by Jesse Stirling


James Dean. Marilyn Monroe. Legends of the silver screen, iconic faces etched into the psyche of worldwide civilization. With more interest, reverence and nostalgia for “old Hollywood” than ever, it’s estimated the industry of marketing deceased celebrities generates $800 million annually. Decades after their demise, some stars still draw big revenue.

In a culture obsessed with fame and fortune, it’s no surprise that many dead celebrities out- gross the living. To put things in perspective, Elvis Presley was worth $4.9 million at the time of his death in 1977. The estate of Elvis Presley generated $55 million last year. 2009’s top “deceased earners” include: Yves St. Laurent, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, J.R.R. Tolkien Charles M. Schultz, Heath Ledger, Albert Einstein, Aaron Spelling, Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel), John Lennon, Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and James Dean.

What happens when a Hollywood legend dies young? Who reaps the fortune? Who owns the rights to their legacy? When it comes to the representation and valuation of celebrity estates, one man is seemingly at the center of it all.

Mark Roesler, Chairman & CEO of CMG Worldwide, is entering his fourth decade of fighting for the intellectual property rights of his entertainment clients. “With celebrities, we feel like we own a piece of them,” Roesler observes. “It’s almost like being part of the family.” Roesler works with the estates and heirs of stars to ensure celebrity images are not used, exploited, and profited from without consent. “It’s been a difficult battle over the years. If I would have known back in 1981 what I was starting, and that in the year 2010 I would still be trying to establish the rights of deceased personalities, I would have been shocked.”

The Los Angeles offices of CMG Worldwide overflow with memorabilia, from James Dean coffee mugs to bottles of Marilyn Merlot. The firm manages 63 clients with stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, negotiated 200 deals with the US post office for stamp creation and are at the vanguard of establishing, protecting and exploiting intellectual property rights for famous personalities. Roesler drives a green Bentley, owns a Ferrari and there’s even a helipad at CMG’s corporate headquarters. Yet Mark’s personality is mellow, humble, down to earth and decidedly “un-lawyerish.”

“We represent a lot of clients. There’s a lot of pressure to produce results,” Roesler explains. “Our reputation is a double-edged sword. It helps us and it hurts us. Our clients sometimes expect a lot from us. We can’t stop every use out there. We play an important role of aggregating, organizing, protecting and monetizing things, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that we didn’t make James Dean who he was. In the whole scheme of things, we’re a small part of his success. Jimmy did what he did. He took the pictures he took. James Dean made an impact on people. You’ve got to give the credit where it’s due, to the stars themselves.”

James Dean was killed in a car accident on September 30, 1955, and buried a few days later in Fairmont, Indianapolis. Mark Roesler was born less than a month later, a couple of miles away, in the next town over. “I grew up in James Dean’s shadow,” expounds Roesler. “Growing up, I wanted to be a successful businessman. When I was in college, and law school, and getting my MBA, I owned a roofing business. I planned on going into the roofing business upon graduation. I liked being up high. I liked running my own business.

My mother put a lot of pressure on me to do something else with my law degree and with my business degree. An opportunity presented itself in the winter of 1981 in the Midwest, to do some intellectual copyright work on the Norman Rockwell estate. The estate asked me to stay on, so I started a separate company, using my expertise to represent other rights holders.

My first new client at that time was the Elvis Presley estate. It was right after Graceland opened. The estate was in litigation with Colonel Parker, Elvis’ old agent. They wanted to have some high quality Elvis merchandise as they opened up Graceland. Being a young lawyer, I saw it was difficult to protect the intellectual property of a person like Elvis Presley. As I was working on the Elvis Presley estate, I realized that James Dean had a similar appeal and had similar issues – the difficulty of protecting his intellectual property rights, and the difficulty of the family to control the use of the image, name and likeness of James Dean.”

“I’m humbled by what I do,” Roesler reflects. “It inspires me to walk in the footsteps and protect the iconic people that I represent. I remember I was up on a roof when Elvis Presley died. Doing a roof. And I thought, wow, that’s too bad, I didn’t know too much about Elvis, who died at a young age. And didn’t know much about James Dean. I grew up in a small town in Indiana. 4000 people. Didn’t know much about celebrities. I didn’t leave the country till I was in my twenties. I grew up with a simple life. I’m proud of what I’ve done and what I do.”

Mark Roesler goes on: “We’ve been involved in a lot of litigation. Probably our most famous case involves James Dean. We started representing James Dean in 1983. We were very successful with James Dean, protecting his intellectual property rights. In 1991, Warner Brothers sued us out of the clear blue sky for $90 million. They sued the family of James Dean, they sued my company, and they sued me personally. And they sued us under what was called “RICO,” Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, that congress passed to go after the Mafia. They sued us out in California in Federal Court for $90 million.

It was front page of all the papers, ‘(The) Wall Street Journal,’ ‘USA Today.’ I was building a very nice home, 20,000 square feet, four story home, eight-car garage, on a lake, with an island and a boat ramp, and the commercial contracting crew is about a year and a half into a three-year project. Construction crew stops. This is RICO. They’re suing me for wire fraud, mail fraud. This is Time Warner, and they have every intention of fully pursuing this matter. It’s impossible to settle. After 15 months the case went to trial. We were spending $250,000 per month in legal fees. When the trial started, I had 14 attourneys on my side, including myself and my legal staff. We went up against Warner Brothers that had an unlimited budget for this. We had everything at stake. Everything.

The judge wanted to understand the position of Warner Brothers. The simple issue was this: James Dean signed a standard SAG (Screen Actors Guild) contract and every actor and actress signed the standard SAG contract. That standard SAG contract from the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s did not contemplate the intellectual property rights of celebrities. It wasn’t until the 80’s that we started exploiting this. Now we’re litigating this in the early 90’s.

Warner Brothers is saying that James Dean only worked for our studio, one studio, one SAG contract, and that SAG contract conveyed these rights to the studio. CMG and Mark Roesler snookered everybody, saying that they and the family owned the rights. They went out and exploited these rights and made all this money, and therefore they engaged in wire fraud, mail fraud, they diverted $90 million that should have gone to Warner Brothers. So the issue was: who owned these intellectual property rights? You can give away anything in a contract. You can sign a standard SAG contract and sign away all the property rights. So from our standpoint, we were representing famous personalities and if they truly signed away their rights, we’re out of business.

The first day of trial, the judge asks if James Dean signed that standard SAG contract, and one week later he’s on a family picnic, and the family took pictures of him, would Warner Brothers own those intellectual property rights because James Dean is under contract? Warner Brothers answers ‘Absolutely, we own everything.’ If the judge would have said, ‘Wait a minute, clearly Warner Brothers, you don’t own everything. Family, you don’t own everything. Here’s who owns what. The family owns the family pictures. Warner Brothers, if there’s pictures of James Dean in a movie, and you want to do a t-shirt of James Dean, rebel type image, then that belongs to Warner Brothers.’

That would be slicing it down the middle, and we would have been out of business. Because who would come to CMG looking for family pictures of James Dean having a picnic in the park? People aren’t interested in the family pictures of James Dean, they’re interested in what made him famous.  Fortunately, it was a two-week trial, and we won every single issue in the case. The judge ruled that Warner Brothers had absolutely no rights by virtue of their standard SAG contracts, and gave them no right to use any James Dean image they had for anything outside the movie. So we won every single issue, turned around, and sued Warner Brothers for $100 million for malicious prosecution.

We quickly settled that case for a very significant amount of money. It’s now considered one of the landmark cases in the entertainment industry, because what it did was establish that the studios owned none of those intellectual property rights. So that put us on the map. Suddenly we’re more than some little Indiana company. Shortly thereafter we opened up an L.A. office,
and we’ve been in Los Angeles ever since.”

Mark Roesler speaks of the digital age: “It used to be where media stories were fed to us. The information age has changed everything. It’s interactive now, so to speak. You can instantaneously access whatever information interests you. Maybe in the early 80’s, you discovered James Dean and got a book or two and became a fan. Now, you can understand all aspects of his life, instantly access his movies, go to his website, join a fan club, interact on social networking sites and share the experience with other James Dean fans.

Has the Internet changed things? It’s changed everything. It’s a completely different ball game. Now, you’re able to learn as much about James Dean as any current celebrity. The only difference is that James Dean is no longer with us. What you see is a community that has tried to preserve the legacy of James Dean. What we do is help that community. Just as James Dean was well paid in his day, his family now continues to reap some of those economic benefits. They are able to carry on the legacy for all these fans that make a pilgrimage to come back every year to a huge James Dean festival on the anniversary of his death. The festival draws up to 100,00 people in the community. The home Jimmy grew up in is still exactly the same. The barn, everything is preserved. It’s truly like stepping back in time.”

Is the image of a dead celebrity safer and more stable than a living celebrity? Roesler muses, “James Dean is not going to create a Tiger Woods situation. Marilyn Monroe is not going to create any new scandals. These celebrities have withstood the test of time.  James Dean has been deceased for 55 years, Marilyn for 48 years. I started representing James Dean a generation ago. Are future generations even going to remember who James Dean was? I remember representing him 25 years after his death, and now it’s 55 years after his death and there’s no let up in sight. Wherever you are in the world, when you think of Hollywood, the images that come to mind are James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. That’s the male and female personification of Hollywood.

Our four-hour chat concludes. Mark gives me a bottle of Marilyn Merlot, and with a wide smile on his face, leaves with this parting thought: “Is Hollywood going to be important a generation from now? The answer is clearly yes. As long as Hollywood is important, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe are important.”