Savvy celebrities have never let a little thing like being dead stop them from earning the big bucks, but 2012 is shaping up to be a particularly booming year for the business of deceased stars.
This month marks two landmark anniversaries -- the deaths Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, two of the world's most recognizable pop-culture icons, who also happen to be two of the highest-earning dead celebrities. Monroe died 50 years ago on Sunday, and Presley will mark the 35th anniversary of his death on Aug. 16. For the estates of both celebrities, that means an uptick in special events, promotional campaigns, memorabilia and merchandise licensing.
We've been preparing for this for a little over two years, said Kevin Kern, director of public relations at Elvis Presley Enterprises. We have 30-plus events planned, which is a good deal more than normal. And we're anticipating larger than normal crowds at Graceland.
Presley Enterprises does not share information about the company's finances, and Kern would not say how much revenue a landmark anniversary is expected to generate. But he said the Memphis-based company is ready to handle the rush, with a re-branded 35th Anniversary Elvis logo and special merchandise from lunch boxes to Zippo lighters. Whenever an anniversary ends in a five or a zero, there's just more awareness of Elvis in general, Kern said. People may not even specifically know about the anniversary, but they're hearing more about Elvis, and that puts him in their minds.
Elvis Week, which takes place in mid-August, is the largest event of the year for Graceland -- Presley's Memphis-based home, which has since become a tourist destination for 500,000 to 600,000 Elvis pilgrims every year. While the event centers on the anniversary of Elvis' death, Kern said that Presley Enterprises looks at it as a celebration of his life and legacy. He said it was the fans who dictated when and where the celebrations would take place. It happened very organically, he said, from the first gathering in 1978 on the first anniversary of Elvis' death.
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Over in Marilyn Monroe territory, celebrations are probably even more widespread. Aug. 5 marked 50 years since the actress was found dead in her Brentwood, Calif., home at the age of 36, and news outlets have been working overtime on retrospectives, picture slideshows and all around Marilyn mania. Coinciding with the anniversary, the Associated Press attempted under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the confidential files that the FBI had kept on Monroe during her life. The bureau claimed the records were lost.
All of this means big Marilyn business, of course, and the New York-based licensing company Authentic Brands Group is undoubtedly cashing in. In 2010, the company acquired Monroe's name and likeness for $25 million with the hope of cleaning up the Marilyn brand by being more selective about which kinds of merchandise it would permit. Authentic Brands did not return a request for comment, but Jamie Salter, the company's CEO, told CBS This Morning that Marilyn would have been extremely disappointed with how her likeness has been used over the decades. He vowed to put a stop to cheap Marilyn products such as pens and shot glasses and focus more exclusively on high-end retail items.
That tactic seems to have worked. Since the company took over, Monroe has gone from number nine to number three on Forbes magazine's annual list of top 15 highest-earning dead celebrities. In 2011, the Monroe estate took in $27 million. Elvis was number two on the list with $55 million, although Kern said Presley Enterprises does not provide the magazine with official facts or figures. However, both Marilyn and Elvis took a hit in the wake of the 2009 death of Michael Jackson, who has topped the list both years since. In 2011, the gloved one raked in $170.
Whether Jackson's top spot is a temporary blip or a sign that the dead-celebrity torch has been passed to a younger generation remains to be seen. But Kern, for one, isn't worried. Elvis' fan base continues to grow, he said. Every year I see more and more young faces -- people who weren't even born when Elvis was alive. He has over six million fans on Facebook. There's a reason why they call him the King.