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From Icon to Lifestyle, the Marketing of Bruce LeePosted on Thu, Feb 11, 2010 at 8:24 am
by The IDMA Team
Albert Einstein, dead since 1955, is earning $10 million a year. John Lennon, $15 million. Elvis, $55 million. Marilyn Monroe, $8 million, about the same as Andy Warhol.
Deceased artists, celebrities and rumpled physicists can generate substantial revenue for their heirs through merchandising and endorsement deals. Marilyn curtain rings, Warhol flip-flops, Elvis candy dishes — the possibilities are as endless as they are tacky.
That is not what Shannon Lee wants for her father, Bruce Lee, the indomitable martial artist who died in 1973, at the age of 32, just a week before the release of his first Hollywood film, “Enter the Dragon.”
Ms. Lee, 40, a former actress who lives in Los Angeles, was just 4 when her father died. Her memories of him, she said, are fleeting.
“I wish I had more of them,” she said recently, sipping green tea in a Hong Kong cafe. “I have glimpses and images. Brief flashes.”
Calling herself “the guide” for her father’s “legacy,” she has recently begun an effort to rebuild his image in the global marketplace. She calls it “relaunching the brand, as it were.”
The estate now generates $2 million a year, Ms. Lee said, and she is hoping to increase that to about $5 million as “a decent base line.”
With only a few films in Mr. Lee’s oeuvre, however, there is not much to relaunch. None of his feature films is controlled by the Lee estate, and they have all been copied and pirated so widely that even the licensed DVDs sell for as little as $2 in Hong Kong.
Mr. Lee was born in San Francisco but grew up as a tough Hong Kong street kid. He trained obsessively in martial arts and perfected his own kung fu fighting style. Then three films produced in Hong Kong made him a superstar in Asia.
The huge success of “Enter the Dragon,” coupled with the death of its star, made Mr. Lee famous throughout the world. In the United States, the film was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress and deemed an American classic. Mr. Lee got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was named among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
His celebrity was heightened by rumors and conspiracy theories about his death. Some said he had died in the arms of his mistress after a drug overdose, others suggested he had been the victim of a mob hit by a vengeful Triad boss, or had been felled by a karmic curse. The official inquiry ruled that his death was caused by brain swelling from an adverse reaction to a common pain reliever called Equagesic.
Nearly four decades later, Mr. Lee clearly remains an icon of global popular culture. Rebecca Yau, the marketing manager of Fortune Star, which owns the early Hong Kong films starring Mr. Lee, said all his films were still selling well. She said a Blu-ray boxed set would soon be issued.
But over the years, Bruce Lee Enterprises generated comparatively minuscule revenues under the direction of Mr. Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Caldwell. There was little supervision of the use of Mr. Lee’s image or name. The estate did not even own the Internet domain name www.brucelee.com.
His last home in Hong Kong had become a by-the-hour love motel. In recent months, the billionaire who owned the house donated it to the city, and plans are in the works to create a small museum there.
Ms. Lee was in Hong Kong last month to look at the entries in a design competition for the museum, although the Lee estate is not affiliated with the project.
“We have our own goal of building the Bruce Lee Action Museum in the States,” she said. It will probably be in Seattle, she said, where Mr. Lee once lived and is now buried.
Ms. Lee became more involved in the preservation of her father’s legacy 10 years ago, and her mother passed the daily control of Bruce Lee Enterprises to her. Her main thrust was to assemble Mr. Lee’s philosophy, fitness, ambition and work ethic into a saleable concept.
“We look at Bruce Lee as a lifestyle,” Ms. Lee said.
She went to court to wrest the domain name from an entrepreneur who had bought it years ago and was using it as a portal to other unrelated businesses.
The new Web site, introduced in October, includes some of Mr. Lee’s writings, an authorized biography, a blog and a shop with the usual celebrity array of shirts, posters, books, calendars, refrigerator magnets, widgets and wallpapers.
Ms. Lee also reacquired her father’s licensing rights from Universal Studios, which had held them for years.
“They did some licensing here and there, but they seemed passive,” Ms. Lee said. “There was never a pro-active energy behind it.”
In July 2008, the estate signed with a company called GreenLight to negotiate the Bruce Lee “personality rights” — his name, image, likeness and signature. The company also handles the rights for such celebrities as Einstein, Steve McQueen and Johnny Cash.
It is not entirely clear, however, how the Bruce Lee CelebriDuck — a rubber ducky “collectible” at $11.99 — or the $49 Bruce Lee lampshades help to burnish the legacy of a proud and fearsome martial artist.
A 50-part television biography was recently shown in mainland China, licensed to the state-run CCTV network. And a deal was made in the United States for a two-hour documentary on the History Channel called “How Bruce Lee Changed the World.”
Ms. Lee’s team also established a production company, LeeWay Media, to create new “content.” An animated film is in the works, plus a video game, and Ms. Lee said a computer-generated film starring her father was high on her wish list.
A South Korean producer, Chul Shin, tried to strike a deal with the estate to make a such a film.
“There are projects you do for money and others you do for passion,” said Michael Sheehy, a former talent agent in Los Angeles who is an adviser to Mr. Shin. “This was a passion project for us. It must be an extremely compelling story that honors the legacy of Bruce Lee.”
Mr. Sheehy said the deal fell apart because the estate wanted too much creative control. He called the contractual demands “untenable,” and said no studio would accept them.
Ms. Lee acknowledged the seriousness of Mr. Shin’s approach but said she was unhappy with the scripts she had read. Also, test screenings of the special effects appeared rudimentary.
“We have to be careful or we’ll get left with a horrible movie that everybody’s laughing at,” she said. “The technology has not been advanced enough. Only now is it getting close.”
On a waterfront promenade in Hong Kong, not far from Mr. Lee’s former home, there is a small statue of the star in a fighting pose. On a recent Sunday afternoon, hundreds of tourists, mostly from mainland China, posed there for pictures, some giddy, some solemn, most of them clearly adoring.
“I have no interest in Bruce Lee or the martial arts industry, and I find it all a bit ridiculous,” said an Australian tourist, Tom Caughlin. “But it’s fascinating to watch all the people gather around this statue. All these people. It’s amazing.”
By MARK McDONALDNYTimes