Thanks to an insatiable demand for proven hitmakers, there is a bonanza in the boneyard: Over the last year, the total earnings for the 13 best compensated dead celebrities has tripled to nearly $1 billion.
Roald Dahl has finally found his golden ticket. The creator of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had plenty of success while living – he wrote 43 books which were adapted into 16 feature films – but it wasn’t until he was long dead that his fortunes hit the stratosphere.
In September, 31 years after Dahl died of cancer at age 74, Netflix paid a reported $684 million for the Roald Dahl Story Company. The streaming giant plans to build out a sweeping flood of programming from the British novelist’s trove of stories including Charlie, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda and scores more.
Dahl’s deal with Netflix grows out of a deal signed in 2018 to produce a slate of animated TV shows, one of which is based on Willy Wonka’s orange-skinned, green-haired Oompa Loompa candy makers, for $1 billion. With a budget of this size, it makes more sense for Netflix to own the Dahl library outright. The streamer now has total control of Dahl creations that have sold more than 300 million books and spawned blockbuster films, including the two based on Charlie that together have grossed more than $1 billion at the box office. It has plans to create Dahl-themed video games, immersive experiences, live theater, consumer products and more.
The sale gives the famed children’s author a commanding perch at the top of the 2021 Forbes list of Highest-Paid Dead Celebrities with earnings of $513 million. (According to filings in the U.K., Dahl’s heirs had at least a 75% stake in the Roald Dahl Story Company before it was acquired.) Prince takes the No. 2 spot this year with $120 million, thanks to a deal his siblings made to sell an estimated 43% of the estate, which includes his catalog with hits like “When Doves Cry” and “Little Red Corvette,” to music publishing and management company Primary Wave.
Willy Wonka: “But Charlie, don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted.” Charlie Bucket: “What happened?” Willy Wonka: “He lived happily ever after.”
Michael Jackson – who topped our list for eight straight years from 2013 to 2020 – comes in at No. 3 with $75 million, after unloading a minority piece of his catalog of classic pop songs he started collecting while alive. Peanuts creator Charles Schulz ($40 million) and Dr. Seuss ($35 million) round out the top five.
They can all thank an escalating arms race for content that in recent years has enriched the world’s most enduring creators — both living and dead. A licensing deal between Netflix and Dr. Seuss Enterprises, for instance, almost doubled the late author’s average earnings over the past five years. In all, this year’s Dead Celebrities earned a collective $960 million, more than triple last year’s haul.
In addition to Dahl, this year’s newcomers include Luther Vandross, Bing Crosby, and songwriter Gerry Goffin (“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “The Loco-Motion”), all of whom benefitted in the afterlife from Primary Wave being willing to pay for their recurring royalty streams. David Bowie’s estate is rumored to be next in line for a catalog buyout, with bids approaching $200 million. Falling off are Kobe Bryant and Freddie Mercury, who both saw a one-time spike of interest in 2020, as well as Marilyn Monroe, whose predictable licensing revenue stream was nudged out by the spate of acquisitions.
“The reason these families partner with us is because they want us to reintroduce the brand and the incredible music to a new youth culture,” says Larry Mestel, founder and CEO of Primary Wave, which is responsible for Bing Crosby’s first appearance on the Dead Celebrities list after buying a piece of the singer’s master recordings as well as his name and likeness for roughly $30 million. “The key is to acquire smartly and then to execute on marketing ideas to grow the value.”
Mestel and the Crosby heirs are looking beyond “White Christmas,” the 1942 song originally from the movie Holiday Inn, that holds the Guinness World Record for the best-selling single of all time with an estimated 50 million copies sold globally. The goal, says Crosby’s son Harry, partner of private equity firm of Trilantic North America, is to extend his father’s cultural influence well beyond the holiday season.
“I really wanted to not just focus on low hanging fruit,” Crosby says. “It’s like a flywheel. You start priming the pump with certain things that get the name out in a really thoughtful way—it could be a song or a series. Then that creates more demand for the vast library.”
Here’s the lowdown on the biggest moneymakers from the great beyond.
#1 | $513 Million
November 23, 1990 (74)†
“I have to have a child,” Willy Wonka says before giving away his magical world of candy to 11-year-old Charlie Bucket in the author’s best-selling book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. “A grownup won’t listen to me.” In reality, Dahl’s heirs chose Netflix for his idea factory, selling their share of the Roald Dahl Story company to the streamer in September 2021. The world of his creation will continue as soon as next year: Netflix is set to release a Matilda remake in December 2022 and heartthrob Timothée Chalamet will star as Willy Wonka in a new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory prequel slated for a 2023 release by Warner Bros.
#2 | $120 Million
April 21, 2016 (57)†
The High Priest of Pop used to sing in his song “Cream”: “Why should you wait only longer? / Take a chance / It’ll only make you stronger.” Three of his heirs took his advice and cashed in, selling each of their stakes for an estimated combined total of $108 million—sending The Purple One eight spots up the ranking from No. 10 in 2020.
#3 | $75 Million
June 25, 2009 (50)†
The King of Pop’s Mijac Music catalog, which includes tunes by Ray Charles, Elvis and Aretha Franklin, gave Jackson a big boost this year by drawing in a new $30 million investment during 2021. His own discography of hits — including “Billie Jean,” “Beat it” and “Rock With You” — racked up 1.3 billion streams.
#4 | $40 Million
February 12, 2000 (77)†
It’s almost time for “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” to air on TV, and Charlie and the rest of the Peanuts crew haven’t slowed down. The Peanuts business brought in $47 million more in revenue this fiscal year compared to 2020, for a total of $157 million. Part of that comes from a deal with Apple TV+, where the second season of Snoopy in Space! is set to start streaming on Friday, Nov. 12.
#5 | $35 Million
September 24, 1991 (87)†
Theodor Seuss Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss) sold almost 7 million print books in the U.S. over the last year—despite controversy about racist imagery in some of his early works—up from 6 million copies in 2020 and continues to profit from a years-long courtship of Hollywood led by his widow before her death in 2018. Dr. Seuss Enterprises president Susan Brandt leaned into streaming, forging a deal with Netflix to create the big-budget animated series Green Eggs and Ham. The second season premieres Nov. 5.
#6 | $33 Million
October 14, 1977 (75)†
The Holiday Inn star, famous for his baritone singing voice, makes his debut on the list after his estate sold a stake in his master recordings royalties—including his 1,600-plus songs, name and likeness and more—for roughly $30 million. American holiday season lovers streamed the song “White Christmas” 87 million times in 2020.
#7 | $30 Million
August 16, 1977 (42)†
With Graceland approaching pre-Covid attendance levels, the King’s empire is recuperating—and landing new partnerships, including Cinedigm’s The Elvis Presley Channel, which debuts on his birthday, Jan. 8, and promises archival content, concerts and more. In the fall, Netflix will premiere an animated adult series called ‘Agent King,’ in which Elvis will explore an alternate history where he faked his own death to fight crime with a secret government spy program.
#8 | $27 Million
September 25, 2016 (87)†
Golf tournaments are back after a season shortened by the pandemic and Arnie’s Army is right there with the competition. The deal Palmer signed with Arizona Beverages for his namesake lemonade-iced tea beverage brings in millions, and the spiked version had a 15% growth spurt in sales this year, according to Molson Coors.
#9 | $23 Million
June 19, 2014 (75)†
The lyricist co-wrote 50-plus Top 40 hits with prolific singer-songwriter Carole King during their marriage, which were recorded by acts like The Shirelles, The Drifters, Bobby Vee and Steve Lawrence. He got even better with time: In the 80s and 90s he produced “Savin’ All My Love for You,” the song that made Whitney Houston a star and released his second album Back Room Blood with collaborators Bob Dylan and Barry Goldberg. Primary Wave bought a stake in his catalog for about $20 million.
#10 | $21 Million
July 1, 2005 (54)†
R&B legend Vandross joins the ranks thanks to a deal with Primary Wave that closed earlier this week. His estate pocketed roughly $20 million for a stake of his publishing and master recording income streams, which include songs like his 1981 breakthrough tune “Never Too Much,” the lead single off his album of the same name that shot up the charts and earned his two Grammy nominations. Vandross sold 40 million records worldwide over his 30-year career.
#11 | $16 Million
May 11, 1981 (36)†
The reggae star’s brand— which covers speakers, turntables, headphones, clothing and lighters— has expanded into psychedelics, thanks to an exclusive multi-year license agreement with Silo Wellness Inc. in June to develop a mushroom product line called Marley One. His listeners also keep coming back to his hits like “Is This Love” and “Jamming,” consistently streaming his songs 1 billion times per year in the U.S.
#12 | $15 Million
December 8, 2019 (21)†
Jarad Higgins, better known by his 13 million followers on Twitter and Instagram as “Juice WRLD,” is the top-played musician on the list by a landslide with 5.6 billion U.S. streams, which make up the bulk of his earnings this year. In May, his team released an anniversary edition of his sophomore album Goodbye & Good Riddance with two additional songs. A documentary about his life will premiere at AFI Fest next month.
#13 | $12 Million
December 8, 1980 (40)†
Lennon and Yoko Ono’s hopeful classic “Imagine” was commemorated on its 50th anniversary this September with the lyric “imagine all the people living life in peace” projected on buildings in New York and London. Though famously purchased in part by Michael Jackson, his share of the Beatles songs — the world’s most valuable catalog —continues to pay off.
This year’s Dead Celebrity ranking includes pretax earnings from sales, streams, licensing deals and other sources between October 30, 2020 and October 30, 2021, as well as estate acquisitions made or announced during the same period. We compile our numbers with the help of data from MRC Data, IMDbPro, NPD BookScan and interviews with industry insiders. Fees for agents, managers and lawyers are not deducted.
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