Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The King of the Dead

Elvis has still got it! Forbes.com just proved it (although there was never any doubt in my mind).

Presley's estate earned $52 million in the past year, again leading Forbes' annual list of top-earning departed celebrities. Heath Ledger and Paul Newman also had good years -- financially, anyway.

By Forbes.com

"Night of the Living Dead" may be a Halloween cult classic, but every October, Forbes.com turns it around and takes a look at how the dead make a living.

While things might be topsy-turvy in the financial markets above ground, there's still a bull market in the boneyard. The 13 famous people on our list of top-earning dead celebrities drew a combined $194 million over the past 12 months.

Topping the list for the second year running is the king of rock 'n' roll, Elvis Presley. Without so much as lifting a finger, the Memphis Flash earned a whopping $52 million in the past year. That's more than some of the music industry's biggest living acts command. For example, Justin Timberlake pulled in $44 million last year, and Madonna earned $40 million.

The 30th anniversary of Presley's death helped boost attendance and merchandise sales last year at Graceland, his home in Memphis, Tenn. New ventures such as an Elvis Sirius Satellite Radio show add to a long list of publishing and licensing deals.

Some new faces

Debuting on the list, in third place, is Australian actor Heath Ledger, most famous for his role as the Joker in "The Dark Knight," the latest installment in the Batman movie franchise. At the time of his overdose in January, the 28-year-old star seemed poised on the cusp of an extremely lucrative film career.

Ledger had reportedly secured a deal for his role in "Knight" that included merchandising (think Joker action figures) and a percentage of film revenue. With the film grossing $991 million in box-office revenue worldwide, we estimate his earnings at $20 million.

Also debuting on our list is Paul Newman, who died in September at age 83. His Newman's Own line of salad dressings, organic popcorn and spaghetti sauces had sales of more $120 million last year. When he was alive, Newman donated all of his profits from the venture to charity, and his estate plans to continue doing so. With the residuals from a lifetime of high-profile movie roles, and we calculate Newman earned $5 million last year.

Some ghoulish math

Adding up paychecks of dead celebrities can be a wicked task -- after all, the departed don't exactly sit for interviews. To get to the bottom line, we talked to experts and sources inside their estates and dug up gross earnings -- before taxes, management fees and other costs -- between October 2007 and October 2008.

Some celebrities, such as Charles Schulz and Albert Einstein, are staples on our list. They owe their spots to steady revenue streams from their artistic creations (planning to watch "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" again this Halloween?) and licensing of their names and images (the Baby Einstein brand is expanding to the young-adult market this year). But finding other big earners meant scouring the cemetery for posthumous one-hit wonders.

**Thanks for sharing this article with me, Amanda Brooke!

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