The money might be drying up in Hollywood, but there’s still plenty of cash to be made in the graveyard. The 13 iconic figures on Forbes’ list of the Top-Earning Dead Celebrities grossed a collective $886.5 million in the past 12 months.
Topping the list for the first time is Yves Saint Laurent, who earned $350 million care of a much-heralded estate sale. In February, auction house Christie’s sold many of the French fashion icon’s possessions, including expensive art, antiques and furniture, garnering $443 million in proceeds over the course of three days.
After commissions, the cash was split between the Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation and a soon-to-be-created philanthropic group aimed at scientific research and the fight against AIDS.
YSL died of brain cancer in June 2008.
Debuting on the list in third place is musician Michael Jackson. In the four months since his untimely death, the “King of Pop’s” estate has brought in $90 million.
Though his afterlife earnings didn’t land him atop the list, as many had anticipated, few celebrity deaths have garnered more media attention. Since his June passing, Jackson’s estate has sold an estimated 9 million albums worldwide plus more than 5.5 million digital downloads.
Sony shelled out $60 million for the rights to produce “This is It,” the highly anticipated movie featuring rehearsal footage of what was to be a 50-date concert engagement at London’s O2 arena.
The $60 million advance will be split between Jackson’s estate and concert promoter AEG. The estate, AEG and Sony will divvy up any profits from the movie.
Merchandise created for the tour has been selling briskly online.
At No. 2, between Saint Laurent and Jackson, are Broadway legends Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. The songwriting duo, who wrote the music and lyrics to widely successful shows like “Oklahoma,” “South Pacific,” “The King and I” and “The Sound of Music,” made the bulk of their $235 million in combined earnings from the sale of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization and the rights to music they wrote together.
Royalties from other works further fattened their wallets over the course of the year.
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Meet the ‘delebs’
To place on this year’s list, a deceased celebrity — or “deleb,” as industry insiders have dubbed them — needed to rake in at least $6 million between Oct. 1, 2008 and Oct. 1, 2009.
To compile the list, we spoke with agents, lawyers and other sources involved with a dead celebrity’s estate to estimate their gross earnings (before taxes, management fees and other costs).
Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings Behind Jackson is longtime list-topper Elvis Presley. The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll earned $55 million during the year-long span. That’s more than some of the music industry’s biggest living acts command — Bon Jovi brought in $50 million for the 12 months ending in June; Britney Spears grossed $35 million during the same period.
Unlike Jackson, Presley doesn’t count music royalties among his revenue streams; his manager famously sold the rights to the King’s pre-1973 recordings to RCA (now part of Sony) for $5 million. The handlers of his estate have found other means of expanding the fortune, from merchandising to admissions to Graceland.
Expect the estate’s income to expand next year as Graceland celebrates Elvis’ 75th birthday with new exhibits and a massive birthday celebration.
Rounding out the top five is author J.R.R. Tolkien, whose estate banked $50 million in the past 12 months. While he still sees book royalties from his vast collection, the majority of his earnings this year came from settling a long-standing suit with New Line Cinema over profit participation on “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
How can dead celebrities continue to earn millions every year? The short answer is merchandising and licensing deals struck in exchange for their name and likeness, along with sales of their recorded music, books or films.
Monroe, Dean don’t make the list
Falling off this year’s list are several Dead Celebrities mainstays, including Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Steve McQueen. Despite inking new deals over the past year, these icons couldn’t keep up with their peers.
One reason: Folks like newcomer Yves Saint Laurent or returnees Rodgers & Hammerstein have benefited from lucrative one-off events, which can include estate sales, posthumous releases and lawsuit resolutions. As a result, both YSL and Rodgers & Hammerstein aren’t likely to earn enough to garner a spot on next year’s list.
Jackson, on the other hand, will likely make tens of millions of dollar every year from sales of his back catalog, merchandise and memorabilia as well as royalties from his stake in the Sony ATV catalog of songs, which includes music by a range of artists like the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Taylor Swift.
Industry brokers say it’s only a matter of time before Jackson also makes posthumous appearances in new advertisements. Technology has made feasible the practice of putting late stars in new commercials. In recent years, Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn have appeared in ads for MasterCard and The Gap, respectively.
In addition to name recognition and broad appeal, deceased celebrities offer the marketing community something living entertainers do not: peace of mind.
“Albert Einstein isn’t going to get busted for drunk driving and Steve McQueen is not going to have an affair and be in the tabloids,” says David Reeder, vice president of Corbis’ GreenLight, which represents Einstein, McQueen and many others. “Anything that’s happened is behind them, making them a safe harbor for advertisers.”
Mark Roesler, chairman of CMG Worldwide, which counts the estates of Monroe and James Dean among its clients, admits that with security and cultural resonance come limitations: “Regardless of what technological changes have occurred,” he says, “you’re still dealing with personalities who are deceased. They can’t exactly make personal appearances.”
© 2012 Forbes.com