When investor Joel Weinshanker first looked at the auction of Elvis Presley assets five years ago, it was not a pretty picture. Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis’ daughter, had sold the majority of Elvis Presley Enterprises, the company that looks after her late father’s commercial interests like publishing, licensing, and attractions — such as Memphis’ Graceland — to Robert Sillerman, formerly of SFX and ckX, whose financial woes have been well-documented in recent years.
“Sillerman had aggregated radio stations before, and he had all these grandiose ideas, but at end of the day, he was kind of a snake oil salesman,” says Weinshanker, now the majority owner in EPE and managing director of Graceland Holdings and Graceland Archives. “I remember a meeting he had with the mayor where he promised, ‘I’m gonna spend $1 billion in Memphis.’ Obviously, he never did.”
EPE would change hands again, to hedge fund giant Apollo and spinoff Core Media, and eventually came up for sale in 2013. “A dozen hedge fund and finance guys [came to the table],” Weinshanker explains. “They loved the publishing and licensing portions, but looked at Graceland and said, ‘We don’t know what to do with that. It’s in Memphis. It looks old.’ These were guys looking to get the most amount of money out of the company. Yes, there is money in publishing and licensing, but I really saw the value in Graceland. The core, the heart, the soul of Elvis is Graceland.”
What EPE, Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley have done with Graceland in the four years since has been all-encompassing. The property sits on 138 acres and employs 500. It still sees 600,000 visitors annually and the number is not declining, despite the first generation of Elvis fans leaving the proverbial building in increasing numbers. In fact, says Weinshanker, the largest demographic of Elvis fans these days is 28- to 35-year-old women. “A lot of them are inked disproportionately,” he observes. “And they will tell you there hasn’t been a man alive as sexy as black leather ‘Comeback Special’ Elvis.”
Like Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol, and Muhammad Ali, Presley has become a pop culture icon, but maintaining that big a legacy can be tricky, so Weinshanker honed in on the experience with a “15-year plan” that includes an adjoining 450-room hotel, called “The Guest House,” that completes a vision Elvis had before his death. “Elvis had a ton of people over” at Graceland, he explains, but the house’s relatively small size made sleeping over a challenge. “There was a Howard Johnson about a mile down the road, but by 2 a.m., it would be filled on any given night.”
The Guest House hotel, which Weinshanker notes is the “nicest in Memphis,” is essentially an extension of Graceland, mimicking its shutters and overall look. “Elvis would have been proud,” says Weinshanker, adding that “What Would Elvis Do” is a mantra often repeated by those with an equity stake in his legacy. “When I say, ‘Hey I have a better idea than Elvis,’ everyone should stop listening to me,” he laughs.
But that’s not to say that the business of Elvis is all nostalgia. Weinshanker reveals that in the new “Blade Runner” movie, the King makes an extended cameo. “You see Elvis for about three seconds in a trailer, but he’s in it for a lot longer.” Elvis also draws record numbers for SiriusXM (where its Elvis station is the most popular celebrity-themed destination), and venues in Europe and Australia (where screenings of Elvis’ performance with the Royal Philharmonic had strong ticket sales), but a hologram tour is, as yet, not in the cards.
“It’s a big ‘if,’ says Weinshanker. “My position is that you can never create what Elvis had, which is something you can’t put a finger on or describe. It’s like having a computer create a great painting.”
Instead, efforts are being put towards a live events venue that would draw acts to Graceland, and a 300,000 square-foot World’s Fair concept, that opened in March. Elvis still sells a boatload of physical product, but he has some catching up to do in the streaming sector, where Michael Jackson outperforms his catalog. Still, Weinshanker adds, “If Forbes gets its numbers right, Elvis will be the No. 1 dead celebrity of 2017.”
Indeed, media impressions are in the billions 40 years after his death, and Graceland is seeing more revenue than ever in its 35-year-history. But just four years into Weinshanker’s 15-year plan, there is much more ahead. “Estates falter when their focus is only trying to make money this year,” he says. “And not creating a place — a destination, an exhibition or something — that reminds people how great the act was.”