Managing The Careers Of Dead Celebrities
Mark Roesler didn't know what to expect from the Lizard King's mother-in- law. It was 1983. Roesler was a hotshot young lawyer with an idea for a new kind of business: managing the careers of dead celebrities. He saw Jim Morrison as a member of a holy trinity - alongside James Dean and Marilyn Monroe - whose coolness (and earning power) topped all others'. But who owned the publicity rights to Morrison's corpse - the right to put his picture on posters, calendars, and T-shirts? Morrison and super-groupie Pamela Courson exchanged vows shortly before the singer died snorting heroin in 1971. Courson OD'd soon after, leaving her parents as Morrison's lawful heirs. Which is why Roesler tracked them down in a house on a hilltop near Santa Barbara, California.
He rang the doorbell and smiled at the woman who answered - Penny Courson, Morrison's mother-in-law. "I'm an agent," Roesler said. He explained that he could help her make millions off of Jim's image. Fans would line up to buy posters, calendars, and who knew what else. Bobbleheads, lizard-skin jackets...
She reached out and slapped his face. Some people have no business sense. Turns out stars can make serious bank after they're deceased. Careers flourish, and, being dead, they need more help than ever managing their assets. John Lennon earned $44 million in 2007 Tupac Shakur pulled in a cool $9 mil. Anytime a company uses a dead celeb's image - say, in an ad - whoever owns the publicity rights gets paid. Dead celebrities' images are used to sell board games, fragrances, T-shirts. The top io dead earners in 2007 cleared $262 million.
In the years since Morrison's mother-in-law smacked Roesler, he's become the king of dead celeb agents. He reps James Dean, Princess Diana, Babe Ruth, Marlon Brando, Bette Davis, Billie Holiday, General George S. Patton, Wilt Chamberlain, George "the Gipper" Gipp, Andre the Giant, and the horse Secretariat, among dozens of others. Roesler's company, CMG Worldwide, has become the biggest publicity rights firm in the world. He's based in Indianapolis, but has an office in Los Angeles as well as Rio de Janeiro. You might have seen him in L.A., zipping down Sunset in a silver Ferrari with JDEAN plates.
Movie and music royalties aren't Roesler's business (that's another branch of law), but most everything else is. Want to put Jackie Robinson on a Wheaties box? Call Roesler. Want to use aviatrix Amelia Earhart in ads, as Apple did in its "Think Different" campaign? Call Roesler. Want to sell Malcolm X merchandise, as Spike Lee did to promote his film Malcolm X? Lee didn't call Roesler, and according to Roesler, it cost him hundreds of thousands in a legal settlement. One rival calls Roesler "the enfant terrible of intellectual-property rights." And The Washington Post called him "the attack dog of the dead-celeb biz."
Roesler is gearing up for a dogfight. In courtrooms in New York and L.A., federal juries will weigh the biggest case in publicity rights history. They will decide if Roesler's number one client's image is worth $100 million, her estimated worth, or... "Or nothing much," he says. At the heart of the case is the star whose penchant for trouble is as timeless as her beauty: Marilyn Monroe.
Roesler stands behind the desk in his palatial office in Indianapolis. Tall, bulky, and expensively dressed, he could pass for an NBA coach. Behind him an enormous bas-relief of Monroe's face adorns the wall. "My clients were beloved," he says. "They still are."
Walking the halls of headquarters, he shows off a few favorite pieces: framed movie stills of Monroe and James Dean with bits of celluloid - actual frames from their films. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig baseball bats. Monroe's centerfold from the first Playboy, signed by Hugh Hefner. An elevator leads to a basement warehouse crowded with dead-celebrity Halloween masks, T-shirts, puzzles, and lava lamps. One corner holds cases of Marilyn Merlot, a wine with sales of $2 million a year, plus a few bottles of Vince Lombardi wine, presumably with the bouquet of Lambeau lockers.
Growing up in Alexandria, Indiana, 12.5 miles from James Dean's boyhood home, Roesler never expected to meet a celebrity. How would he solidify business representing big city stars? "Being based in Indiana, I didn't have a chance with famous living people," he says. "My opportunity was with the deceased ones, if I could figure out how to do it." His genius was to recognize that a star's right to market his image is a personal right, but one that expires when he dies. After that it's a property right, which can be sold or handed down. Those rights can be marketed and monetized. Besides, he explains, dead people make great clients. They never call him up in the middle of the night.
Early on in the business, Roesler was hired by Priscilla Presley to represent Elvis' estate. In six years he grew that business from an estimated $3 million to well over $100 million Roesler found Babe Ruth's two surviving daughters living humbly in Florida - neither had seen a cent from the collectibles that made millions for others. Roeslerwent to bat for the Babe. In a few years Ruth's daughters were getting six-figure checks. Half a century after his death, Ruth was earning more with Roesler than the Yankees ever paid him. Roesler forced novelty firms to quit selling vials of "Elvis sweat" and aerosol cans of "James Dean Macho Spray." He bought celeb Web sites - marilynmonroe.com, knuterockne.com, notoriousbig.com, and more than 100 others.
Though his list of clients continues to grow, Roesler keeps coming back to his favorite. He still gets misty talking about Marilyn Monroe. He wants to make sure she is remembered the right way. His way. "Roesler is taking a big risk," says Tom Kelley Jr., who is going up against him in the war for Marilyn. The fight pits Monroe's estate against Kelley and the heirs of three other photographers who took famous photos of Monroe. The issue: Who owns Marilyn? Roesler points to Monroe's will, which left most of her unspecified assets to her acting coach, Lee Strasberg. Roesler has used the will to claim that Strasberg's widow, Anna, owns Marilyn's publicity rights when her husband died, she inherited his interest in the Monroe estate. With Roesler as agent, that piece of Marilyn generates a reported $8 million a year - at least $5 million for Anna Strasberg and $2 million-plus for Roesler.
The photographers want more of that pie for themselves. "My dad helped Marilyn out when she was an unknown model doing ads for a department store," says Kelley, a mustachioed photographer whose father, Tom Kelley Sr., took the famous red velvet nude that became Playboy's first centerfold. (Monroe was paid $50. Later, when a reporter asked what she had on during the shoot, she replied, "The radio.") Unfortunately for Kelley Sr., he licensed reprint rights of the image to a cheesecake calendar maker for $900. Hugh Hefner then obtained licensing for them for $500. But Kelley retained other shots that he can market today. Or can he?
Milton Greene is another guy with a gripe. He took more than 4,000 photos of Monroe and even put her up in his home. She baby-sat his kids. Sam Shaw was another - he took the iconic shot of Marilyn on a subway grate during the filming of The Seven Year Itch, the updraft blowing her dress up around her ears. The photographers' heirs complain that Roesler has blocked their right to sell their Monroe photos to anyone they want. After years of butting heads, they've joined Kelley and another photographer's heirs in suing Roesler and Monroe's estate. Three years later, after rounds of claims and counterclaims, we're about to see who wins. "The stakes are so high there's no turning back. What is Marilyn worth if the photographers can license images like this?" Roesler asks, holding up a condom with the subway-grate shot on the wrapper. He wasn't surprised when an auction house working. on Kelley's behalf tried to sell Monroe photos to Hustler. Monroe doesn't belong in Hustler or on condoms, Roesler argues. Her image would be tarnished - along with her earning ability. Roesler even has some living celebrities backing him, such as Yoko Ono and Al Pacino.
Kelley wasn't expecting such a high-stakes showdown. "To be honest," he says, "I admire Mark Roesler. Look at the business he built! But in this case, you have to wonder about his strategy. He's spent $12–$14 million to fight four little photographers. Why?"
Kelley and the other photographers' heirs might be willing to settle out of court. But for Roesler the stakes may be higher than $14 million or even $100 million. If he loses, his foes could claim what Kelley calls "20 or 30 years of retroactive liability" - repayment of the millions Roesler has kept them from making. And he may lose the ability to protect his other dead clients in similar cases. "This case didn't have to go to trial," Kelley says. "We could have coexisted." Wrong, says Roesler. "This is a war." Roesler will climb the steps of a federal courthouse and go to war for his beloved Marilyn. The future of dead people may never be the same.
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