Roger Richman appears to be doing quite well as a talent agent, considering that nearly all his clients are dead.
Richman is founder and owner of the Roger Richman Agency Inc. in Beverly Hills, which is to deceased celebrities what Creative Artists Agency is to living ones. Looking to revive Boris Karloff as Frankenstein from the grave once again to pitch your long-life batteries? Richman is your first phone call.
Living off the celluloid talents of the long-departed might seem like a ghoulish line of work, but it's a thriving business in the 1990s. Dead celebrities, after all, don't undergo major plastic surgery, throw temper tantrums, or get arrested for drunk driving.
In other words, they are instantly recognizable images that work cheap and can no longer do anything stupid or criminal to tarnish themselves or the products they represent. Which is one reason we're seeing Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling for Dirt Devil, while the allure of Coors beer summons John Wayne's digital specter.
Technology, of course, has a lot to do with it too. Computerized special effects make it possible to lift an actor out of a 40-year-old film and paste him or her into modern footage seamlessly, a feat that would have been impossible or prohibitively expensive a few years ago.
What this means is that people like Richman and those he represents, the heirs of departed celebrities, are making a killing. In some cases, stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood are making more money after their deaths than they ever did alive.
"When I first started in this business, I had some millionaire friends who said they thought I'd do very well. I said, 'Are you kidding? How could there possibly be any money in that?'" said Richman.
He won't reveal his annual revenues, but says his business is growing at a rate of 25 percent a year and has been for several years.
Richman, an attorney registered to practice law in New York, began his agency in 1979 after being approached by the heirs of W.C. Fields. At that time, the rights to pictures and film footage of dead stars either belonged to film studios or photographers, or were part of the public domain; heirs of the stars seldom saw a dime when images of their famous benefactors were exploited.
They also had no control over how these images were used. Richman represented the heirs of Fields in a lawsuit over a poster on which the head of the famous comedian had been grafted onto the body of a chubby, nude man. The suit led to the passage of the California Celebrity Rights Act of 1984, drafted by Richman, which permanently altered the law pertaining to celebrity heirs and to advertisers seeking to use celebrity images.
Under the law, heirs of dead celebrities can register their rights to publicity with the state. Registered heirs are now entitled to recieve compensation for the use of their famous forebears in entertainment or advertising, and have the power to reject any such uses.
The law only applies for 50 years after a celebrity's death but Richman also relies on federal trademark law, which states that publicity rights last in perpetuity as long as there is continual demand for the celebrity's image. Thus, Richman is able to represent the heirs of people who have been dead for more than half a century, like Sigmund Freud and the Wright brothers (who are enjoying a resurgence in popularity with the upcoming 100th anniversary of powered flight in 2003; Richman recently placed old footage of Wilbur and Orville in a commercial for United Airlines).
Richman gets 35 percent of the fee charged to use a celebrity's image, and the star's estate gets the rest. Merchants seeking to use the likenesses of dead celebrities whose heirs are represented by Richman (including John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Durante, Albert Einstein, Groucho Marx and Mae West) on licensed products pay him 35 percent of the licensing fees, typically 8 percent to 13 percent of the product's wholesale price.
The dead celebrity rights business is a big one, and while Richman is one of its pioneers, he is by no means its only practitioner.
Besides agents, there are many attorneys specializing in rights clearance, as well as the heirs themselves, the studios and Hollywood guilds that retain ownership to some images, and there are rights clearinghouses like Hollywood-based SearchWorks that help producers and advertising executives find out who owns the rights to various pieces of footage, music or pictures and then help them get clearance.
Complicating matters is that there is no set rate for the use of a celebrity image. Roxanne Mayweather, a partner with SearchWorks, says commercial producers pay far more than movie or television producers for celebrity rights. And advertisers are typically charged more if they intend to reach a large audience; creators of a print ad in a magazine featuring a picture of Elvis Presley, for example, will pay much less for the right to his image than someone making a national TV commercial starring the King.
Meanwhile, demand for Hollywood icons just keeps getting more intense. The computer revolution has created a whole new outlet for these images on the Internet and in multimedia CD-ROMs. And Mayweather says there is a new fad of using old film clips in corporate presentations.
"A lot of these big companies think there's a prestige factor in having a recognizable film to introduce a corporate presentation. Like opening a sales meeting with a scene from 'Jaws,'" Mayweather said.
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