Resurrection experts are still making money on dead icons with Michael Jackson’s estate cleaning up on re-issuing his back catalogue and Elvis set to appear as a hologram in a ‘live’ show in Las Vegas
|A Michael Jackson triple-signed radio licensed by MJJ Production, Inc, in 1984. His estate has become extremely lucrative – it made $250 million by extending the singer’s contract with Sony Corp., and more than $260 million from This Is It, a film cobbled together from footage of Jackson rehearsing for a series of concerts canceled in the wake of his death.|
Elvis Presley boasts 12.4 million “likes” on Facebook and 187,000 followers on Twitter and recently released a duet with Barbra Streisand. Never mind that he died in 1977.
And that’s just the beginning for the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and other long-dead celebrities. Reviving a corpse from a cryogenic deep freeze is still the stuff of science fiction — and even Madonna is unlikely to be entombed like Lenin when she dies — but every other promotional possibility is on the table. Jamie Salter, the branding guru who owns a majority of Elvis’s estate, is planning a “live” show in Las Vegas with Presley appearing as a hologram, much like the one of Michael Jackson that appeared at a show in Sin City earlier this year.
Pinup queen Bettie Page, managed by dead-celeb superagent Mark Roesler, is slated for a holographic burlesque herself. Today, deceased icons from pop culture’s heyday are enjoying unprecedented success, out-earning even their former flesh-and-blood selves, says Salter, one of the new breed of brand managers using technology to wring big bucks from superstars otherwise resting in peace (or so we hope).
These late luminaries are profitable in part because they first captivated fans in a pre-internet age of truly mass media, dominating the popular imagination in ways few contemporaries can match, Salter says.
Even better, they aren’t able to create the sort of mischief that bedeviled their handlers back in the day, potentially damaging their brand in the bargain. They can no longer lapse into drug-induced comas in hotel rooms (Elvis), assault girlfriends with vodka bottles (Jimi Hendrix) or set themselves on fire while freebasing (Richard Pryor).
“They can’t get pulled over for drunk driving,” says Donna Rockwell, a clinical psychologist with a celebrity clientele. “Their reputations are intact.”
Model Kate Moss, by contrast, can still embarrass sponsor Burberry by appearing to snort cocaine on the cover of a British tabloid. Bets on the dead have lately paid off big. Salter bought the Elvis estate, including Graceland and the rights to the singer’s image and music, from Core Media Group in November 2013. Salter’s New York based Authentic Brands expects profits to rise by 25 per cent this year thanks to Elvis-themed bathrobes, calendars, cookie jars, cuff links, luggage, Christmas-tree toppers and, oh yeah, music. “We bought Elvis at the right time,” Salter says. “None of the kids listen to his music, but look at how they’re dressing, and their flipped-up haircuts.” (For a page ripped straight from Presley’s pompadour playbook, just Google Justin Bieber’s latest coif.)
Resurrection experts like Salter are making money on even- dustier icons. Visa Inc. used the voice of Amelia Earhart in an ad during this year’s Winter Olympics celebrating women’s ski jumping. The once-sleepy Earhart estate, managed by Roesler at Indianapolis-based CMG Worldwide Inc., has since gotten offers to lend the trailblazing pilot’s name to a retail store and a restaurant chain. The bizarre business works because the truly famous tend to remain famous, even in death, says Nathanael Fast, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business who has done research on the psychology of fame. People like to talk about things they have in common, Fast says, and celebrities are among the more-pronounced topographical features of our cultural common ground.
Outselling living artists
Indeed, dead musicians today regularly outsell even living ones. And no one crushes mere mortals like Michael Jackson. When he died of a lethal cocktail of the anesthetic propofol and the anti-anxiety drug lorazepam on June 25, 2009, the King of Pop was more than half a billion dollars in debt, according to a March filing in Los Angeles Superior Court — much of it incurred from the upkeep of his 2,700-acre (1,093-hectare) Neverland Ranch, legal bills from defending child-molestation charges and legendary spending sprees on Rolls-Royces and almost anything else with a luxury label. If Jackson were an investment, he would have been a junk bond. The singer’s savviest financial move was to name as his executors Los Angeles lawyer John Branca and music producer and family friend John McClain. With Jackson no longer dangling babies over balconies, Branca and McClain have been able to get down to business. In their hands, the Jackson estate made $250 million by extending the singer’s contract with Sony Corp., and more than $260 million from This Is It, a film cobbled together from footage of Jackson rehearsing for a series of concerts canceled in the wake of his death.