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Representing celebrity images, from John Belushi to James Dean

Updated on July 14, 2014
The exterior of CMG Worldwide headquarters in Indianapolis features images of some of its famous clients; (from left) Bettie Page, James Dean, Amelia Earhart and Jackie Robinson.
The exterior of CMG Worldwide headquarters in Indianapolis features images of some of its famous clients; (from left) Bettie Page, James Dean, Amelia Earhart and Jackie Robinson.

Story by Robert Kostanczuk

Indianapolis corporation represents celebrity images

Image can be cultivated, and profitable.
A certain Midwest business proves that point.
The lofty status of CMG Worldwide Inc. as a powerful business agent for celebrities can be traced back to its representation of two diverse American icons.
“Norman Rockwell and Elvis Presley were our first two clients,” said Mark Roesler, chairman and chief executive officer of the Indianapolis-based marketer and licensor for more than 300 stars -- most of them deceased Roesler's exploits have been featured on CBS' "60 Minutes"

CMG Worldwide protects the names and commercial viability of a dizzying array of dear-parted entertainment luminaries who include Laurence Olivier, John Belushi, Peter Sellers, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

Historical figures under CMG’s tent include African-American leader Malcolm X, General George S. Patton Jr. and literary giant Mark Twain.
“We’re an agent that represents personalities who have valuable intellectual property rights; intellectual property rights are assets that people, or corporations, can have,” explained the 58-year-old Roesler, a graduate of Indiana University’s school of business and school of law.
Someone with plenty of the “intangible assets” which Roesler often talks about is James Dean, an early client of CMG, formerly known as Curtis Management Group.
Dean -- a native of Fairmount, Ind. -- died in a car crash at age 24 after starring in only three feature films, but his smoldering-cool persona remains coveted by advertisers 59 years after his death.
Roesler points to one of CMG’s images of Dean that was used in a Chrysler commercial featuring Bob Dylan during this year’s Super Bowl telecast.
“After these celebrities are dead, they’re seemingly able to generate a significant amount of money, and, in some cases, more than what they were able to generate during their lifetimes,” Roesler said in a recent phone interview.

Having fashioned the foundation for CMG in 1981, he is now an Indianapolis resident with offices on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, and a home in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Aside from entertainers, Roesler’s enterprise controls image use for deceased sports legends such as Lou Gehrig and racial-equality icon Jackie Robinson, who is featured in a giant image on the exterior of CMG’s headquarters.
One of the most intriguing members of the client list is aviatrix Amelia Earhart, who disappeared in 1937 during an around-the-world flight.
Earhart’s own words and appeal as a female trailblazer were utilized this year during the Winter Olympics in a Visa commercial.
“They came to us for approval, and got the license from us for that,” Roesler noted.
Aside from notable humans, there are trademarks for CMG to watch over, such as the eye-catching “I Love New York” logo with the illustration of a heart

Another American bellwether represented by CMG is the first person to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong, who died in 2012.
Many of the notables who are handled by the company get paid for autographs and personal appearances -- but Armstrong was an astronaut who was cautious about cashing in.
“He was very concerned about how his name and likeness was used, and turned down probably almost all the opportunities that were presented to him,” Roesler said. “We had somebody that had a standing offer of a million dollars on the table for Neil to sign, basically, a night’s worth of autographs on documents, and he refused to do it. He did not want to commercially exploit his name and likeness.”
Armstrong’s refusal meant commission money was lost for CMG, which has some of the most lucrative deceased personalities under its umbrella.
Forbes magazine’s 2013 list of the top-earning dead celebrities features CMG client and 1950s pinup starlet Bettie Page, who ranks No. 8 with $10 million.

The allure of such bygone stars is tied to clout that reaches beyond mere entertainment skills, according to Kathryn Cramer Brownell, an assistant history professor at Purdue University whose teachings deal with the intersecting of media, pop culture and politics.
“Celebrities can really provide that window into learning broader lessons about American history and American culture at a particular time,” Brownell said.
For her new book that is set for a November release -- “Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life” -- Brownell is using pictures of the late actress Bette Davis, a CMG client.
“I worked with CMG to get the licensing to use those images,” Brownell said.
Roesler said a “major” advertising campaign using CMG imagery could command a fee “in the six figures.”
In a battle for revenue, the CEO has sometimes gone to court.
This year, Roesler’s business was in the news because it sued Twitter over a James Dean Twitter handle
Roesler said the litigation was launched so CMG could “recover that domain.”
The court case, he said, speaks to the broader issue of “the ability of a celebrity to control their name in social media.”

Another legal battle saw Roesler taking on Warner Bros. over rights to the image of Dean, whose only three starring films were released by the studio.
Roesler said CMG won the dispute, while noting the outcome “really propelled us” in the early 1990s.
The ’90s also was the decade in which the celebrity agency secured a court victory confirming “we were the ones that really controlled the rights to Malcolm X and the ‘X’ insignia,” Roesler said

Aside from managing deceased celebrities and their images, CMG Worldwide handles living people of fame, including Pamela Anderson and Ivana Trump, according to a client list supplied by the corporation.
CMG displays memorabilia of its clients at The Legends Museum in Indianapolis.
Additionally, a branch of CMG manages and designs websites. One of the those CMG sites showcases rock ’n’ roll icon Chuck Berry.


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