Dead celebrities have so many advantages over living ones—from a branding and marketing perspective, that is. Their faces, figures and gestures are already seared into our minds, yet those images can easily be repurposed and polished to promote new products or events. A dead celeb won’t object to being used, either, or damage a brand by hurtling off the rails à la LiLo or Tiger Woods.
And these departed icons never age: Marilyn Monroe is just as beautiful now as she was in 1962. “It’s very sad, but Marilyn died at a very young age,” says Jamie Salter. “She’s gonna be 36 forever.”
It’s Salter’s job to ensure that Monroe’s commercial cachet also stays robust forever. As CEO and chairman of Authentic Brands Group LLC, he owns her estate. He’s at the forefront of the specialized business of representing celebrity estates, a business levitated of late by expanded legal rights. In the public mind, Marilyn is peacefully frozen in time as a goddess in a white dress over a breezy subway grate. But behind the scenes there’s been a complex courtroom imbroglio over the rights to her image.
And Salter must also contend with the matter of cheesy representations. Icons are not made in the five-and-dime, after all; they’re made in the luxury aisles.
Marilyn Monroe, it appears, needs a rebranding.
Trouble Marilyn may be, but it’s the kind of trouble Jamie Salter revels in. His career path looks quirky, but there’s a theme that makes sense of it: an ability to spot opportunities amid disarray. A native of Toronto, Salter, now 49, started out small in sporting-goods marketing in the 1980s, quickly tapping into the surging popularity of snowboarding, then still almost an outlaw sport. In 1992, he joined forces with two Seattle entrepreneurs to found board manufacturer Ride Inc., a Nasdaq wonder that went public in early 1994 and saw its share price shoot up by about 1,500% within 18 months, then plummet thanks to slower than expected growth. Salter stepped down as CEO in 1996.
After several other sporting goods-related ventures over the next decade—successful ones—Salter and Hilco Trading LLC, a privately owned American firm, founded Hilco Consumer Capital LC in 2006. Hilco Consumer Capital is essentially a liquidator—it swoops in and buys troubled or outright bankrupt brands, then tries to revive them with new licensing deals and partnerships. Under Salter, it bought, gussied up and sold off several brands: The Bombay Company furniture and the Tommy Armour and RAM golf equipment lines. It retained and continues to refurbish others, including Polaroid and Miss America Properties, producer of the beauty pageant.
Salter displayed a flair for hype at Hilco. One of his boldest moves was hiring none other than Lady Gaga as creative director for Polaroid. Hilco and a financial partner, Gordon Brothers Brands LLC, bought the company’s assets in a bankruptcy auction in April, 2009. In January, 2011, the pop diva introduced the first of Polaroid’s Grey Label products: a digital camera and printer that spit out instant photos similar to the Polaroids of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as sunglasses that sport a built-in camera. “They really let me put my hands in there and design this shit myself,” Lady Gaga said.
But a similar gambit failed in the case of Halston. Hilco acquired the dead designer’s name in 2007. In early 2010, he and other executives hired Sarah Jessica Parker as the label’s “chief creative officer”—a four-year deal reportedly worth $13 million (all currency in U.S. dollars). A year later, she was gone.
Salter is tight-lipped about why he resigned from Hilco later in 2010. Reports said he was in a dispute over compensation with the parent company, Hilco Trading. But Salter has nothing but praise for the company. The overriding attraction for him at Authentic Brands seems to be that he’s the only guy in charge. Having invested $250 million, private-equity giant Leonard Green & Partners owns a majority of the equity, but it has given Salter operating authority as chairman and CEO.
Salter retained one file in moving from Hilco to Authentic Brands. Although the deal had come from an unlikely corner, it pointed to his future with Marilyn.
In 2008, Salter was introduced to Cedella Marley, daughter of reggae icon Bob Marley. She was acting on behalf of her mother and siblings; they needed help with a mighty brand that too many people thought was communal property. Salter estimated at the time that counterfeiters around the world were selling as much as $600 million a year in unauthorized Marley recordings, T-shirts and other merchandise. Taking on a contract to manage the brand with Cedella, Salter vowed that Hilco would spend “as much money as it takes to stop them.” He won’t disclose how big a slice of merchandise revenue Marley’s estate now earns in royalties on officially licensed products, but estimates range from 5% to 10%.
Salter says that cracking down on counterfeiters often isn’t as hard as you might think. Licensed manufacturers and their distributors are usually pretty good at finding the small fry—head shops, hustlers outside concerts and the like—and notifying Authentic (its staff of 24 includes three lawyers). “You get the guy and, say, he sold 600 shirts. So he’ll stop and he’ll donate $600 or $6,000 to a charity,” Salter says.
More worrisome are disputes with li-censees. “Sometimes the manufacturer is selling 20% of the goods out the back door in China,” says Salter. But those cases often don’t get to a lawsuit stage, either. A threatening lawyer’s letter is usually enough. “Most people just stop,” he says. “It’s like, ‘I can go do this and get in a lot of trouble. Or I can just pay the royalty and not have a problem.’ ”
One promoter who thought a fight was justified is Marley’s half-brother, Richard Booker, who promotes a Marley music festival in Florida, a restaurant chain in Jamaica and a proposed line of food and drinks. Last December, the estate sued Booker in a Miami court; Booker is fighting the suit.
As for proven counterfeiters, two other corrective tactics besides legal letters are to limit the number of licensed manufacturers of any particular type of merchandise, and to deal only with established retailers. In Marley’s case, there are only three official T-shirt manufacturers, the biggest being Zion Rootswear, which is owned by Florida’s Conley family and which touts Cedella as a guiding force and designer.
Besides pursuing usurpers, upgrading a star’s image is the other standard strategy that Salter uses to boost brand revenues. With Marley, that meant introducing products that reflected Marley family values—“you know: giving back, world peace and using the environment.” Hence: rasta-coloured Billabong shorts made from fibres of recycled plastic, and $200-plus headphones that incorporate wood and canvas.
But forging a connection between Bob Marley and mountain-grown Jamaican coffee is more of a stretch. Coffee is not an agricultural product that he promoted in his lifetime. Yet one he did use and tout heavily—ganja—has been almost entirely laundered out of the estate’s official merchandise. Salter says that was quite deliberate: “We stayed away from that kind of stuff.” Yet the Zion Rootswear site sells licensed merchandise from other icons that appeal to the stoner demographic—Jerry Garcia and Willie Nelson “legalize it” T-shirts.
Salter’s contract with Cedella Marley expired at the end of March. He has nothing but kudos for Cedella, but he adds that the stint proved that it’s better to own a celebrity brand, and have the authority to make decisions quickly, than it is to manage it for someone else for a fee or a small share of the profits.
Authentic Brands’ first big deal came in September, 2010, and it harked back to Salter’s beginnings in extreme sports rather than his new métier of managing celebrity estates. Authentic bought the two leading lines of mixed martial arts clothing: TapouT and Silver Star Casting Co., a sponsor of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. “This sport is still in its infancy,” Salter said at the time. “We strategically chose these acquisitions as our first big move because we’re getting into the right business at the right time.” Authentic has since added two other MMA lines: Sinister and Hitman Fight Gear.
The acquisition of the Monroe estate the following January prompted reporters to again tag Salter as a “dead-celebrity dealmaker.” As with the Marley deal, however, it wasn’t his idea. In the summer of 2010, Salter was approached by a confidante of someone quite removed from Monroe, yet at the same time close to her: Anna Strasberg.
The principal beneficiary of Monroe’s will was the renowned New York method-acting coach Lee Strasberg. When he died in 1982, ownership of Monroe’s estate passed to his widow, Anna.
To say that the Monroe estate was in legal disarray is putting it mildly. The most valuable assets in the estate are her name and likeness—her curves, hair, lips, mole, voice, signature and all the other attributes that make her Marilyn. They have acquired much of that value because of state laws that have entrenched the right of publicity. Essentially, this legal construct means that a celeb’s name and likeness have a value in addition to any fee for the use of a specific photo, song, TV clip or other representation.
One of the pioneers who championed the right of publicity is Mark Roesler, who is chairman and CEO of Indianapolis- and Los Angeles-based CMG Worldwide, a veritable big-box store of dead-celebrity licensing. It manages and represents more than 300 deceased celebrities, including Mark Twain, Babe Ruth, Duke Ellington and Malcolm X, and some living ones such as baseball great Jim Palmer.
Roesler got into the business in 1981, when he was hired by Curtis Publishing to protect the rights to Norman Rockwell’s artwork. Roesler soon discovered that many families of dead celebrities wanted to protect the name of their famous kin—and also felt entitled to compensation for the use of their names and likenesses. In 1993, Roesler won a precedent-setting court settlement for X’s widow, Betty Shabazz, which ordered director Spike Lee to pay her licensing fees for his 1992 Malcolm X biopic.
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.
A lot of what goes on at Authentic headquarters in New York is no more glamorous than at any other business—it’s all “process and procedure,” a senior staffer says. But as in almost any trend- or fashion-related business, luck—and being in a position to take advantage of it—is also a major factor. “I’d love to tell you that I knew there was a hit movie coming out last year [My Week with Marilyn] that we were gonna do a collaboration with Smash, that she was gonna be on every magazine cover,” says Salter. “There was definitely some luck involved.”
Salter admits that perhaps 20% of his deals will be thrown into flux by changing fees and strategies. Some are novel bets. “We just did a deal with Marilyn cafés,” says Salter. “It’s a group out of T.O. that wants to franchise high-end coffee shops in shopping districts. Sort of like a Starbucks, but a little more elegant. You know, my wife and your wife go for coffee or a nice lunch. They talk about which Gucci purse they want to buy, which new suit they want to buy. And then they go over to Holts and they go shopping.”
Some projects will fail; others will spin gold. But The Licensing Letter’s Mayer says that the revenue from iconic dead celebrities is remarkably consistent over the long term. “They’re like an annuity,” he says. Audiences don’t grow cold, because the stars never grow old.
ART IS LONG, LIFE IS SHORT AND RIGHTS DISPUTES LIVE FOREVER
Michael Jackson Yearly earnings: $170 million (all earnings according to Forbes) Recent news: His estate is suing Jackon’s final personal manager, Tohme R. Tohme. Tohme charged an official fee of 15% of Jackson’s gross earnings, and apparently skimmed off another $35,000 a month as a retainer, plus expenses, and collected a “finder’s fee” to refinance Neverland. In 2011, Jackson’s estate sued Howard Mann of Toronto, who was selling unauthorized books and calendars endorsed and promoted by Jackson’s mother, Katherine.
Yearly earnings: $55 million Recent news: The Presley estate was sold last year by CKX to billionaire Leon Black’s Apollo Global Management for a reported $509 million. Lisa Johansen, a 43-year-old Swedish woman, filed a $130-million lawsuit in 2011 claiming she was Elvis and Priscilla Presley’s “real” daughter, born in 1968, but shipped off to Sweden at age nine for her own safety, and replaced by “imposter” Lisa Marie.
Yearly earnings: $12 million Recent news: In May, 2008, Yoko Ono went to court to prevent the release of Three Days in the Life, a documentary based on footage shot of Lennon at his rural English mansion in 1970—smoking weed, writing songs, etc. In 2007, Ono teamed up with Al Pacino to promote a new state law in New York that extended the right of publicity to dead celebrities.
Yearly earnings: $10 million Recent news: Einstein gave Hebrew University of Jerusalem his papers in his will, and the university got a trademark on his name in 2003. At the end of 2010, the university sued a New Jersey costume-maker for not coughing up sufficient fees for its Einstein disguise kit. Earlier that year, the university sued General Motors to prevent it from using a magazine ad for the Terrain SUV. The ad featured Einstein’s head on a buff body with an e=mc2 tattoo.
Yearly earnings: $7 million Recent news: In 2010, saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood sued the Hendrix estate for the unauthorized release in 2003 of a song, Georgia Blues, that he claims he co-wrote with Hendrix. In 2009, the estate sued a Seattle businessman, stopping him from selling “Hendrix Electric” vodka and winning $3.2 million in damages. Hendrix’s father, Al, had the rights to Jimi’s music. Al died in 2002, leaving the estate to his adopted daughter, Janie, and excluding Jimi’s brother, Leon. Janie and Hendrix’s cousin, Robert, run Experience Hendrix LLC, which controls the estate. In 2004, a judge ordered Experience Hendrix to make trust payments to 10 other family members named in Al’s will.
Yearly earnings: $5 million (2007) Recent news: Brown died in December, 2006, and a very messy lawsuit filed in 2007 by Brown’s six living children and his widow—his fourth wife, Tomi Rae Hynie—rages on. In a 2000 will, Brown left his 60-acre home in South Carolina and the rights to his music and business assets to a children’s charitable trust. He didn’t marry Hynie until 2002, and she may have still been married to someone else at the time. The attorney general of South Carolina arranged a compromise to resolve the lawsuit in 2009: a 50-50 split of assets between the family and the trust.