth Taylor’s perfume, the most successful celebrity fragrance in the world) or downloading a Beatles song on iTunes or buying their child a copy of The Cat In the Hat, we’ll all be contributing to the income of someone who is no longer here to enjoy it. It’s a strange world we live in, isn’t it?