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Elvis Leads List Top-earning Dead Celebrities Again

October 29, 2007 | People
Marilyn, Warhol, Peanuts creator all make the cut, but there’s only one King.

The 13 legends in our seventh annual list of the Top-Earning Dead Celebrities grossed a combined $232 million in the past 12 months. Many are instantly recognizable one-name wonders (Elvis, Marilyn, Warhol) who still command attention worldwide, making them a marketer's ideal pitchman.

Indeed, all the members of this year's club are the linchpin of enormously profitable — and growing — merchandising empires. Albert Einstein's name is used to peddle Baby Einstein DVDs. Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel's books are a staple of every kiddie library on the planet. Hundreds of performances of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown pad the portfolio of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz each year — as well as comic strips that are still syndicated daily in thousands of newspapers worldwide.

But even in death, there can only be one King. Reclaiming his top spot on the list is Elvis Presley, whose estate generated $49 million in the past year. CKX Entertainment, the publicly traded firm which presides over the bulk of the Elvis empire (daughter Lisa Marie Presley retains a 15 percent stake) announced a massive overhaul of Graceland this summer, marking the 30th anniversary of the The King's death. Among the changes are a new hotel convention center, a state-of-the-art multimedia museum and a new, spiffier visitor's center.

The plans are already paying off: Revenues from Graceland were up 15 percent this year, to $35 million. And that doesn't include royalties generated from Elvis music, DVDs and licensing deals like the one struck with Cirque du Soleil for an Elvis-themed revue in Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, the brightest star of 2006 doesn't even appear on this year's list. Kurt Cobain, former frontman of grunge band Nirvana, debuted on the list in first place last year after his widow, Courtney Love, sold part of his song catalog for a reported $50 million. But while the deal opened the door for future ad dollars, Cobain's 2007 earnings weren't enough for him to stay on the list.

John Lennon jumps from the No. 4 spot last year to second place this year, with earnings estimated at $44 million. In February, the Beatles settled a 15-year battle with Apple Inc. over the company's decision to get into the music business. (The Beatles' commercial interests are overseen by a firm called Apple Corps.) Two months later, the band settled another long-standing dispute with its record label EMI over alleged unpaid royalties. The settlements, which are believed to have exceeded $100 million, also buoyed the income of the other deceased Beatle, George Harrison, who placed No. 4 on this year's list, with earnings estimated at $22 million.

Now that Apple and the Beatles have settled their differences, stock market analysts are hungrily awaiting an announcement from Apple Chief Steve Jobs regarding the covetable Beatles archive being made available for download from Apple's iTunes Music Store. In late August, shares of Apple jumped nearly 6 percent on rumors that an announcement was forthcoming. (No such announcement has been made yet.) ITunes already sells the Fab Four's solo works.

Earnings for our top dead celebrities were evaluated for the period between October 2006 and October 2007. That ruled out recently departed superstars like Luciano Pavoratti, who passed away in September. The bulk of his earnings during our time frame, we determined, were made while he was living.

Newcomers to the Dead Celebrities list include "King of Cool" Steve McQueen ($6 million) and the "Godfather of Soul" James Brown ($5 million). Rapper Tupac Shakur rejoins the list with $9 million — he debuted back in 2002, before falling off — following the sale of catalog rights in May for upward of $5 million. Over a decade after his unsolved 1996 murder in a drive-by shooting, Tupac remains a hot commercial property. Said to be in development are a Tupac biopic, videogame and — gasp! — Broadway show.

Estimating income for celebrities is no small feat. But for dead celebrities, it can prove daunting. Such was the case when attempting to value the income of recently departed mega-producer Aaron Spelling, whose estate still collects royalties for every Love Boat or Melrose Place rerun that airs anywhere on the planet.

While royalties have long been a staple source of income for the Top-Earning Dead Celebrities, who collects them has now become a hotly debated issue in the entertainment community.

Anna Strasberg, widow of famed acting coach Lee Strasberg, inherited the bulk of the Marilyn Monroe estate from her late husband. Two years ago, she sued two photo agencies run by heirs of Monroe photographers for licensing images without her permission. (One, Sam Shaw, shot the iconic picture of Monroe over a subway grate for The Seven Year Itch.) Strasberg claimed that the images were part of Monroe's intellectual property and therefore only her heirs should profit.

But in May, both a California and New York court ruled against her, claiming that the concept of a post-mortem right of publicity did not exist until legislation to that effect passed in 1984, so Monroe could not have bequeathed them at the time of her death. (That law, dubbed The Dead Celebrities Act, grants posthumous rights for 70 years.) Those decisions pave the way for other firms to license Monroe images without cooperation from her estate.

That has made celebrities who died before 1984 fair game for licensing deals without the permission of their heirs. In early October, California passed a bill that effectively overrides the recent court decisions and grants posthumous publicity rights to celebrities who died pre-1984 to their heirs. It's still unclear what the net effect of the legislation will be on the disputed Monroe images.


Apparently, Elvis made so much money in the preceeding 12 months, that the amount he made ($49 million) would land him 15th in the list of celebrities who are alive with $ 4 million more than Celine Dion.
Elvisnites wrote on October 29, 2007
Is this why Sir Paul finds downloads so interesting now?
ext_mnx wrote on October 29, 2007
You are the best Elvis Aaron Presley! Yess!
ext_mnx wrote on October 29, 2007
Elvis Aaron Presley can beat them the in 2008 again!
ext_mnx wrote on October 29, 2007
Elvis Aaron Presley can beat them in 2008 again! excuse me for the error
Devon wrote on October 29, 2007
Why the Hell you think they call him the King, Was, Is, always will be the King!!!!
efan4ever wrote on October 30, 2007
The Best there is, The Best there was, and The Best there ever will be.
tmorelli@hughes.net wrote on October 30, 2007
To think that Elvis flogged himself on the road in his final years to pay the bills. Putting that $49 million in proper perspective - in 1977 figures adjusted for inflation it comes out to a whopping $167,642,455.00. I can't think of a celebrity or athlete that earns close to that in today's money so adjusted for inflation Elvis is indeed the King.
get real wrote on October 30, 2007
PLEASE can someone answer this for me. Does Elvis' $49 million include anything on the music he made before 1973 (? not sure of the year) when he sold his back catalog to RCA for a few million? does he receive any royalties on his music for anything before that transaction? I have always wanted to know that. thanks in advance
jean michel wrote on October 30, 2007
we all knew that Cobain's achievement last year was a "one hit wonder". Elvis is King & # 1 4 ever !
byebye wrote on October 30, 2007
Listen, I´ve said it before and I´ll say it again. This exepected news is bad news, since it only shows that Elvis is king of exploitation, and those who gladly open their wallets to any kind of nonsens are king of fools. Anyone can profit on Elvis today and I dont see why that should be applauded?! Good news would be that media was reporting of a big trend break about fans now refusing to be brainwashed anymore, and have their fan loyalty used for the sake of pumping in more money to Sillerman/EPE, BMG, and Euro labels etc. That´ll be the day. * I also want those of you who share Elvis christian values out there to question how Elvis himself would have felt that millions and millions of the money earned in his name every year is also going into the Scientology enterprises through Lisa and her mother. Is that ok?
Steve B. wrote on October 30, 2007
I think the earning numbers are amazing. Sure, Elvis is exploited, he has been since 1956. I have always said, Elvis is the ulitmate cash cow. But, these amazing numbers ($49 million for 2007) continue to show how much impact Elvis continues to make. The $$$ signs show a direct reflection of people's interest in something. As for what would Elvis have thought, who knows....I certainly don't.
Brian Quinn wrote on October 30, 2007
Excellent news. Elvis is NOT being exploited but getting his due deserts. Robert Sillerman (CKX) is the BEST thing that has ever happened to Elvis. Long may his success continue.
byebye wrote on October 30, 2007
Steve, according to Elvis´ visit at a Scientology center in the 70s, he was quoted saying "These scientologists want to control your mind, They´re only after my name and money" while he was basically running out from the place. He would NOT have tolerated this situation if he was alive today. Isn´t it a ironic twist that today Scientology has got hold of both his last name + a major income part of his money?! So the more cash that goes into a false prophet like Sillerman and EPE, you are indirectly a sponsor to Scientology with your money trough Lisa and her mother. There are two kinds of intellectual people in this world. -those who take advantage of other people less fortunate being blessed with wisdom, and those who try to enlight others. Some of the "others" belong to a lost generation that are impressed by dollar figures, instead of question bad news when it´s disguised as something good. It´s like sugar, it´s hard to convince a kid why it´s bad for you when it tastes so good. What taste good here is that these kind of news appeals to the drive of consuming and spending more, since it´s being portrayed as you are being part of something important while your adding money into a coin slot, It´s only a battle of consumers, and good numbers are being used as a tool in order to gain more. Everyone likes a popular product right?! It´s a viscious circle really and these techniques apply not only to Elvis products but a lot stuff we allready have, but are being told we need to get rid off so we can buy the same product we had before, but with a different package. That is why the garbage mountain in this world keep growing....
JerryNodak wrote on October 30, 2007
Jesper: So I take it you're no longer buying any Elvis related product. Does this include his music as well? Too bad. You're missing out on some great releases. Who's to say whether Elvis' opinion of Scientology voiced in the '70s would be the same today. That's 30 years ago. I had certain opinions about certain things 30 years ago, and many of my opinions have changed.
byebye wrote on October 30, 2007
-Jerry, I´d like to stick to the fresh "Mc Cartney" statement about your first concern when it comes to outtakes and other nonsens ;) Apart from that I listen to original mint vinyls, or for pure audiophile listening I choose original reel to reel at 7 1/"2 ips. Ps: Elvis believed in Jesus, and would not have changed his mind about that I believe, especially not in favor to a organisation who think we´re planted by aliens, and then at the same time charge you for the favor of becoming "clear" about that, and that we are all mind slaves to Xenu.
marty wrote on October 30, 2007
I would certainly like to see all profit from the use of Elvis's name, image, music etc to go to charity and I have a feeling that Elvis might want it that way too. Lisa Marie and Priscilla a very rich allready and don't need any more money and I don't care about scientology either. But is this a reason not to buy Elvis related products? Unfortunately we can not control were all this money goes and that is true for many other things we buy every day! What these statistics show is that Elvis is still very much The King and that's all I keep from all this.
byebye wrote on October 30, 2007
Your moving at the right direction Marty, but ask yourself this "Why is it important that Elvis is king of commerce"? Who is benefiting from it?
My boy, my boy wrote on October 30, 2007
Jerome, could you please come to the rescue of these people and wish them a merry Xmas like you did before ?! :p
marty wrote on October 30, 2007
For me it's important to see Elvis in the spotlight. It keeps his legacy alive and gives a chance to the younger audience to hear more of his music. These kind of statistics do just that. I won't bother too much about the details (who is benefiting and so on). I might not like it but I sure can't change it. I will carefully choose what to buy but I don't think that if I don't buy the things I like the most will make the world a better place. I will just make myself less happy...
byebye wrote on October 30, 2007
The legacy is more about merchandise than music I´m afraid. And a passive posture is exactly what it takes to be able to be caught in this circle of so called happiness that you allways gotta refill, since it runs out after a while. Elvis even sang about it on "How great thou art". And I cant help to think it´s a shame when I think of this guy who gave away so much of himself and his fortune, to see were his money goes today. I choose to care, since I happen not to like vultures, especially not those who portray themselves as "friends" with their books etc... And I dont think Elvis is up there laughing in the sky thinking this is good news. As I earlier said good news would be that Elvis fans has stopped feeding the monster with money!
marty wrote on October 30, 2007
Yes Jesper, I agree but up to a point. You can stop buying all those useless reissues that just don't give us anything new for example. But many things are really worth buying. And if you think that way, how many things that you spend your money on don't fall into the same category? The thing that we can effectively change is ourselves. Let's start there and never forget to enjoy the good things in life as well. That doesn't mean that we have to accept what they offer us, but there's no need to be negative. We, with whatever power we have, can try and keep the important part of Elvis, his music, alive. Merry Christmas to all, christian and non christian alike...
Steve B. wrote on October 31, 2007
Jesper, I guess you read in a tell-all book what Elvis had to say about Scientology? I'm not sure how Elvis would react to all this today. Certainly, in the mid 70's, he was doing countless one nighters for the MONEY. There is no question about that. In today's world, dollars drive eveything. I am happy Elvis continues to dominate the market place. I know there are lots of celeb estates that wish they could operate like EPE's.
efan4ever wrote on October 31, 2007
Scientology is dumb. I mean aliens. Are they serious.
Lex wrote on October 31, 2007
What a useless discussion.... Lisa is Elvis' legimate heir, and what she does with HER money is just her case. I'm not into any religion, but I don't care at al. Just like I wouldn't care if she throws it all in the ocean. Mmmm, thinking about it... that might be a nice idea, at least if it's the Atlantic... some of it might drift my way. On the subject itself: I might be partly guilty to the success myself (although not in large amounts anymore) and I do think it is funny that the man is still that popular... I might even start an action to buy his singles :-).
Jerome wrote on October 31, 2007
My boy, my boy, I don't know if they celebrate Christmas at Scientology?
byebye wrote on October 31, 2007
Well Christmas is the season of commerce, and I dont think Santa has anything to do with the message in the bible either, so shop ´till you drop is the new message and slogan today. Ok, I generalize a bit, but in all that´s the way it is. And I´m sorry Lex for trying to take things to another level, instead of joining the "hurrah coir", but I thought this was a non profit site?!?
My boy, my boy wrote on October 31, 2007
Jerome, you're right, maybe to celebrate Xmas in 2 months is completely out of the question for them, hopefully Tom Cruise will allow them to roam the streets tonight to get candies for Halloween !
Charo wrote on November 01, 2007
In reply to Get Real's query. Elvis' Estate does not receive one penny from the sale of his recordings, from 1954 to 1973 inclusive. That infamous contract was signed in 1973. Elvis' Estate only receives royalties for work from 1973 to 1977. Parker should rot in hell for that final act of larceny against Elvis. We all trust the people around us for financial advice, and Elvis believed the best of too many people. The money the Estate makes is from Graceland, those few years that Elvis still has recording rights to, and for the films royalties. Sillerman has done nothing to enhance Elvis' musical reputation, and has only increased prices, and brought in VIP con tricks. This August showed the depths they will go to, in their pursuit of the mighty dollar. They turned Graceland into a carny, with hot dog stands, beer stands, and selling goods at the gates of Elvis' beloved home. Graceland and the surrounding areas will bear no resemblance to how Elvis knew it.
Jumpin Jehosaphat wrote on November 01, 2007
Sillerman is just a Carny Huckster, he can dance Elvis' figure all over the stage but cant give it singing life, because the colonels deal to sell off the rights to elvis' music. Not that elvis would still be alive today but things would have a lot different had he surrounded himself with real business people, and not the cow milking colonel and the memphis mafia, who didnt have real jobs in the real world, and some who are still making money off of his name. and of course good old george klein Sun records prize recording artist.
Jerome wrote on November 01, 2007
to anyone who might listen/read this, I've never been to Graceland because I don't feel attracted to a museum. Neither do I feel it's a living spectacle anymore. The more I read comments about Graceland turning into Disneyland, the less i want to go there (on pilgrimage..)
Harvey Alexander wrote on November 02, 2007
Isn't it high time they brought Elvis back from the dead? I'm sure that with all the technology they have now they'd be able to do it. After all, there are some very clever people out there. And if Elvis is still as popular as we're told he is, I'm sure he could sell out a world tour. Then Sony could re-release his records on a daily-basis and he would be at the top of the charts all the time.
Satnin wrote on November 13, 2007
I agree with you, Brian and I think that Elvis, Gladys and Vernon would be amazed.