The Dead Celebrity Business

If you think American insurance companies have a morbid business plan, consider Hollywood estate managers. While legal maneuvering continues over the rights to Michael Jackson's estate, the King of Pop continues to make money from beyond the grave. The week of his death, I probably overheard the entire MJ discography from neighbors’ stereos, grocery store playlists, and TV segment lead-ins. But besides his music royalties, Jackson’s estate managers are making deals for a biographical film, a coffee table book and even a line of school supplies. At times imprudent with his personal finances, Jackson will benefit financial strategists who know how to market his legend.

Big Think’s Tom Freston, co-founder of MTV, says America’s fascination with celebrity is caused by people’s desire to escape their own condition and connect with something larger than themselves. Now that the raw material of Jackson’s celebrity has run out, so to speak, memorabilia is seen as finite, though of course the estate will continue to sell Jackson as long as it can. The estate has already made $100 million post-mortem, and expects another $100 million before 2010.

While the MJ coffee mugs and t-shirts are available at a knick-knack store near you, some of the more culturally significant stuff is going at a high price. You can enter the bidding for Andy Worhol’s portrait of Jackson, commissioned by Time Magazine in 1984, for $800,000.

The estate managers for the King of Pop will look to the King of Rock for their business model. Elvis Presley’s estate banked $55 million last year, and the managers of the Marilyn Monroe and James Dean estates say Jackson’s has the capacity to surpass Presley’s selling power.

The royal status of Jackson’s celebrity will be marked again on 26 September when a tribute concert will be played in his memory. Initially scheduled for the O2 Arena in London, Jackson’s brother Jermaine has chosen the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, the former Hapsburg residence.

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