How These Dead Celebs Made Tens Of Millions In 2022

Let's be honest with ourselves: We all love to know how much celebrities earn. There are dozens of websites out there specializing in giving readers an insight into the earnings and assets of famous people in almost every field. If you need proof of the demand for such information, simply put a celebrity's name into a search engine, chances are that the words "net worth" will auto-fill after it, revealing that thousands of now millions of people before you have wanted to know how much the person in question has in the bank.

The words "rich" and "famous" go hand in hand. It has always been this way. Even before the internet, prestige publications such as Forbes have long chronicled celebrity wealth, with the Forbes 400 list having spilled the beans on the richest people in America ever since it was first published back in 1982.

And more recently, Forbes has moved into the realm of the unliving. As well as the Forbes 400 and their Billionaire List, each year Forbes aggregates data from a range of credible sources — including industry insiders — to offer a list of the highest earning dead celebrities: those whose assets — including intellectual property, such as songs, stories, and characters that they have created — are managed by experts on behalf of their estate, sometimes accruing unbelievable profits in the process. Here are the highest earners from beyond the grave in 2022.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien died nearly half a century ago, but 2022 was the year that his incredible fantasy world made more money than it ever has for his enormous posthumous estate.

Tolkien's creations have already enjoyed a bumper year on screen, thanks to Amazon's luxuriant new TV series, "The Rings of Power." As reported by Reuters, the show is estimated to be the most expensive in history, costing in the region of $500 million, half of which was spent on the acquisition of the intellectual property rights to Middle Earth and the epic stories Tolkien wrote about the characters that inhabit the fantasy land before his death from pneumonia in 1973.

But this year proved that the taste for new Tolkien material has not abated. As Forbes notes, back in August it was announced that the video game company Embracer had sealed their own deal securing their rights to Middle Earth enterprises, who officially announced their plans to offer merchandise, video games, board games, and more. The price of the deal was never officially announced. However, Forbes claims to have been in contact with an Embracer insider and believes that the price was in the region of $500 million, making Tolkien the highest-earning dead celebrity on their list.

Kobe Bryant

Basketball fans around the world were deeply shocked in January 2020, when news spread that NBA star Kobe Bryant had died tragically in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Los Angeles — an accident that also claimed the life of his daughter, 13-year-old Gigi, and seven other people on board (via Biography).

Bryant had enjoyed a stellar basketball career, winning five NBA titles with the L.A. Lakers along the way and establishing himself as one of the world's greatest sporting icons with countless commercial sponsorship deals that kept him a bankable star in the years following his retirement in 2016. In 2017, Bryant was also the subject of a critically acclaimed animated short film, "Dear Basketball," for which he won an Academy Award.

And Bryant's successes have continued even after his untimely death, thanks to a canny investment he made during his lifetime. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, in November 2021 it was announced that Coca-Cola Co. had brokered a deal to take full control of BodyArmor, the fast-growing energy drink company in a deal worth around $5.6 billion. Per the same source, Bryant was an early investor in the company, having backed BodyArmor to the tune of $6 million and served on the company's board of directors. At the time of the takeover, however, his stake, which Forbes claims was 7%, had ballooned in value to around $400 million, which was paid out to Bryant's estate in 2022, making him the second most lucrative deceased celebrity of the year.

David Bowie

Interest in the iconic British rock star David Bowie has waned little since his death was announced in January 2016, just days after the release of his final album, "Blackstar." Since then, Bowie fans have been treated to a continuous raft of posthumous releases, reissues, and compilations. But 2022 has been a bumper year in terms of new Bowie content, such as the critically acclaimed documentary "Moonage Daydream." Deals behind the scenes regarding who gets to control his sprawling discography going forward has also meant that he has become one of the world's most monied dead stars.

As reported by Variety, back in January it was announced that publishing giant Warner Chappell had put the finishing touches to a deal to take control of the publishing rights to the vast majority of Bowie's discography, including 26 studio albums as a solo artist and his two records with his late '80s/early '90s rock outfit Tin Machine, among other releases.

Warner has long been involved with the distribution of Bowie's music. In a previous Variety report, it was noted that the music giant took control of a great deal of his work in 2013, when it took control of Parlophone Label Group and released a number of retrospective releases repackaging various periods of his recording career in new box sets, which were generally well received. The Bowie estate is estimated to have profited by some $250 million from the sale of the publishing rights to the visionary rocker's work, as Forbes confirms.

Elvis Presley

David Bowie wasn't the only rockstar to have a resurgence on the big screen at the same time he was pulling in the big bucks in 2022. The year was also a big one for the King of Rock himself, Elvis Presley, whose Baz Luhrmann biopic hit the cinemas in May to rave reviews, activating a huge Elvis renaissance and hugely impacting the value of his estate.

As reported by Billboard in June, the movie helped create a huge spike in streams of the King's music across music platforms, with a 67% increase across the United States thanks in part to moviegoers returning again and again to the movie soundtrack — which hit No. 30 on the Billboard 200 — with the song "Can't Help Falling in Love" proving to be especially popular.

In another report, the same outlet claimed that recent interest in Elvis and his music catalog has helped grow his estate up to the $1 billion mark. However, per Forbes, streaming profits have factored little into the profits the Elvis Presley estate has received in 2022. This year has seen a huge boom in merchandise sales, sales to Presley-derived shows and concerts, and lucrative visits to his famous Graceland home, which operates as a luxury resort, as well as a museum and tourist attraction — all of which is estimated to have contributed to around $110 million in profit for the estate this year alone.

James Brown

It doesn't take a big-budget movie for a rockstar to make big money in 2022. As the Godfather of Soul James Brown proved, huge sums can change hands nowadays based on the quality of the music alone.

As first reported in The New York Times in December 2021, the James Brown Estate agreed to a deal to hand over the publishing rights to his music and his real estate and intellectual assets to Primary Wave, a music publishing company that also specializes in leveraging wider branding and marketing opportunities for the artists on their roster. Brown's discography had been embroiled in long-running legal disputes for around 15 years, but the new deal — which is believed to be worth around $90 million — paves the way for the realization of a host of new projects involving the use of his music, potentially including a lucrative Broadway jukebox musical.

In an official statement announcing the deal, the Fiduciary for the James Brown Estate and Trust, Russell Bauknight, claimed via Primary Wave's website, "The James Brown Estate and related Trust are very proud and excited to work with Larry Mestel and Primary Wave. We believe that our choice of professionals to take the James Brown Legacy to the next level is going to prove to be one of the most successful events in Mr. Brown's long history in show business."

Michael Jackson

Though Michael Jackson and his music have remained hugely popular with a series of commercially successful posthumous releases, the years since his death in 2009 have been fraught with difficulties for the estate he left behind.

As outlined in an August 2021 article published by Complex, the estate of Michael Jackson has been forced to fight a series of legal battles in the aftermath of the King of Pop's death. Most notably, the estate contested an unpaid $700 million tax bill that the late singer's team fought to reduce following the release of documentaries such as "Leaving Neverland," which they argued negatively impacted the value of the Jackson brand going forward. Despite Jackson's image being somewhat tarnished by such coverage, Complex claims that the Jackson estate has managed to accrue $2.5 billion in the first 11 years following his death.

And bringing the estate's legal troubles to an end has meant that 2022 has continued to be profitable, with a great deal of income coming from the Michael Jackson Cirque de Soleil, which has resumed following its Covid pandemic hiatus. There is also a new jukebox musical on Broadway, known simply as "MJ: The Musical," which launched at the tail end of 2021. To date, "MJ: the Musical" has turned over more than $72 million, according to Broadway World, the profits from which have helped to swell the coffers of the Michael Jackson estate. According to analysis conducted by Forbes, the estate has enjoyed another bumper year, with around $75 million in earnings.

Leonard Cohen

The acclaimed Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen was one of many big names in the world of music to leave us in 2016. The 82-year-old left behind a sprawling back catalog, which since his death has been managed by his estate.

Per Variety, Cohen worked at a steady pace as a songwriter after leaving his earlier career as a poet and novelist to make his name in the music business in New York in the mid-'60s. He eventually released a total of 15 studio albums, including the posthumous "Thanks for the Dance," which came out in 2019. However, Cohen is also revered as a songwriter whose work has been reinterpreted by other artists. His signature ballad "Suzanne" was a hit for Judy Collins in 1967, while his haunting 1984 classic "Hallelujah" was beautifully covered by Jeff Buckley and eventually more than 300 other recording artists. 

All of these successes have contributed to a new deal for Cohen's publishing rights in 2022, with his estate striking a deal with Hipgnosis Song Management, who now own the rights to the 278 songs Cohen wrote in his lifetime. Hipgnosis founder Merck Mercuriadis said, "To now be the custodians and managers of Leonard Cohen's incomparable songs is a wonderful yet very serious responsibility that we approach with excitement and fully understand the importance of." Forbes estimates the deal to be worth around $55 million.

Dr. Seuss

Everyone knows the work of Dr. Seuss, the creator of eccentric children's tales including "Horton Hears a Hoo!," "The Cat in the Hat," and "How The Grinch Stole Christmas," among dozens of other volumes that count among some of the bestselling children's books in American history.

Seuss' work, which typically take the form of picture books and comics, have long been a source of material for TV shows and movies, with interest in his creations ramping up in recent years. As Forbes reported in a November 2020, the author — whose full name was Theodor Seuss Geisel, and who died in 1991 at the age of 87 — did little with his own intellectual property during his own lifetime. However, in his final years he did encourage his wife, Audrey, to make the most of licensing his characters across a range of media in the years following his death, which she did following the creation of Seuss Enterprises in 1993.

Since then, Seuss' creations have remained highly popular and visible, with Forbes claiming that his books have made $16 million in sales in 2022 alone. However, these earnings have also been joined by merchandising sales, as well as a huge deal with Netflix, which plans to create five new Seuss-inspired series and specials aimed at pre-schoolers, according to Deadline. All in all, Forbes states that Seuss has made around $32 million in 2022.

Jeff Porcaro

He may not be as big of a name as some other musicians, but drummer Jeff Porcaro is a bona fide music legend. As the man behind the drum kit for the legendary rock band Toto, Porcaro hit the skins on their biggest hits, including their debut single "Hold the Line," and their Billboard No. 1 smash "Africa," the latter of which was covered by Weezer and Weird Al Yankovich in 2018. According to Billboard, Porcaro was also credited as a co-writer on much of Toto's output, meaning a steady income of royalties from the band's singles and albums, which continued after his tragic death in 1992 at the age of 38.

As Billboard notes, Porcaro had a long and distinguished career as a session musician, working with such feted acts as Steely Dan and Boz Skaggs before joining Toto. He continued to be a much-in-demand session musician throughout his life, working with some of the biggest names in the business, including Miles Davis, Elton John, Barbara Streisand, and Bruce Springsteen. His credits also include two of Michael Jackson's biggest-selling albums: "Bad" and "Dangerous."

In November 2021, Primary Wave Music acquired the publishing rigts to Porcaro's catalogue, to the tune of $30 million. "Jeff Porcaro belongs on the Mount Rushmore of great American drummers," said Primary Wave's Chief Marketing Officer Adam Lowenberg, in an official statement. "We are honored to work with Jeff's wife, Susan, and their sons, to ensure that his legacy is recognized by generations to come." 

Charles Schulz

The beloved character's from Charles Schulz's long-running "Peanuts" cartoons are instantly recognizable, with Charlie Brown and Snoopy remaining especially visible across a range of merchandise and branding opportunities. However, in recent years the Schulz estate has also received a windfall after agreeing a deal with Apple TV Plus to take control of pre-existing classic "Peanuts" shows — such as the Christmas specials — and to develop a range of new shows to boot (via Variety). In June 2021, Apple also announced the release of a documentary of Schulz's life.

"We are so happy to have this relationship with Apple TV Plus, because they were one of the only places we talked to who wanted to do new material and be under the guidance [of ] Creative Associates, our creative arm here — people who are steeped in the 'Peanuts lore," Schulz' widow, Jean, explained in an interview with Variety, adding, "Our interest is in keeping it as true to 'Peanuts' as we can — to the comic strip, to my husband's kind of humor and the humanity that comic strip showed." In 2022, the deal has helped contribute to earnings of around $20 million for Schulz's estate, according to Forbes.