In life, Michael Jackson was forever dogged by rumors of financial struggles. But in death, the late pop icon has vaulted to the top of the list of celebrities whose estates generate millions. In fact, according to a new Forbes magazine list, Jackson is by far the richest dead celebrity, with an estate that brought in more than $275 million over the past 12 months.
Jackson’s music and “This Is It” documentary have been so lucrative that he outearned the combined hauls of megastars Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Madonna and Jay-Z. Not only that, but Jackson also outpaced the combined earnings of all of the other late celebs on the list.
How did he do it? A combination of smart licensing deals cut by the executors of his estate, a huge spike in sales of the singer’s catalog since his June 2009 death and, most important, the $250 million worldwide box-office receipts of the tour rehearsal film “This Is It,” including a $60 million advance from Sony Pictures. Music sales alone brought in $50 million thanks to heavy radio play and album sales, along with receipts from a Jackson-themed video game and the re-release of his autobiography, “Moon Walk,” which added another $50 million to the pile.
“The cash flow on an annual basis is tremendous,” Donald David, an estate lawyer who handled the finances of rapper Tupac Shakur after his death, told the magazine. “Sure, it’s going to decline eventually, but it’s going to be a huge amount in the foreseeable future. [Jackson's] kids are going to have grandkids before that money’s gone.”
The unprecedented numbers could continue, as a deal with Sony Music to issue unreleased recordings — the first album is due in November — is worth another $200 million to $250 million over the next seven years. Money will also keep flowing in as a result of Jackson’s ownership of half of the Sony/ATV catalog, which contains a half a million songs by a stunning array of artists, including Lady Gaga, Elvis Presley, Eminem, Bob Dylan and Beyoncé. That deal alone could rake in $25 million to $50 million a year.
Coming in at #2 on the list is perennial top deceased earner Presley, whose receipts shot up $5 million to give him $60 million in the past year thanks to the newly launched Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil show featuring his music as well as the boost in licensed products and merchandise in honor of what would have been his 75th birthday.
The estate of “Lord of the Rings” author J.R.R. Tolkien banked $50 million, mostly due to the sales of 500,000 books over the past year, followed by the estate of “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz ($33 million) and, rounding out the top 5, late Beatle John Lennon ($17 million), whose earnings ballooned 30 years after his murder as a result of the re-release of his solo catalog, licensing deals with Cisco and Mont Blanc and receipts from “Beatles Rock Band.”
The rest of the top 10: “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” author Stieg Larsson ($15 million), Dr. Seuss (born Theodor Geisel) ($11 million), Albert Einstein ($10 million), New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner ($8 million) and “My Funny Valentine” songwriter Richard Rodgers ($7 million).
Are you surprised at how much money the King of Pop’s estate has generated since his death? Let us know what you think in the comments.