CMG represented the Monroe estate, too—for 17 years. By the time Anna Strasberg approached Salter in 2010, CMG was embroiled in a nasty legal dispute with heirs of four photographers—Milton H. Greene, Tom Kelley, Bernard of Hollywood (Bruno Bernard) and Sam Shaw—who, between them, had taken almost every famous picture of Monroe. In 2005, CMG and the Monroe estate sued the archives of Sam Shaw, who snapped the iconic pic of Monroe in a white dress standing on a sewer grate in The Seven Year Itch. That original suit has spawned others, with the photographers’ heirs arguing that they have the right to sell or license the photos.
The pivotal issue is whether Monroe was officially a resident of New York or California when she died by an overdose in 1962. The laws on right of publicity vary widely among states. (The Nevada economy might never recover if the right of publicity applied to impersonations.) In New York, the right doesn’t pass on to inheritors. In California, inheritors can retain control for up to 70 years. Here’s the rub: Monroe overdosed in Los Angeles, but her will was probated in New York to avoid California estate taxes.
By the summer of 2010, the Strasbergs were unhappy with CMG, and had heard about Salter. But Salter didn’t want to do a management deal. Yes, Monroe was the top-earning deceased female celebrity in the world (Forbes’s dead-celebrity ranking estimates her annual earnings at $27 million). But given the Marley experience, Salter told Strasberg he’d only do a deal if he could buy the estate outright, or at least get a majority interest.
As for the lawsuits, they didn’t faze Salter that much. In some ways, he figured, the uncertainty might help him squeeze down the Strasbergs on price. “Let’s say we like deals with issues,” says Salter. “We’ve always been a buyer that purchases assets that have growth potential, brands that are in mid-cycle.”
At least one expert is skeptical of that reasoning. Ira Mayer, publisher of The Licensing Letter, which tracks consumer licensing deals around the world, says acquirers often have to up their offers to ego-driven clients like celebrities: “You end up paying a premium because you are dealing with people who are crazy.”
In any event, Salter won’t disclose what he paid for the Monroe estate. He smiles at some of the estimates he’s seen in news stories. “Some people say I paid $20 million. Some say $50 million.”
What did Salter get? That’s still somewhat up in the air. The original dispute between CMG and the Monroe estate remains unresolved, but Salter moved quickly to neutralize the photographers’ claims. Last June, Authentic announced licensing deals with heirs of three of the four: Greene, Kelley and Bernard. In April, it came to an agreement with Shaw’s heirs. Authentic will give the heirs a percentage of perhaps millions in revenue over the next several years. “Now, when you come to the estate, it’s one-stop shop,” says Salter. “You pay x% to the estate for name and likeness, and y% to the photographer for the image.”
Roesler’s CMG is now lined up against the estate and Authentic in court. In March, CMG filed a lawsuit in New York, arguing that at the time of her death Monroe was a resident of New York, where the estate has no right of publicity after death—the right that CMG’s chairman has done so much to establish. But although CMG represents far more celebrities than Authentic, it doesn’t buy their rights or estates; it just manages them.
Contesting Monroe’s right of publicity makes business sense. “We continue to represent various photographers and copyrights associated with Marilyn, and still work with the many licensees that use those copyrighted images,” says Roesler.
Salter is perplexed and frustrated. His message to Roesler: “You could have bought Marilyn Monroe, but you didn’t write the cheque. You had 20 years. You lost.”
The other Big Kahuna in the dead-celebrity business, New York-based CKX, is also much larger than Authentic. It is an owner as well as a manager. Its principal holdings are the rights to Elvis Presley and Muhammad Ali, and the Idol and So You Think You Can Dance television shows. Lisa Marie Presley sold 85% of her father’s estate to CKX in 2005. Last year, CKX itself was bought by private equity giant Apollo Global Management LLC for $509 million.
Day to day, the remaining lawsuits appear to be having little impact on Authentic’s management of Monroe. Big-name licensees have concluded that Authentic is in the driver’s seat, and the company is trying to consolidate and upgrade the brand. So far, it’s concluded licensing and promotional arrangements with high-profile partners including Christian Dior (to promote J’Adore perfume), NBC (for the hit TV series Smash, which follows the preparations for a Broadway musical based on Monroe’s life) and MAC Cosmetics (which plans to introduce a Monroe line in October). Gone are Marilyn black-light posters, jigsaw puzzles, and costume hats and wigs. “The team here has taken Marilyn out of the sort-of souvenir business and moved her up into the fashion and personal-care side,” says Salter.