How many dead men made $40 million in 2004? Better yet, how many dead men -- or at least their images -- have recently been sold for $100 million? Only one fits the bill -- Elvis Presley. Elvis' legend (and resulting monetary worth) has grown by leaps and bounds since his untimely death in 1977, when his fortunes surprisingly were not that great. Despite an incredibly successful music and film career -- which reportedly pulled in about $4 billion -- Elvis was only worth approximately $7 million at the time of his death. But in the hands of ex-wife Priscilla and a team of financial planners, Elvis' estate has become one of the most lucrative entertainment cottage industries in the world, with a current estimated net worth of well over $200 million. The story of how Elvis became one of the richest corpses on earth is a fascinating tale, and not without controversy.
Jan. 8 marks what would have been the King's 70th birthday, and a lot is changing in the world of Elvis. In December 2004, his sole heir, daughter Lisa Marie Presley, sold the rights to Elvis' name, likeness, and image to entertainment mogul Robert Sillerman for $100 million. (She gets to keep Graceland and many personal effects in the deal.) "For the past few years, I've been looking for someone to join forces with to expand the many facets of [Elvis Presley Enterprises]," Lisa Marie said in a statement, "to take it to new levels internationally and to make it an even greater force in the entertainment industry."
It seems to be a good business move for all involved. Lisa Marie gets $53 million in cash and is absolved of $25 million in estate-related debt. Sillerman, the former head honcho of SFX Entertainment before he sold the company to Clear Channel Communications, receives control over the image of a performer who is ranked No. 1 on Forbes magazine's list of top-earning dead celebrities. Already, there are several potentially lucrative new Elvis-related projects slated for this year: music reissues, a new vintage of Elvis Presley wine, and an upcoming -- potentially creepy -- European tour where Elvis will perform on video while most of the original TCB Band plays live. The scary part of the deal, however, is that now Sillerman can do whatever he wants with the Elvis trademark -- produce Elvis cereal, Elvis sneakers, an Elvis cartoon show, or worse, sell Elvis to Clear Channel or Michael Jackson. It adds yet another chapter to the strange story of who owns Elvis. It also raises the question, "Which Elvis will go down in history?"
Following Elvis' death from substance abuse in 1977, the entire estate was left to be inherited by Lisa Marie when she turned 25. But until that time, Elvis' elderly, barely literate father Vernon was identified as the primary executor. Vernon had little business sense or experience, so the estate's finances deteriorated quickly. When Vernon passed away, just two years after his son's death, the estate was on the verge of bankruptcy. Vernon's will transferred the executorship to Priscilla and a couple of businessmen, and with virtually nothing left but Graceland and Presley's image, the group founded Elvis Presley Enterprises and saved the rapidly sinking ship.
The team opened Graceland as a tourist attraction in 1980, and that proved to be a stroke a genius, providing an incredible amount of annual income for the estate. Elvis' faithful began making pilgrimages to Graceland sometimes twice a year, on Jan. 8 (his birthday), and during "Elvis Week," around Aug. 16 (the date of his death).
But even more importantly, Priscilla and her EPE partners pushed for a change in Tennessee state law to allow them to fully control Elvis' image, meaning that no one could produce a likeness of him -- whether on a coffee mug, T-shirt, or black velvet painting -- without their permission. After extensive lobbying, the Tennessee Legislature passed the Personal Rights Protection Act, which gave them the right to control Elvis' image in all forms. Not only that, but the law applied to all other states since Elvis died in the jurisdiction where the law was passed. Good timing, Elvis.
So, with complete control of Elvis' image now in the hands of EPE, big things could begin to happen. EPE created a new advertising and merchandising campaign every year, complete with freshly issued collectable swag. By changing the image and slogan on the merchandise annually, the market demand never dropped off, and the money kept rolling in.
More than just issuing new merchandise, however, EPE began to more tightly control which images of Elvis would be available to the public. The EPE-authorized merchandise reveals a distinct pattern. There's the early "Hillbilly Cat" Elvis, young, dark eyed and sensual. Then you have the sinewy and perfectly coifed "'68 Comeback" Elvis in the tight leather suit, and also the handsome, white jumpsuit wearing, and heavily lei'd "Aloha from Hawaii" Elvis from 1972. But that's about it. It's as if Elvis ceased to exist after the Hawaii concert, and that's exactly what EPE wants you to think. There will never be a heavy, sweating, tired and bloated Elvis T-shirt anywhere near Graceland, nor is there ever any mention of the true circumstances surrounding his death. Oh, and the new slogan for 2005? "Elvis Lives." I kid you not.
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