In death, will Michael Jackson be more profitable?

Images of Michael Jackson like these held by fans at the Apollo Theater may prove profitable to his estate.
Michael Jackson’s financial woes were well documented: Numerous lawsuits, loss of control of his beloved Neverland and reports that he was hundreds of millions of dollars in debt all point to a complex money mess that trailed the King of Pop as vigilantly as his most ardent fans.

But might he find the financial success in death that eluded him in the last years of his life “A few years ago, a gentleman came along with the public company called CKX, and they purchased the intellectual property rights associated with Elvis Presley and that was in excess of $100 million,” said Mark Roesler, chairman and chief executive officer of CMG Worldwide, a business and marketing agent whose client roster boasts several deceased celebrities, including James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. “The most logical question is [whether Michael Jackson is] worth more than Elvis,” Roesler added. “And I think the answer to that would be yes.” Experts predict that millions could flow into the Jackson estate coffers with renewed interest in his life and music after his unexpected death. According to Nielsen SoundScan, Jackson-related titles dominated the top nine positions on Billboard’s Top Pop Catalog Albums chart released Wednesday, a feat never before accomplished. Billboard said that with his “Number Ones” album at No. 1 on the chart with sales of 108,000 (an increase of 2,340 percent), it marked the first time a catalog album has sold more than the No. 1 current set on the Billboard 200 albums chart by outselling the Black Eyed Peas’ “The E.N.D.” which was No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart with 88,000 sold in the past week.

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None of this comes as a surprise to Roesler, whose company was a pioneer in the field of getting compensation for deceased celebrities. “Intellectual property” refers to creations of the mind such as inventions, literary and artistic works, as well as symbols, names, images and designs used in commerce. They are considered intangible assets. Roesler, who served as an expert witness during the Goldman family’s civil suit against O.J. Simpson and worked with singer Nick Lachey during his divorce from Jessica Simpson, said those intangible assets can be valued. That means that when Madison Avenue comes calling to use an image of Jackson or a song that he has copyrighted for advertising purposes, that could mean millions of dollars paid to the estate, Roesler said. “There’s really not that much of a difference between the living clients we represent and the deceased client, nor is there much of a difference in how they are used except the obvious in that [the deceased] can’t personally endorse a product,” said Roesler whose CMG also represents historical figures including Mark Twain as well as sports figures such as Babe Ruth and living celebs like Scott Baio. “We have a program with Lee jeans over in Japan that uses [the image of] James Dean on one line, and they use Brad Pitt on another.” Henry Schafer is executive vice president for Marketing Evaluations, Inc., The Q Scores Company in Manhasset, New York, which provides advertising clients with data on the appeal and likability of celebrities. Schafer said his firm had been measuring Jackson consistently up through 2006, at which point they stopped because of lack of interest from their clients. Back then, Schafer said, Jackson did not score well. “Basically, two out of three consumers didn’t like him,” Schafer said. “It was a pretty strong negative reaction given the trial he went through, the personal problems and the lack of performing. So there was really no need to update his scores.” The pop icon will probably score extremely high in universal recognition, Schafer said, right up there with the likes of Lucille Ball, who Marketing Evaluations currently rates as the public’s favorite dead celebrity. As for how well Jackson will rank with consumers, Schafer said that depends on a number of factors, including what the investigation into his death reveals. “He’ll probably have better scores in death than he did as a living individual,” Schafer said. “That’s most likely what’s going to happen because of the sympathetic reaction. So then it becomes a question of the attributes associated with Michael Jackson, how marketable are they and to what extent can his name be associated with different types of products and services.” Schafer said Jackson will be added to a study on the appeal of deceased celebrities scheduled for the fall, which will measure him against other deceased advertising icons, especially those with similar troubled stories like Elvis Presley. The comparisons between “The King” and “The King of Pop” are apt considering the similar circumstances of their final years. At the time of their deaths, both had not had hit albums in some time, were considered to be reclusive and still elicited frenzied reactions among fans. And there is also the issue of prescription drugs and reports of questionable doctors, confirmed in the aftermath of the death of Presley and speculated about with Jackson. Presley’s estate was able to navigate what at the time was a controversial death into a vast empire complete with licensing deals, marketing of Elvis-related merchandise and the transformation of his Graceland estate into a pilgrimage destination for fans. The millions of dollars his estate produced annually have landed him in the Forbes rankings of “Top Earning Dead Celebrities,” where he placed first last year, earning more than $52 million. Kevin Kern, director of public relations for Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc. said in an interview with CNN that, “We are politely declining all media requests of this nature. We don’t wish to get involved in the Michael Jackson media frenzy.” He instead referenced a link on the company’s Web site which outlines how the management team of The Elvis Presley Trust and its business entity, Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc. achieved its success. Forbes senior editor Matthew Miller said he doubts Jackson’s estate will be able to duplicate that level of success. It’s unclear at this point the total value of Jackson’s assets, including his interest in the Beatles catalogue, Miller said, and it could take years to sort everything out. “If I had to venture a guess, and it’s only a hypothesis at this point, I would think that Jackson’s estate ends up in bankruptcy and the question will be do they have to sell off assets in order to pay off the debts,” Miller said. Miller said he could not imagine that Neverland will become Jackson’s Graceland because of his past legal issues. “We are looking at Michael Jackson through rose-colored glasses right now, but if you look at him as an entertainment brand…he will be known for two things,” Miller said. “He was one of the greatest entertainers in the world and was continually accused of child molestation. Those accusations stemmed from activities that [allegedly] happened at Neverland Ranch, so I don’t think people are going to continually go there and pay money to see it.” CMG chairman and CEO Mark Roesler has a different take on it. Jackson was found innocent of those charges and controversy has long plagued stars even after death, said Roesler, who pointed to examples of emerging stories over the years about celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe.

Even though the actress has been dead almost a half a century, she still has appeal, and Roesler predicts the Jackson “is still going to be relevant generations from now” despite all of the speculation. “You constantly see rumors about celebrities, and it just feeds the legend,” Roesler said. “It’s all part of the public fascination.”