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Image: "Michael Jackson's This Is It"
Kevin Mazur / Aeg Handout  /  EPA
Michael Jackson’s posthumous earnings come in part from proceeds from the hit film "This Is It."
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updated 10/25/2010 3:09:53 PM ET 2010-10-25T19:09:53

Michael Jackson never graced Forbes’ annual Celebrity 100 list during his life. In death the King of Pop earned more in the past year than any star on that list, apart from Oprah Winfrey.

It was enough to secure Jackson the No. 1 spot on our 10th annual Top-Earning Dead Celebrities list. With gross earnings of $275 million, he earned more than the other 12 deceased stars on the list combined. Still more impressive: His estate's 12-month haul was greater than the pooled earnings of this year’s two biggest living acts, U2 and AC/DC. Jackson’s posthumous earnings come from his stake in the lucrative Sony/ATV catalog, the hit Sony film "This Is It" and renewed fan interest in music, videos and all things Michael Jackson.

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“The death of Michael Jackson really put a focus on — crassly, quite frankly — what someone’s worth when they’re deceased,” says David Reeder, vice president of Corbis' GreenLight, which manages the personality rights for Albert Einstein and Steve McQueen, among other dead celebrities. “In a more positive way, it exposed consumers to this idea that there actually is a market for, and an enduring legacy for, these people.”

To place on this year’s list, a deceased celebrity needed to earn at least $5 million between Oct. 1, 2009, and Oct 1, 2010, usually through things like music royalties (John Lennon), book sales (Dr. Seuss) or the licensing of one’s image and likeness (McQueen). To compile the list, we spoke to agents, lawyers and other sources to estimate a star’s gross earnings (before taxes, management fees and other costs).

Scoop: Money drama swirls around Jackson family

Coming in at No. 2 is Elvis Presley. The King of Rock n’ Roll's estate pulled down $60 million in the 12-month period, thanks to Graceland admissions and a heavily hyped Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas. The estate's portfolio of more than 200 licensing and merchandise deals got a nice boost from the late star's 75th birthday celebration as well.

Stieg Larsson, author of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," debuts on this year’s list at No. 6 with $18 million in earnings. The Swedish writer died in 2004 at the age of 50, before any of the books in his Millennium Trilogy were published. They have since sold 40 million copies, been translated into 44 languages and spawned three hit Swedish movies.

  1. Slideshow of Forbes.com list
    1. 1. Michael Jackson
    2. 2. Elvis Presley
    3. 3. J.R.R. Tolkien
    4. 4. Charles Schulz
    5. 5. John Lennon
    6. See all 13 top-earning dead celebs

No surprise, Hollywood has come calling. A U.S. version of the first book, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," is scheduled to hit theaters next December. The film will be directed by "The Social Network’s" David Fincher and star Daniel Craig as hero Mikael Blomkvist. A cut of the money from the American movies (and a reported fourth book) will go to Larsson’s estate, which is being fought over by Larsson’s longtime girlfriend and his brother and father.

Also new to the list is New York Yankees icon George Steinbrenner, who ranks ninth with earnings of $8 million. The legendary owner passed away this summer at the age of 80, but his estate continues to cash in on the team’s success. The Yankees have a lucrative stake in the YES regional sports network, and Steinbrenner's estate receives a cut of sales from the team's merchandise.

Many dead celebrities make the bulk of their posthumous fortunes on licensing deals. Unlike their living counterparts, who can suddenly fall into a heap of trouble (see Lindsay Lohan, Mel Gibson), dead celebrities have images — be they glamorous, rebellious or tough — that are unlikely to change. For that instant and considerably safer brand association, marketers are increasingly attaching themselves to the dead, says Mark Roesler, chief executive of CMG Worldwide.

Take Steve McQueen, who returns to the list at No. 11 with $6 million. The "Bullitt" star continues to personify cool three decades after his passing, and advertisers have taken notice. His image has been licensed to high-end brands like Dolce & Gabbana and Persol sunglasses. More recently, his likeness was used for Tommy Hilfiger’s fall “icon collection” and UBS' global “We Will Not Rest” campaign.

Additional reporting by Jake Paine and Zack O’Malley Greenburg.

© 2012 Forbes.com

Photos: Life and career

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  1. Little boy Michael

    Michael Jackson was just 12 when this picture was taken in May 1971, but his career was already stratospheric. Berry Gordy had signed the Jackson 5 to Motown Records in 1968, and Michael and his brothers had already topped the charts with "ABC" and "I'll Be There." It was a bright start for the boy from Gary, Ind. (Henry Diltz / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Signs of success

    Michael Jackson, far left, and the rest of the Jackson Five in 1972. The five brothers from Indiana were signed to Berry Gordy's Motown record label. (Frank Barratt / Getty Images file) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. All in the family

    The Jackson 5 perform in Los Angeles on a 1970s Bob Hope TV special. Michael continued to front the band, but his solo career was already on the rise, starting with 1971's "Got to Be There." (Neal Preston / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A wonderful Wiz

    Michael Jackson at the opening of "The Wiz." The 1978 movie musical was the first time the pop star worked with legendary producer Quincy Jones, who would soon produce Jackson's breakout solo album "Off the Wall," and eventually the "Thriller" album as well. Jackson's "Wiz" co-star was friend and mentor Diana Ross, who had introduced the world to the Jackson 5 back in 1969.

    Discuss the life and impact of Michael Jackson in PhotoBlog. (Bettmann / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Wanna be startin' somethin'?

    Michael Jackson performs in concert during a 1981 tour with his brothers. During the tour, Michael began writing down ideas for a solo project that blossomed into the highest selling album of all time.

    Discuss the life and impact of Michael Jackson in PhotoBlog. (Susan Phillips / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A mentor

    Michael Jackson and Diana Ross hold their American Music Awards in L.A. Jackson won for favorite soul album and Ross won for favorite female soul vocalist. (Juynh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Fright night

    Michael Jackson stands with a group of dancers dressed as zombies while filming his 1983 video "Thriller." "Thriller" was revolutionary in the music industry. The zombie-themed minimovie put MTV on the map and essentially confirmed music videos as an art form of their own. The album sold 25 million copies in the United States alone.

    Discuss the life and impact of Michael Jackson in PhotoBlog. (Corbis / Sygma) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Moment of stardom

    Michael Jackson performs the moonwalk during "Billie Jean" for the first time on television's "Motown 25," a tribute to Berry Gordy. The dance move that would become Michael's trademark stunned viewers and the crowd, and marked his imminent crowning as the King of Pop.

    Discuss the life and impact of Michael Jackson in PhotoBlog. (Bettmann / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Handfuls of glory

    With Quincy Jones at his side, Michael Jackson holds six of the eight awards he won for "Thriller" at the 1984 Grammy Awards. His outfit, complete with epaulets, sequined glove and dark shades, became a quintessential Michael look. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Role model

    During a May 1984 ceremony at the White House, Michael Jackson accepts a Presidential Award from President Reagan as first lady Nancy Reagan looks on. Jackson was honored as a model for American youth, and for lending his hit song "Beat It" to a new campaign against drunk driving. (Bettmann / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A scary day

    Michael Jackson, background, is seen with his hair on fire during a taping of a Pepsi TV commercial in Los Angeles on February 1984 as brother Jermaine Jackson, foreground, continues to perform, apparently unaware of the situation. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Gloved love

    In a newly released image, Michael Jackson is seen visiting burn victim Keith Perry in the burn center at Brotman Medical Center in Culver City, Calif., on Feb. 4, 1984. The pop star was recuperating in the hospital after suffering from a burn to his head while filming a commercial for Pepsi-Cola. (Carl Arrington / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Crowd control

    Michael Jackson is led through a crowd by police on a 1985 promotional tour of Great Britain. (Dave Hogan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. They were the world

    In January 1985, a who's who of the music and movie worlds came together to sing "We Are the World," written to benefit famine victims in Ethiopia. Michael Jackson can be seen front and center, along with Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Diana Ross, Elizabeth Taylor and dozens of other stars. Michael's sister Janet can be seen bottom right. (Bettmann / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Victory lap

    Guitarist Eddie Van Halen, left, makes a July 1984 guest appearance during Michael Jackson's Victory Tour concert in Irving, Texas. Van Halen had recorded the now immortal guitar riff on "Beat It," to the displeasure of bandmate David Lee Roth, but to the delight of nearly everyone else.

    Discuss the life and impact of Michael Jackson in PhotoBlog. (Carlos Osorio / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Who's bad?

    Michael Jackson and his dancers in concert during a 1987 Tokyo concert on Jackson's "Bad" tour. The previous year, he had starred in the 3-D film "Captain EO," one of the most expensive short films ever. But Jackson had begun to draw more criticism as his albums and videos grew costlier and more infrequent. His next album, "Dangerous," wouldn't arrive until 1991. (Neal Preston / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A difficult year

    A cameraman photographs Michael Jackson and Oprah Winfrey in January 1993. This was the year Jackson was first accused of child molestation, and he took an opportunity on a 90-minute Oprah TV special to address the charges. The criminal allegations eventually were dropped, but Jackson reportedly paid as much as $25 million to settle the claims. (Neal Preston / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Black and white at the Super Bowl

    Michael Jackson gives a performance with 30,000 children during the Super Bowl XXVII halftime show on Jan. 31, 1993, in Pasadena, Calif. Despite allegations against him, Jackson's career had regained momentum with hits such as "Black or White" and "Remember the Time," and the "Dangerous" album was a multiplatinum seller. (Ralf-Finn Hestoft / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Clowning around

    Michael Jackson and French mime Marcel Marceau clowning for the cameras at the Beacon Theatre in New York on Dec. 4, 1995. (Bob Strong / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Power marriage

    Michael Jackson and then wife Lisa Marie Presley are seen at Neverland Ranch in preparation of the Children's World Summit in April 1995. Presley would file for divorce less than a year later, prompting speculation about just what had inspired the relationship. (Steve Starr / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Golden man

    Michael Jackson performs on stage during his "HIStory" world tour concert at Ericsson Stadium in November 1996 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Phil Walter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Marriage 2.0

    Just months after his divorce from Lisa Marie, Michael Jackson walked down the aisle with Debbie Rowe. This wedding photo was released by Jackson's publicist minutes after the Nov. 13, 1996, ceremony in Sydney, Australia. But the pairing was less about romance and more about bearing Jackson a child, and the two would divorce three years later, with Rowe eventually ceding parental rights to Jackson.

    Discuss the life and impact of Michael Jackson in PhotoBlog. (Reuters / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Best of friends

    Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor arrive at a Sept. 7, 2001, concert celebrating the 30 years of Jackson's career. The two stars had been longtime friends, and Taylor is godmother to two of Michael's children. (Jeff Christensen / Reuters / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Sharing his testimony

    Michael Jackson testifies on Nov. 13, 2002 in Santa Maria, Calif. Superior Court in a trial in which he is accused of cancelling concert appearances, costing the promoter several million dollars. (- / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Not so invincible

    Michael Jackson poses for photographers during a November 2001 appearance in New York's Times Square. Jackson made his first ever in-store appearance to promote his new album "Invincible," which was released Oct. 30. "Invincible," at the time the most expensive album ever produced, fared better with critics and fans than 1995's "HIStory," but questions began to surface about the future of Jackson's career. (Brad Rickerby / Reuters/Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. One big mistake

    Michael Jackson holds a towel-covered Prince Michael II over the balcony of a Berlin hotel on Nov. 19, 2002. Jackson later called the incident a "terrible mistake," but the image of him dangling his baby son out a window shocked even many die-hard fans. And his reputation was to receive far worse damage just a few months later.

    Discuss the life and impact of Michael Jackson in PhotoBlog. (Tobias Schwarz / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Arresting development

    Michael Jackson is pictured in this Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department mug shot from Nov. 20, 2003. In a February 2003 documentary, Jackson acknowledged letting boys sleep in his bed. Soon after, Santa Barbara district attorney Tom Sneddon launched a probe into allegations that Jackson had molested a teen boy who appeared in the program. Authorities raided Neverland Ranch in November, and Jackson surrended for arrest days later.

    Discuss the life and impact of Michael Jackson in PhotoBlog. (Santa Barbara County Sheriff's D / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Family support

    Michael, center, and sisters LaToya, left and Janet Jackson walk over to greet fans during a lunch break at a pretrial hearing in Santa Maria, Calif., in this Aug. 16, 2004, file photo. (Pool / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. MJ's PJs

    Michael Jackson wears pajama pants and is aided by bodyguards after arriving more than an hour late to court on Mar. 10, 2005, during his trial on the 2003 molestation charges. Jackson appeared after Judge Rodney Melville threatened to revoke his bail. (Kimberly White / pool via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Singin' with the kids

    Michael Jackson sings with some of his young fans at the World Music Awards at Earls Court in London on Nov. 16, 2006. (Graham Jepson / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Fans in uniform

    Michael Jackson receives a letter of appreciation from Col. Robert M. Waltemeyer, the garrison commander of Camp Zama, on March 10, 2007, in Zama, Japan. Michael greeted thousands of U.S. troops and their family members at the U.S. Army base. (U.S. Army via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Father figure

    Michael Jackson walks with kids Prince and Paris through a studio parking lot in Los Angeles in March 2009. The singer had been spotted with his entourage going to a studio on a cold rainy day in the city. The pop star stayed at the studio for more than two hours, and there were many production people working around him, suggesting that the star was filming. (Splash News / Splash News) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Concert tour planned

    Fans take pictures of an electronic screen projecting a press conference by Michael Jackson at the O2 arena in London on March 5, 2009. The pop megastar announced he would play a series of comeback concerts in London in July, his first major shows in more than a decade. (Ben Stansall / AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Reaching for redemption

    Jackson, center, is shown in Los Angeles on May 6 during rehearsals for his planned concert tour in London. (Courtesy of Michael Jackson via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Happy to perform

    In this handout photo provided by AEG, Jackson rehearses for his planned shows in London at the Staples Center on Tuesday, June 23, in Los Angeles. It's a tragic loss — and an accounting nightmare for the promoters of Jackson's doomed 50-night "This Is It" concert extravaganza. More than 750,000 fans are waiting for details on ticket refunds, and the British government's consumer protection board told them June 29 not to hold their breath -- complex legal issues need to be worked out first. (Kevin Mazur / AEG via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. All the world's a stage

    "He was on the eve of potentially redeeming his career a little bit," Billboard magazine editorial director Bill Werde said of Jackson, shown rehearsing in Los Angeles on June 23. "People might have started to think of him again in a different light."

    Discuss the life and impact of Michael Jackson in PhotoBlog. (Kevin Mazur / AEG via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Michael Jackson in a Butterfly Collar Shirt
    Henry Diltz / Corbis
    Above: Slideshow (36) Michael Jackson: 1958 - 2009 - Life and career
  2. Image: Michael Jackson fans embrace in New York on day of Jackson's memorial service
    Mike Segar / Reuters
    Slideshow (52) Michael Jackson: 1958 - 2009 - World reaction
  3. MICHAEL JACKSON
    AP
    Slideshow (16) Michael Jackson: 1958 - 2009 - Face of change
  4. Photo of Elvis Presley
    Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
    Slideshow (15) Elvis Presley (1935-1977)

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