Forbes releases top-earning dead celebrities
It's not easy to earn $5 million per year when you're dead.
The earning power of most deceased people, even famous ones, slows considerably or stops altogether when they die. But for a select few, the paychecks keep coming, and some draw even bigger paydays than when they were alive.
Welcome to our fourth annual assessment of the Top-Earning Dead Celebrities, where we assess the earning power of deceased musicians, actors, authors, songwriters and composers.
The criteria for making our list are simple. A person's estate must pull down a minimum of $5 million annually. How does a deceased person earn money? For musicians like John Lennon, the bulk of it comes from worldwide publishing royalties. He and Paul McCartney co-wrote most Beatles songs, and they get a cut every time a song is played on the radio stations of Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting, sold on a CD, used in a film or covered by another artist.
Elvis Presley's estate earns tens of millions of dollars annually, not from music sales--Elvis' manager famously sold the rights to pre-1973 recordings to RCA for $5 million--but from merchandising and admissions to Graceland.
Because actors don't own rights to the films in which they appear, revenue comes almost entirely from licensing and merchandising. The image of Marilyn Monroe, for example, is used to sell literally hundreds of different products worldwide. Likewise, the estate of Charles Schulz has licensed the cartoonist's Snoopy as pitchman for everything from MetLife insurance to PepsiCo sodas.
CMG Worldwide handles business affairs for Monroe's estate, whose beneficiary is Anne Strasberg, widow of famed acting coach Lee Strasberg. CMG, a major rights management firm, represents the estates of hundreds of deceased celebrities, including athletes like Babe Ruth.
It sometimes takes shrewd business acumen to earn millions in death. Presley's estate, whose sole heir is his daughter, Lisa Marie, would not rake in what it does were it not for Elvis Presley Enterprises' aggressive licensing, marketing and use of courts to secure publicity rights.
And would James Dean's beneficiary, a cousin, be reaping the rewards of Dean's promising but extraordinarily short career were it not for business managers at CMG? Not likely.
In any case, it's not easy to earn when you're gone. That's partly why our list doesn't change dramatically from year to year. One recently departed celebrity to keep an eye on is screen legend Marlon Brando, whose executors are seeking trademark protection against any individuals trying to profit off Brando without the proper blessings of his estate.