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.
“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).
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.
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.