Lessons From 8 Business-Savvy Celebrities

LOS ANGELES (TheStreet) -- If you want an Oscar, acting, singing or some combination of both may get you one. If you want to be the person who pays Oscar winners' salaries, it requires a bit more business savvy.

Last year, Johnny Depp was the industry's highest-paid actor, with $75 million, while last year's Best Actress winner, Sandra Bullock, took home $56 million. That's nice but, to put those salaries in perspective, George Lucas made almost 10 times Bullock's paycheck last year by doing nothing. William Shatner's dot-com shares alone may have eclipsed Johnny Depp's take.

So how do the high rollers do it? TheStreet took a look at eight of the highest-earning celebrities of the past year and, with Oscar week upon us, laid out a blueprint for Oscar winners wondering what to do once they've taken their statuette, closed out the bar at the afterparties and reached the pinnacle of their profession. The answer's as much about owning your brand as it is about honing your talent:

George Lucas
Wondering why even Justin Bieber has his own doll? It's called merchandising, and nobody's been better at it than George Lucas. It's hard to shrug off the $4.5 billion his six Star Wars films have made at the box office to date, but it's even harder to argue that Lucas' 4,000-acre Skywalker Ranch, LucasFilm studios, his THX sound technology, his Industrial Light and Magic and Skywalker Sound visual effects and audio studios, Pixar (which was splintered off of LucasFilm) or Lucas' lesser producing efforts such as Willow and Howard the Duck would have been possible without the more than $14 billion the Star Wars films have made from toys and games alone.

Thanks to the deal Lucas made with 20th Century Fox that gave him sole ownership of Star Wars' licensing rights, Lucas gets paid every time his LucasArts game studio sells a copy of the soon-to-be-released Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars or Hasbro ( HAS) sells a Star Wars-based Risk game. Lucas is worth more than $3.25 billion, is one of Forbes' 100 richest Americans and made $510 million off Star Wars merchandise last year when there wasn't even a Star Wars movie out. Having a franchise with these kind of legs is the mark of a great filmmaker. Letting that franchise keep you wealthy without lifting a finger is the calling card of a great businessman. The invisible force of the market is strong with this one.

Oprah Winfrey
This one-woman economy is stepping down from the talk show that most of America considers her main gig, but it's difficult to remember that O, The Oprah Winfrey Magazine, Sirius XM's ( SIRI) Oprah Radio and her Oprah Winfrey Network joint venture with Discovery Communications ( DISCA) is all possible because of one simple decision tied to that show: Winfrey's founding of her Harpo Productions company when the show made its nationwide debut in 1986.

It's Oprah's name spelled backward and the name of the husband of her Oscar-nominated character from The Color Purple, but it's the main reason Oprah gets the full take from her show, a cut of Dr. Phil's, Rachael Ray's, Dr. Oz's and Nate Berkus' shows and films including Beloved, The Great Debaters and Precious: Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire. Oprah wasn't the first celebrity to start a production company -- Clint Eastwood's dates back to the late 1960s -- but she is the only one who turned it into a more than $310 million in personal income last year alone.

William Shatner
Whether fans know him as Star Trek's Captain Kirk, '80s cop TJ Hooker, the Emmy-winning actor who played Denny Crane on Boston Legal or the weird lounge singer doing Elton John songs on YouTube, there's one title that fits William Shatner better than any of them -- savvy investor.

When Priceline ( PCLN) made Shatner the face of its Priceline Negotiator campaign in 1997, he asked the company for stock instead of cash. That move looked Star Trek V bad back in 2000 when each share was worth $1.80, but share values have since warped to more than $433. Shatner himself balked when it was reported that his stake was worth $600 million last year, but there's a strong chance his stock is providing a bigger payoff than his decision to star in CBS' ( CBS) Twitter-based sitcom $#*! My Dad Says.

Jaclyn Smith
How do you answer the question "Who is Jaclyn Smith?" If your answer is "Why, she's Kelly Garrett, the only member of the original Charlie's Angels to make it through the show's whole run," congratulations on retaining information that hasn't been relevant in 30 years. One can only hope you're cleaning up at your local bar's trivia night with all that esoteric knowledge. If you answered "She's that woman who makes those clothes and bedspreads for Kmart," you've at least left the cave to go shopping in the past three decades or so.

After striking a deal with Kmart in 1985 to sell her Jaclyn Smith apparel collection, Smith has watched that collection rake in roughly $300 million a year and make as much as $600 million a year for her corporate collaborators at Sears Holdings ( SHLD). Humble though the brand may be, it nets Smith about 10% of the take each year and set the pattern for not only low-priced celebrity labels such as Martha Stewart's former Kmart offerings but for celebrity designers including Sean Combs, Beyonce and Gwen Stefani who've made a mint off of their own apparel businesses.

Jay-Z
He could have stopped after founding his Rocawear Label and making Armadale vodka with partner Damon Dash back in the early 2000s, but that doesn't get you a $63 million paycheck last year and seat at the table with Warren Buffett. Instead of settling for life as a "hip-hop entrepreneur," Jay-Z opted to become a better businessman by selling his $22 million Roc-A-Fella Records-tied clothing label to Iconix Group for $204 million in 2007.

He traded in his overpriced vodka for a job as Anheuser-Busch InBev's ( BUD) co-brand director for Budweiser Select. He's put money into his 40/40 and a partial stake in NBA's New Jersey Nets and turned a book deal with Random House for his memoir, Decoded, into a nearly three-month stint on the New York Times bestseller list. Not everything he touches turns to gold, as the recession turned his J Hotels venture into a $50 million loss, but Jay-Z meeting with Buffett last year shows he's willing to learn from his losses and from those with the golden touch.

Beyonce Knowles
Maybe her roles in Austin Powers in Goldmember, The Fighting Temptations and Obsessed weren't Oscar-caliber, but taking better roles such as those in Dreamgirls and Cadillac Records and diversifying her endorsement portfolio are helping Beyonce to an $87 million-a-year career that's made her the primary breadwinner in a household that includes Jay-Z.

Her best move, however, may have been signing an endorsement deal with L'Oreal when she was 18. That opened the door to deals with Tommy Hilfiger and Emporio Armani that helped establish Beyonce as a luxury brand. Those endorsements allowed her to establish her successful House of Dereon fashion line with her mother in 2006, has banked her more than $240 million since 2007 and gave her the leverage to launch her Givaudan Claude Dir- and Olivier Gillotin-made Heat and Heat Rush fragrances.

Sure, Beyonce occasionally stoops to shill for electronics companies such as Nintendo and Vizio, but her glamour-based economy's still looking bullish now that she's been seen courtside at the NBA All-Star game in wavy blonde hair that her fans will be seeing a lot of next year when she appears in the Clint Eastwood-directed remake of A Star Is Born.

Will Ferrell
For someone who's played more than his share of dumb guys in frat boy comedies, Ferrell's looking pretty smart for playing dot-com investor with longtime writing collaborator Adam McKay. After working together on Saturday Night Live and on films including Anchorman and Talledega Nights, McKay and Ferrell started Funny or Die online in 2007 and featured clips from such buddies as Judd Apatow and James Franco and original material including political parody and sketches such as the Drunk History series, which was shown at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

While securing funding from the site from Sequoia Capital was a great idea, getting Time Warner ( TWX) and HBO to buy a 10% stake in it for $10 million in 2008 and parlaying it into the HBO series Funny or Die Presents -- which just began its second season -- was pure genius. Maybe funneling brews as Frank the Tank, running around Rockingham speedway in his underwear as Ricky Bobby and playing jazz flute as Ron Burgundy was just Ferrell's way of lulling the tech investment world into a false sense of security.

Sammy Hagar
Before P. Diddy was getting 50% of Ciroc vodka sales from Diageo ( DEO), before Jay-Z and Damon Dash were sipping their private-label Armadale Vodka, before Willie Nelson teamed up with Drinks Americas on his bourbon and even before Danny DeVito started making Limoncello, there was a redheaded rock star, a bar and a dream.

Sammy Hagar started his Cabo Wabo cantina with his Van Halen bandmmates in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, back in 1990. When the cantina nearly collapsed from mismanagement, Hagar bought out his soon-to-be-former bandmates, began pouring customers a private-label tequila he'd commissioned from a small family distillery in Jalisco and started selling out -- literally and figuratively. He promoted his booze with a track called Mas Tequila off his 1998 solo album Red Voodoo and allowed a wine importer to bring bottles back to the states. Distribution jumped from 37,000 cases in 1999 to 140,000 cases in 2006, but the tequila had gone as far as Hagar's barroom rock could take it.

In 2007, Hagar sold an 80% share of Cabo Wabo to Gruppo Campari for $80 million after Campari promised to take it on a world tour and make it huge in Europe. Sure he's not in Van Halen anymore, but he took Van Halen bass player Michael Anthony for his band Chickenfoot, used some of the Cabo Wabo cash to open a restaurant chain called Sammy's Beach Bar and doesn't need Eddie Van Halen's OK to do any of it. Beat that, David Lee Roth.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.

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