The King of Pop still reigns. Dr. Seuss jumps after Hollywood courtship. Juice WRLD and Kobe Bryant join the legends’ list too soon.
Sam-I-Am now has a lot greener to go with those eggs and ham. The estate of Theodor Seuss Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss) nearly doubled its income in 2020, earning an estimated $33 million in a very Grinch-like year.
The bigger payday is thanks to a smart new strategy from the team at Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which transformed the beloved children’s author’s 60-plus books into a multimedia universe. Think Marvel’s Avengers but without the crossover characters.
First up in the Seuss-iverse was Netflix’s Green Eggs and Ham, which turned the 50-word book into an animated series that reportedly cost $65 million and was voiced by Michael Douglas, Keegan-Michael Key and Diane Keaton, among others. In addition to a second helping of Ham, there is also a three-movie deal with Warner Bros. that will focus on the characters Thing One and Thing Two, the titular cat in The Cat in the Hat and the world of Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
“We put our big-boy pants on,” says Susan Brandt, a former Twentieth Century Fox home video executive who has been leading the Seuss revival since 2012. And the timing is finally right. Movie studios and deep-pocketed streaming giants like Netflix, Apple, Disney and Amazon are engaged in an entertainment arms race for original content that saw them spend more $120 billion last year. A huge portion of that amount is going to prove intellectual property and brand-name entertainers, many of whom have been long dead—but not in show business.
Several other names on our annual highest-paid dead celebrities list have also received huge streaming paydays this year. Peanuts signed a rich deal with Apple TV+ that landed late creator Charles M. Schulz at No. 3 with $32.5 million. And Netflix has shelled big bucks out for an animated series featuring Elvis Presley (No. 5) and yet another biopic of Marilyn Monroe (No. 13).
Sadly, there are also young newcomers to the list—21-year-old rapper Juice WRLD (No. 7) earned $15 million since last year’s list, and NBA Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant, who was killed in a helicopter crash in January, is ranked No. 6, having earned $20 million.
Here’s who else is making a killing in the afterlife.
13 | Marilyn Monroe
Died: August 4, 1962 (36)
The late movie blonde goddess will forever be worshiped—her image and name are used by nearly 100 brands globally, including Dolce & Gabbana, Zales and even Lego Group.
12 | George Harrison
Died: November 29, 2001 (58)
The Quiet Beatle pocketed a seven-figure check from the band’s Cirque du Soleil show Love—even with the Las Vegas Strip shut down for most of the year.
11 | Freddie Mercury
Died: November 24, 1991 (45)
After 2018’s award-winning film Bohemian Rhapsody put Freddie Mercury back into the spotlight, the show had to go on. Not only did Mercury’s estate reap a small portion of the film’s nearly $1 billion box office, but it also led to a spike in Queen’s music and merchandise sales.
10 | Prince
Died: April 21, 2016 (57)
While his Paisley Park has never reached Graceland-level popularity, the High Priest of Pop can still move music. This year, The Purple One moved nearly 700,000 album equivalents in the United States alone.
9 | John Lennon
Died: December 8, 1980 (40)
Forty years after John Lennon’s murder, Beatles music still rings up a lot of dollars on Penny Lane. And thanks to a co-writing credit on the Fab Four’s most popular songs, the late Lennon also cashes in when a tune is used on TV or in the movies.
8 | Bob Marley
Died: May 11, 1981 (36)
Bob Marley also saw his music streams soar this year—the reggae legend accumulated more than a billion spins globally. House of Marley, his line of speakers, turntables and headphones, and sales of T-shirts and lighters adorned with his likeness also added more than $3 million to his coffers.
7 | Juice WRLD
Died: December 8, 2019 (21)
Rapper Jarad Higgins, known in show biz as “Juice WRLD,” saw his music streams spike after he died last December, just nine months after the release of his sophomore album, Death Race for Love. His third album, Legends Never Die, published posthumously, topped the Billboard charts.
6 | Kobe Bryant
Died: January 26, 2020 (41)
Cause: Helicopter Crash
After the Lakers legend died in a helicopter accident in January, Nike sold out its Kobe Bryant merchandise. Fans also made a fast break for his autobiography, which sold more than 300,000 copies this year.
5 | Elvis Presley
Died: August 16, 1977 (42)
Cause: Heart Attack
The coronavirus shook up Elvis’ empire. Graceland, his home-turned-museum, typically accounts for more than $10 million of Presley’s earnings, but was closed for two months this year and is now operating at reduced capacity.
4 | Arnold Palmer
Died: September 25, 2016 (87)
Cause: Heart Disease
The golf season may have been shortened by Covid-19, but Arnie’s Army is still drinking him up. The King’s deal with Arizona Beverages for his namesake lemonade-iced tea beverage brings in millions, cushioned by a contract with MasterCard and hundreds of retailers that sell Arnold Palmer-branded merchandise throughout Asia.
3 | Charles Schulz
Died: February 12, 2000 (77)
Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the gang are hardly worth peanuts. In the fiscal year ended June 30, 2020, the Schulz estate brought in more than $110 million in revenue. Part of that comes from Apple TV+, which aired a new series, Snoopy in Space, and classics like A Charlie Brown Christmas.
2 | Dr. Seuss
Died: September 24, 1991 (87)
Thanks to a series of seven-figure television and film deals, Seussville is a much wealthier neighborhood. But books remain one of Dr. Seuss’ biggest income stream: He sold nearly 6 million in the United States this year.
1 | Michael Jackson
Died: June 25, 2009 (50)
The 2019 release of the damning documentary Leaving Neverland didn’t cost the King of Pop his crown. Jackson’s Mijac Music catalog, which includes tunes by Elvis and Aretha Franklin, and a long-term deal with Sony, account for more than 70% of his earnings.
Additional reporting by Kurt Badenhausen, Abigail Freeman and Ariel Shapiro
Our annual list of the top-earning dead celebrities measures pretax income from October 1, 2019 through October 1, 2020. We compile our numbers with the help of data from MRC Data, IMDbPro, NPD BookScan and interviews with industry insiders. Fees for agents, managers and lawyers are not deducted.