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  • Writer's pictureJenny Rozelle, Host of Legal Tea

Current Trends - Mark Roesler, Publicist for Dead Celebrities - Episode 140

Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners –This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. Welcome back for another episode today, episode one hundred and forty! Today’s episode is a “current trends” episode where we talk about things going on currently that is relevant and pertinent to my estate and elder law world, and/or maybe things I’ve seen on the news or stumbled across on social media that are also relevant to my estate/elder law world. Well, on today’s “current trends” episode, we’re going to chat about a fellow named Mark Roesler, who is a publicist by trade, but he sure has an interesting client list. You want to know who his clients are? They’re all dead. Dead celebrities are his clients. Or, as some call dead celebrities … delebrities. Anyway, Mark is the founder of CMG Worldwide, which according to The Guardian article that inspired this episode, CMG has represented 3,000 deceased entertainment, sports, music, and historical personalities. The Guardian article is linked in the source links for the episode and it is titled, “We said no to Elvis Presley sweat and James Dean condoms; the agent making a killing from dead celebrities.” With that kind of title, I was hooked.

Let’s talk a little about Mark first – because when I started researching and writing this episode, there were so many “small world” moments as I learned more and more about Mark. Maybe, if I’m lucky, he’ll listen to my episode and realize that he and I should talk – about delebrities, of course, but about all of our “small world” connections too. So, first and foremost, he’s from Indiana – which if you’re a faithful Legal Tea Listener, you know this podcast is based out of Indiana. I, too, was born, raised, and continue to live in Indiana today. Mark grew up near Fairmount, Indiana, which is very close to my husband’s hometown of Hartford City, Indiana. Years later, Mark attended Depauw University in Greencastle, Indiana – which ironically, Depauw is in the county I grew up in, which is Putnam County, Indiana. The “small world-ness” doesn’t stop there, though. After Depauw, Mark attended IU McKinney School of Law – which is where I attended law school. Wow, right? So you probably not know way more about me and Mark than you really ever cared to know, but I digress!

So, Mark founded his company, CMG Worldwide, in 1981. But before that, interestingly, he actually started his own roofing company to help pay for his law school – and The Guardian article said that he enjoyed it so much that he considered remaining in that field. Though, eventually the roofing business slowed down a bit and that is when, as he calls it, “stumbled” into working for a company that was licensing copyrights for Norman Rockwell’s, the artist, images. After that, he landed a job with Elvis Presley’s Graceland, where he ended up representing the Elvis Presley Estate in a dispute between the tourist attraction, Graceland, and Elvis’ former manager, Colonel Tom Parker. That was Mark’s first “client.” As The Guardian article says, “Not a bad first client to have.” That made him start to think about other dead celebrities – and wondered if there was a legitimate opportunity there.

As I mentioned earlier, Mark grew up in Fairmount, Indiana – which is where James Dean (yes, THE James Dean) was not only buried, but he also grew up close to it – anyway, so you want to know who Mark’s second client was? James Dean’s Estate. Sure not a bad second client either! So, after going 2 for 2 on big names like Elvis Presley and James Dean, he started registered trademarks for his clients’ names and some of their most famous images. Mark even started working with various states’ legislatures because every state has different laws around people protecting their names and likeness.

Fast forward today, he’s got MANY big, big name clients – many delebrities as clients. He just recently signed Albert Einstein. Others in his client base are names like: Neil Armstrong, Aaliyah, Rosa Parks, Burt Reynolds, Sugar Ray Robinson, Ingrid Bergman, Alan Turing, Maya Angelou, Malcolm X – to name just a few. Like I mentioned earlier, Mark’s company has represented around 3,000 dead celebrities. And just like everything … even his world is changing and adapting to technology like artificial intelligence. Actually, Mark shared in The Guardian article that his company recently acquired an interest in a company called Worldwide XR, which is a tech company that really gets into holograms to augmented reality. Mark states, “So suddenly, people like James Dean can star in movies again and appear in ads.” (Wild, right?!)

Tim, the author of The Guardian piece, asked Mark, “Does it ever seem strange on some ethical level to be working with people from beyond the grave? After all, we can never know if they would have approved of what’s being done in their name.” Well Mark responded – He said, “You know, James Dean had a famous quote: ‘If a man can bridge the gap between life and death if he can live on after he’s dead, then maybe he was a great man.’ So I think he would be happy that future generations continue to be inspired by his work. Obviously, these celebrities have gone to great lengths during their lifetime to protect their legacy, so wouldn’t want to see it abused. That’s why it’s important to have somebody continue to handle it. And that’s what we try to do.” He further shared that part of his job is really about managing the delebrity (dead celebrity) to ensure all opportunities are considered – and shy away from ones that will put them in an unfavorable light. 

For example, he talked about someone wanting to do a theme park in Japan that was a James Dean Theme Park. Mark said, “We didn’t think it would be successful and you don’t want to be married to a failure. … You could guide a celebrity down the wrong path … make a couple of flops and tank their reputation.” That’s really an excellent point. You know, I’ve talked before here on Legal Tea about … on celebrity estate planning episodes mainly … about how celebrities often continue to “make money” after they die –and sometimes, they’re even wildly successful after they die. The article actually mentions that nowadays, to just name a few, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley earn around $100 Million each year … Dr. Seuss earns around $40 Million each year … Prince is $30 Million each year … etc. So, you can imagine something big/something bad happening to big names that earn money (that is likely funding income to their family, to charities, to whatever!) … that could cease or decrease. Mark and his company, CMG, attempt to avoid.

Along the same lines, CMG, like I mentioned earlier, represents personalities that are incredibly important historical figures like civil rights’ icons, Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, and Malcolm X. A perfect example of Mark’s work is that the controversial figure, Spike Lee, started selling Malcolm X merchandise leading up to Malcolm X’s biographical film – well, Mark and CMG, on behalf of Malcolm X, got into a legal dispute with Spike Lee. At the conclusion of the lawsuit, Mark and CMG were successful in their argument stating that Malcolm X’s widow (not Spike Lee) controlled the rights. So, that’s sort of a little glimpse into one aspect of Mark and CMG’s job – protecting dead celebrities’ name, likeness, reputation, rights, etc.

The kind of work that Mark and CMG (and other companies like CMG) do is not always unicorns and rainbows, my friends. The Guardian article actually mentioned a couple cases where things backfired – there was one case with Martin Luther King Jr. and a Ram Truck commercial during the 2018 Super Bowl. Mark and CMG do NOT represent Martin Luther King, Jr. – but who does represent him caught heat for not displaying Martin Luther King, Jr. in a positive manner – well, maybe a better/different way to describe it is that it wasn’t in a manner that MLK Jr. would have likely been okay with. Then, another story/example when Dr. Martens (the shoes) ran an ad that featured Kurt Cobain – well, Kurt Cobain’s wife/widow, Courtney Love, said it was a “despicable use” of her husband. Again, Mark and CMG did NOT represent Kurt Cobain – but who did got fired. A third and final example is when Bruce Lee’s daughter approved the use of Bruce Lee (through technological means) for Johnnie Walker Blue Label – and while she approved it, many o’ fans were unhappy and said that Bruce Lee would not have likely been okay with being the face of whisky.

So, these PR disasters are exactly what Mark and CMG attempt to stay out of – their work is keeping their delebrities (dead celebrities) in alignment with what they think they would have been okay with and stood for, and in alignment with generally good things for their reputation. When talking about these PR mess-ups, Mark mentioned something like, “Can’t please everybody and people are going to be critical of this or that whatever you do.” That’s fair. Kind of reminds me of the saying “damned if you, damned if you don’t” – right? So, Mark – I think many would agree that you have a really cool, really different, very unique job – but I’m certain it comes with a to of challenges. And probably acceptance that whatever you do, whatever choice/decision you make, there will always be critics. I also think with the rise of artificial intelligence and general tech advances, Mark and CMG’s plate is about to get even fuller.

Alrighty, let’s wrap this episode up, shall we? Next week, we’re back to the “celebrity estate planning” type of episode – and during those types of episodes, we dive into a celebrity or “big name” person that has passed away and how their estate looked from an estate planning perspective. Next week’s episode is about George Carlin’s Estate. George Carlin – the comedian, the actor, etc. Well, it will be a phenomenal follow-up to this episode because would you believe me if I told you that his Estate actually sued someone over their use of artificial intelligence and him as in George Carlin? Crazy amazing follow-up to this, right?! So tune in to that episode next week, Legal Tea Listeners, talk to you then and stay well!


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