Being dead is not necessarily a hindrance to making a few bucks these days. In fact, with picture libraries rapidly developing ever-more sophisticated methods of marketing dead stars, it can be a nice little earner. In the contemporary climate of trashy celebrity magazines and our hunger for increasingly humiliating photographs of stars, one night out on the town with too much alcohol or too little underwear can see the celebrity stock of living idols tumble. The dead, on the other hand, are less of a liability.
Photolibrary Corbis has cannily recognised this fact, and its rights department now operates as much more than simply the place to go to request permission to use an image; it is actively, perhaps shamelessly, building the brands of the dead celebrities that it represents. “We’re different from other companies in that other companies have been reactive, whereas what we’re doing is purposely soliciting business,” explains Martin Cribbs, director of the rights department at Corbis. Cribbs was hired by the photolibrary to begin this process at the company after they saw the impressive cultural reach he had achieved for Andy Warhol at the Warhol Foundation, where Cribbs worked for 15 years.
The Warhol Foundation recognised the ongoing impact the artist’s ideas were having on popular culture long after his death, yet felt that he himself was slowly being forgotten. “We took a look at general culture: at music videos, fashion, movie-making… a lot of different contemporary cultural expansion, and could see the influence Warhol had had,” says Cribbs. “Yet Warhol had been relegated to museums and no one was reminding the general populous that he had got there first.” To rectify this, and begin building a consistent legacy for Warhol that would reach new generations, the Foundation began to contact product licensees about creating clothing and the other merchandise lines bearing Warhol’s name and imagery. The companies didn’t immediately warm to the idea, though: “They got that it was cool, but they weren’t true believers that it would work contemporarily, as museums are very rarefied places,” continues Cribbs. Persistence paid off however, and deals made by the Foundation for Warhol now include product lines with Levi’s, adidas and Philip Treacey.
Part of the Foundation’s success with Warhol was in recognising that his image stretches beyond simply the art that he made. His life story – rising from an impoverished background in middle America to be one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century – also makes him appealing as an icon, and his distinctive look makes him instantly recognisable, all factors contributing to the building of his brand.
When Cribbs joined Corbis, the photolibrary had recently acquired representation rights for the Roger Richman Agency, who had the estates for Albert Einstein, Steve McQueen and Maria Callas, amongst others, on its books. Corbis were keen to begin licensing these iconic figures in a similar way to Warhol. “We’re exploring why it makes good business sense to promote someone,” says Cribbs. “We work with our clients on how to found a trademark portfolio. We view Einstein, for example, as a brand, and for that brand we’ve established an aesthetic, a brand philosophy, a brand logo, and packaging guidelines.” Cribbs recognises that not all former stars are suitable for the brand treatment, however. “We get a lot of phone calls from a lot of different estates, but we’re choosy,” he continues. “We want to represent super-iconic people, whose legacy supercedes who they were as individuals. Einstein was a scientist but he stands as much more than that.”
In case all this reduction of some of history’s greatest figures to brands sounds unbearably tacky, it is worth pointing out that some of the money raised by estate licensing goes to worthwhile causes. Einstein, for instance, stipulated that all monies raised after his death should go to funding the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he sat on the first board of governers, alongside Sigmund Freud. All proceeds received by Audrey Hepburn’s estate go to a children’s foundation, while Princess Grace of Monaco’s estate uses its money to fund an arts programme.
Corbis may be ahead of the pack in terms of such active marketing of the dead stars they represent, yet other photo libraries are quickly realising the importance of protecting a dead icon’s image in order to maximise the potential earnings from it. “Advertising interest or potential large publishing projects are subject to increased scrutiny due to the high visibility and commercial implications of such requests,” says Michael van Horne, editor of the image archive at Art & Commerce in New York, which represents the estates of Robert Mapplethorpe and Guy Bourdin among others. “Whereas a smaller editorial use may only be reviewed by two or three individuals, an advertising license may in some cases only be granted following conversations including higher up figures, such as an estate’s executor and members of the board of directors. The standard copyright permission agreement, most often used for editorial or book uses, may then be replaced with a much more detailed contract.” To help the advertising industry navigate such complications, larger photolibraries such as Getty Images and Corbis will now advise clients as to which estates may present difficulties, in terms of expense or reluctance to be connected to commercial projects, and in turn suggest other suitable people or properties that may be easier to work with.
With photolibraries and estates becoming increasingly aware of the broader possibilities for enhancing the legacies of those they represent, it seems only a matter of time before dead celebrities will increasingly appear amongst us, in adverts and television shows as well as product lines and in other merchandising. As van Horne emphasises: “I think we’ve been very clear with the estates, without objection, that we are interested in seeking out culturally enriching and high value placements of the work. Ultimately, the details of a project will determine the appropriateness of it, but I think it’s safe to say that we, and the controllers of the various archives, are open and here to listen to what people have to say. There is no closed door policy when it comes to academic or commercial use.”