From ‘South Park’ To Springsteen: The Entertainment Industry’s 2021 Scorecard

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Reese Witherspoon cashed out. Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West became billionaires. And it was “Glory Days” for Bruce. But not all stars glittered in a year of massive deals.  

Eyebrows were raised when, just six days into the year, Neil Young announced that he had spun “Heart of Gold” and the rest of his song catalog into actual gold by selling them to song management company Hipgnosis for $150 million. Coming on the heels of Bob Dylan’s similar, $300 million deal made just a few weeks earlier, it seemed clear that it was just the beginning of an entertainment bull market.

Then came the March announcement that Paul Simon was selling his song catalog for $250 million, followed by sales involving members of Fleetwood Mac, heirs to the Prince estate and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The year ended on an even higher note, when news broke that Bruce Springsteen reportedly sold his catalog to Sony Music for at least half a billion to Sony Music in December in apparently the biggest deal ever for the life’s work of an individual artist. 

The music sales were just the tip of a massive intellectual property iceberg that soared in value during 2021. In May, Friends once again cashed in on a show that has funneled more than $1.4 billion to the cast and creators as they switched loyalties from Netflix to HBOMax. Then Viacom signed a deal to pay the creators of South Park more than $900 million over a number of years.

And some say the pop-culture horse trading is just getting started, so look for plenty more drama in 2022. Until then, here’s a look at 2021’s highlights.

Rap Star. Entrepreneur. Billionaire

After a decade as a top-selling hip-hop act, “Umbrella” singer Rihanna joined the three-comma club in August when Forbes confirmed she owns 50% of her Fenty Beauty line, in joint venture with luxury house LVMH.

With Friends Like These…

The actors and creative minds behind Friends, one of network TV’s most beloved sitcoms made a big splash with their reunion show, which aired on HBO Max in May. The cast earned an estimated $5 million each for their appearance. That’s just the icing on the cake: altogether Forbes estimates the show brought in more than $1 billion in pretax earnings since its 1994 premiere; the cast earned $816 million pretax, or $136 million each. 

Bilbo Baggins’ Billions 

Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson’s foray into visual effects through his shop Weta Digital paid off big time. The New Zealand-based firm, which he cofounded to provide effects for Heavenly Creatures (1994), grew into a Hollywood powerhouse, providing computer-generated imagery for everything from Wolverine (2013) to the 2019 remake of Lady and the Tramp. In November, Weta announced that a chunk of its assets were being sold for $1.6 billion to Unity Software, which makes software for videogames. Forbes conservatively estimates the deal officially makes Jackson a billionaire.

Free At Last? 

Britney Spears was finally freed from her conservatorship in November after 13 years, but the fight hasn’t ended there, with the potential for a legal battle against father Jamie Spears looming. What comes next for the pop star is unclear but the damage isn’t: Forbes determined her $60 million fortune was shockingly low compared with her peers, due to millions spent on legal fees and a longtime dearth of brand partnerships, tours and new music. 

A Beautiful Brand

Kim Kardashian West officially became a billionaire in April thanks mostly to two lucrative businesses —KKW Beauty and Skims. Cosmetics company Coty acquired a 20% stake in Kardashian’s beauty brand in January in a deal that valued the business at $1 billion. Meanwhile, her shapewear brand Skim is valued at more than $500 million, according to a source. Thanks to a prenup, the reality star-cum-legal scholar should walk away with her fortune and assets intact whenever her pending divorce from Kanye West is finalized.

Slam Dunk

It was a good year for NBA hero LeBron James. He had a starring role in Space Jam: A New Legacy and he sold a significant minority stake of his SpringHill entertainment group in October at a valuation of $725 million to a consortium of investors that included Nike and Epic Games. Forbes estimates his stake at $300 million, bringing his net worth up to about $850 million, after accounting for taxes, spending and investment returns.

Tragedy in Texas

A massive crowd crush at Travis Scott’s Astroworld concert in Houston in November left 10 fans dead and continues to have knock-on effects on the rapper, whose image and business ventures have taken a hit: some 300 lawsuits have been filed; Anheuser-Busch cut ties to Travis Scott and his hard seltzer brand Cacti, Nike delayed release of its Travis Scott sneaker, and he was removed from the Coachella 2022 lineup.

Record Redux 

Taylor Swift’s re-recording of her 2012 album Red debuted at number one on the Billboard Top 200, making her the second woman ever to have 10 or more albums to achieve the No. 1 ranking after Barbra Streisand, who has had 11, according to Billboard.  The re-recording, part of a strategy by Swift to take back control of her masters after mega-manager (and Swift nemesis) Scooter Braun sold her originals to private equity firm Shamrock Holdings; her gambit is paying off, with the fresh recordings topping charts and devaluing Shamrock’s investment. 

Donda Dud

Kanye West turned his rap genius into a billionaire’s fortune, but 2021 showed that not even an icon is safe from missteps. The former presidential candidate turned to controversial guests including DaBaby (panned for homophobic remarks) and Marilyn Manson (facing accusations of sexual abuse) for his new album, Donda. It didn’t work. His 10th studio album, named after his late mother, was widely panned after it dropped in August. 

Hello, Payday

Actress Reese Witherspoon sold her five-year-old production company, Hello Sunshine, to a Blackstone-backed company for $900 million in August, pocketing $120 million after taxes in the deal and landing a big win for gender parity in Hollywood. 

The Green Widow 

After Disney simultaneously released Black Widow in theaters and on its streaming platform, star Scarlett Johansson sued the Mouse House, claiming up to $50 million in lost bonus payments. Disney fired back by publicly disclosing her $20 million upfront salary, a Hollywood no-no. The two later settled for an undisclosed sum. 

Cuomo Non Grata

It wasn’t a great year for the Cuomo family—Andrew Cuomo resigned in August as New York governor amid fallout from his sexual harassment scandal—while younger brother Chris Cuomo was fired from his CNN anchor job in December after legal documents revealed the extent to which he aided Andrew in his battle against the harassment allegations—seen as an unforgivable breach of journalistic ethics. 

Gone, But Not Forgotten 

Even after death, success in show business can still command a marquee price tag. In September, 31 years after the creator of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory died of cancer at age 74, Netflix paid a reported $684 million for the Roald Dahl Story Company and rights to the British novelist’s stories.