Is Death Still a Great Career Move?


One of the lawyers for Michael Jackson’s family should really explain to them the definition of “chutzpah.”

There’s no point asking their accountants, since they’re likely the ones responsible for this:

The IRS has served notice that the estate of Michael Jackson severely understated worth and income and is demanding $700 million in back taxes and penalties.

Documents have been filed with the U.S. Tax Court that alleges that the executor’s for Jackson said his net worth at the time of his death was $7 million while the IRS has assessed the worth at $1.125 billion.  (…)

A good portion of the difference was attributed to the value of Jackson’s likeness which the estate valued at $2,105 and the IRS says was worth $434.264 million. In addition, the estate said that Jackson’s portion of the ownership of both his songs and those of the Beatles was worth nothing.

Yes, you read that right.  They said the Beatles songs (and his) were worth $0.

The IRS said it was more like $469 million.

In a separate, in-depth article examining the Beatles’ fortunes fifty years on, David Fiorenza, a Villanova University economics professor who specializes in art and entertainment, said that the Fab Four’s “financial impact today is bigger than any other artist, living or deceased.”

So those Jackson family shenanigans are funny in a “can’t you believe it?” way, but the fact is, celebrity estates are serious business.

So the dumb old joke goes that some curmudgeonly dad was always yelling at his kids:

“Don’t play with the doors!”

They didn’t really understand what he was so mad about, so one day the oldest kid got up the nerve to ask his dad what he was talking about.

The dad yells:

“Jim Morrison played with The Doors, and now he’s dead!”

Yeah, but for Morrison — as that other old joke goes — death was a great career move.

Way back in 1981, Rolling Stone dissected the late singer’s persistent posthumous popularity in the story famously titled “Jim Morrison: He’s Hot, He’s Sexy, and He’s Dead.”

Of course, millions of words had already been spilled analyzing the Dead Elvis phenomenon, which was an ersatz religion for a while there.

The estates of Presley, James Dean and Marylin Monroe continue to rake in millions in licensing fees each year, decades after their departures from this earth.

However, not even an expert on this phenomenon has cracked the cosmic calculus that determines who becomes a (dead) cash cow, and who doesn’t.

(Brian Jones was cool, talented, young and handsome too, but there’s never been much of a market for t-shirts with his face on them.)

Or maybe that expert, Henry Schafer, just doesn’t want to share, and I can’t blame him.

He’s the executive vice president of The Q Scores Company, which has charted the popularity of celebrities, dead and alive, for decades.

Companies pay big bucks for his proprietary data regarding a performer’s likeability and familiarity, when deciding who to hire as a pitchman, or whose likeness to stick on a print ad or product.

When Schafer’s latest Dead Q report came out this month he kindly agreed to provide me with a verbal “executive summary” without giving away the store.

(The poor man: I could’ve talked to him for hours about this topic, “the abiding preoccupation of my life.”)

(I tried to impress him by blathering on about Kurt Cobain action figures, Bob Dylan’s Super Bowl commercial, and the resurgence of wall-poster popularity Chaplin, Keaton, Bogart and other “old time” performers enjoyed in the cynical 1970s, thinking he might hire me as a consultant or something…)

“Who topped the list?” I asked. His answer shocked me:

Lucille Ball, Schafer said, comes in at #1 year after year, as do other stars whose “nostalgic” patina has accrued over time: John Wayne, Bob Hope and, of course, Elvis.

Recently deceased celebrities, he added, will often make the list because they’re on the public’s mind, but they may not go on to become perennials.

Patrick Swayze and Andy Griffith, Schafer said, “jumped in right away due to emotion reactions.”

Whether they stay on the Dead Q report as lucrative marketing tools, only time can tell.

And time has a nasty habit of revealing (alleged) flaws in the famous. (See, “Allen, Woody.”)

Schafer noted that — contrary to the Jackson family’s creative accounting — the so-called “King of Pop” is “more popular in death, even though his reputation went in a negative direction while he was alive.”

In fact, Forbes’ comparable list of “Top Earning Dead Celebrities” puts Jackson at the top of the heap.

I have a funny feeling the IRS subscribes to the Dead Q report, and Forbes as well.

Or maybe, all evidence to the contrary, agents of the Internal Revenue Service are just normal, sentient human beings.