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The 13 top earning dead celebrities of 2015

Forbes logo Forbes 01-11-2015 Zack O'Malley Greenburg
Michael Jackson during his 1996 concert in Sydney.© Joe Armao/Fairfax Media Michael Jackson during his 1996 concert in Sydney.

In the time since Michael Jackson died suddenly in 2009, the financial story that played out has been nothing short of a thriller. The King of Pop has earned more than $1 billion before taxes since then, enough to pay off his personal debts and then some.

This year Jackson again leads our Halloween-spooky list of the 13 top-earning dead celebrities, pulling in $115 million over the past year. The main drivers of his afterlife fortune: Vegas Cirque du Soleil show Michael Jackson One, the Mijac Music catalogue, recorded music sales and half of the Sony/ATV publishing empire.

“When a composer [or] a performer dies, that’s it,” says Josh Rubenstein, National Chair of Trusts and Estates at Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP. “It’s no more … once they’re dead and there can’t be anymore [work], all of the sudden everybody comes in and says, ‘Oh, we’ve got to get this guy.’

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01:  Photo of Elvis PRESLEY; Posed studio portrait of Elvis Presley  (Photo by RB/Redferns)© RB/Redferns UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: Photo of Elvis PRESLEY; Posed studio portrait of Elvis Presley (Photo by RB/Redferns) Next on the list is Elvis Presley, holding steady at $55 million. The King of Rock n’ Roll doesn’t rule the realm of postmortem cash, but he’s making more than most living stars thanks largely to Graceland ticket sales. In August he earned his 53rd Top 40 album with Elvis Presley Forever, a compilation released by the U.S. Postal Service along with a commemorative stamp.

Peanuts creator Charles Schulz ranks third with $40 million, much of it from his cut of licensing revenue from the popular comic. Charlie Brown and Co. are now hitting the big screen in a 3-D flick, The Peanuts Movie, out in November 2015.

“The marketing of the film … is boosting awareness for the Peanuts brand,” says Steven Marotta, an analyst at C.L. King & Associates who tracks Iconix, Peanuts’ parent company. “That, coupled with their international sway–about two thirds of Peanuts revenue comes from overseas–means Peanuts is set to grow.”

Bob Marley ($21 million) and Elizabeth Taylor ($20 million) round out the top five. In death, Marley is becoming quite the businessman with his Marley Beverage company (home to Marley’s Mellow Mood) and House of Marley (maker of eco-friendly audio and lifestyle products). Taylor remains the titan of a celebrity fragrance business that includes White Diamonds, which launched in 24 years ago and continues to sell.

FILE - In this April 29, 2011, file photo, actor Paul Walker poses during the photo call of the movie "Fast and Furious 5," in Rome. Paul Walker’s daughter, Meadow Rain Walker, has filed a lawsuit Monday, Sept. 28, 2015, against Porsche, claiming the sports car that her father was a passenger in when he was killed in late 2013 suffered from numerous design defects. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, File)© The Associated Press FILE - In this April 29, 2011, file photo, actor Paul Walker poses during the photo call of the movie "Fast and Furious 5," in Rome. Paul Walker’s daughter, Meadow Rain Walker, has filed a lawsuit Monday, Sept. 28, 2015, against Porsche, claiming the sports car that her father was a passenger in when he was killed in late 2013 suffered from numerous design defects. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, File) Other notables include actor Paul Walker, who banked $10.5 million on the success of Furious 7–which grossed $1.5 billion at the worldwide box office, making it the franchise’s biggest intake to date. Albert Einstein earned $11 million, thanks to branded merchandise including apparel, posters and tablets designed by Israeli tech company Fourier Systems.

“Einstein has a very large cult-like following fro the nerd-science community,” says Kevin Connelly, Director of Rights Representation at Corbis Entertainment, which represents Einstein.

Though there are only 13 names on our Top-Earning Dead Celebrities List, plenty of others are pulling in millions beyond the grave. Among those closest to making the cut: Frank Sinatra, Bruce Lee, Joan Rivers, George Harrison, Richard Rogers, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash and Kurt Cobain.

In order to compile this year’s list of the Top-Earning Dead Celebrities, we looked at pretax earnings from October 1st, 2014 through October 1st, 2015. We included income from record sales, music publishing, film residuals, licensing and other ventures. Our sources include lawyers, managers and agents connected to key celebrity estates.

Michael Jackson’s list-leading total of $115 million marks an 18% drop from last year’s $140 million figure. The shift is largely due to the conclusion of the Michael Jackson Immortal World Tour, which grossed over $350 million in its three-year run.

But Jackson could be in line for an even bigger payday: Sony is exploring a sale of its half of Sony/ATV, the catalogue it shares with the singer’s estate. Though the Jackson estate has stated its intention to buy out Sony, a big spender could theoretically come in and buy out both sides.

Sony/ATV, which holds the songwriting copyrights of acts from Taylor Swift to the Beatles, is worth an estimated $2 billion–and a sale of the whole company would result in another stratospheric haul for Jackson. At this point, that might just feel like “Human Nature.”


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