In the decade since Michael Jackson’s death, the late singer’s estate has turned what had been a financial disaster into one of entertainment’s most lucrative properties. But now, the upcoming documentary “Leaving Neverland” threatens to upend all of that — and the estate is in full-blown damage control mode.
Directed by Dan Reed, “Leaving Neverland” was a sensation at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it was met with a standing ovation. HBO, which produced the doc with Channel 4, will air the two-part, four-hour film on Sunday, March 3, and Monday, March 4.
The doc centers on two accusers, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, now in their 30s, who recount in graphic detail how they were sexually abused by Jackson starting at very young ages. “The sexual activities are described with unnerving candor, and one’s inevitable response is to recoil in horror at Michael Jackson’s predatory sickness,” wrote Variety’s Owen Gleiberman in his review. “He was a serial pedophile who came on as a protector of children.”
At Sundance some remarked on social media that it might have permanently tarnished their enjoyment of Jackson’s music.
And that’s what likely has the Michael Jackson estate most concerned. On Feb. 21, the estate sued HBO, claiming the network was violating a non-disparagement agreement it struck with the singer in 1992. “‘Leaving Neverland’ isn’t a documentary, it is the kind of tabloid character assassination Michael Jackson endured in life, and now in death,” the estate said in a January statement.
Family members Tito, Marlon, Jackie and Taj Jackson recently taped an interview with “CBS This Morning” that was slated to air Wednesday morning. In the chat with Gayle King, Marlon Jackson said Robson and Safechuck’s allegations were financially motivated, and that “this documentary is not telling the truth… There has not been not one piece of evidence that corroborates their story. And they’re not interested in doing that.” (King has also interviewed Robson and Safechuck; that sitdown is set to air this Thursday on “CBS This Morning.”)
HBO and the filmmakers, however, have a powerful voice in their corner: Oprah Winfrey, who will host “Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland.” The special, which will air on March 4 immediately after the doc, is a conversation between Winfrey, Robson, Safechuck and Reed. It was taped before an audience of survivors of sexual abuse “and others whose lives have been impacted by it.”
Depending on the impact “Leaving Neverland” has in popular culture and on social media, the Jackson estate runs the risk of seeing the value of the onetime King of Pop’s name and likeness plummet — perhaps even back to the dark days before his passing. “It’s going to be a bumpy ride for a couple of months,” said brand consultant Allen Adamson, the co-founder of Metaforce. “The bigger the HBO movie does, the bumpier it will be.”
By the 1990s, Jackson’s odd behavior had been well documented. But his reputation took a larger hit after he was accused of child sexual abuse in 1993. That complaint was settled out of court, but his career — which had already started to decline — took a steep dip after that. Coincidentally, Jackson’s last big No. 1 hit, 1995’s “You Are Not Alone,” was penned by R. Kelly — the R&B singer who is also fighting numerous allegations of pedophilia and sexual assault.
The real damage to Jackson’s image came in 2004, when he was accused of molesting 13-year-old Gavin Arvizo. Jackson was ultimately found not guilty, but the trial in Santa Barbara County and the surrounding media circus — fueled in part by years of eccentric behavior by the singer, and those previous allegations — seemed to have permanently tainted his reputation.
“I think ten years ago, if you asked most fans to put Michael Jackson on the charming-to-creepy scale, he’d come out much closer to creepy,” said Adamson, who is also an adjunct professor at NYU Stern.
In a 2017 court case with the Internal Revenue Service (which accused the estate of underreporting the value of Jackson’s posthumous assets), the estate admitted as much. Paralegal Karen Langford, who once worked for Jackson’s attorney, testified that Jackson’s merchandise deals dried up after the 1993 accusation, and no national sponsor would back his 1996-97 “HIStory” tour.
During the fight with the IRS, the estate found itself in the awkward position of initially claiming the right to Jackson’s image and likeness was worth only $2,105 at his death, due to the sexual assault allegations.
“Those things are nearly impossible to overcome,” business appraisal expert Jay Fishman, testifying for the estate, said at the IRS trial. “I call it like being in a nuclear winter.” (Fishman said the rights to Jackson’s estate were worth only $3 million at his death, compared with the IRS’ claim of $161 million.)
But after Jackson died, fans were quickly willing to forget the old scandals. Album sales and radio airplay came roaring back. Even now, “Thriller”-era Jackson — who had previously fallen out of favor at many outlets — is a staple on oldies radio stations.
“He had some stigma around him before he died,” one radio executive told Variety. “The things that came out in the Santa Barbara case, those were shocking. When he died, it all went away. There was an immediate love for his music. Some of our biggest songs are from him.”
Now, Michael Jackson is easily entertainment’s highest-paid dead celebrity. According to Forbes, in 2018 his estate pulled in $400 million — far more than No. 2, Elvis Presley, at $40 million. The number was further inflated last year thanks to the $287 million sale of his stake in EMI Music Publishing to Sony. According to Forbes, Jackson’s estate has earned $2.1 billion (inflation-adjusted) since his 2009 passing.
Not only have there been multiple posthumous releases of unearthed Jackson music, but the estate has partnered with Cirque du Soleil on ventures including the permanent “Michael Jackson ONE” show at Mandalay Bay Las Vegas. In 2015, the Jackson estate sealed a deal with Authentic Brands Group — which also manages the Muhammad Ali, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe brands — to find new Jackson-themed licensing and retail partnerships around the world.
And in 2016, the estate cashed in on another big payday: Sony/ATV paid $750 million to buy out his half of their joint publishing catalogue — which famously included the Beatles songs. (The estate still owns Mijac Music, which holds the rights to Jackson’s songs.)
There are some early signs, however, that “Leaving Neverland” could have an impact on the Jackson brand, at least domestically. (Jackson commands perhaps an even larger fanbase in many regions internationally.) The estate and Columbia Live Stage recently canceled plans for a Chicago tryout this year for the Jackson jukebox musical “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.” A labor dispute was blamed for the cancellation, but the timing raised eyebrows. Instead, the show is scheduled to premiere on Broadway in the summer of 2020 — perhaps when “Leaving Neverland” is a distant memory. There also has been talk about a potential tribute concert in 2019 to mark the 10-year anniversary of Jackson’s death. But so far there’s no word of if or when that event, which would feature music superstars reenacting Jackson’s planned “This Is It” tour, will happen.
Elsewhere, the radio exec said he’s “trying to figure out right now” what to do with Jackson’s songs should “Leaving Neverland” have traction. “It’s hard to predict what might happen, but we’ll pay attention to the story and listeners’ thoughts and feelings,” he said.
Despite the horrific abuse documented in “Leaving Neverland,” Reed said he’s not advocating a scrub of Jackson music from popular culture. He’d rather leave that up to the individual. “No doubt people will talk about a ‘Mute MJ’ campaign,” the director said. “Personally, I would not endorse that; it’s got to be a personal choice. As someone who’s watched the film, would you want to hear a Michael Jackson track playing at a kiddie’s party? I think that might make some people uncomfortable now. So that will change. The film’s not about Michael Jackson, and my intention is certainly not to topple Jackson from his iconic status, or to undermine his legacy. I just think it needs to be re-contextualized.”
That debate over separating the art from the artist is one also underway with disgraced stars such as Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K. and, most recently, R. Kelly. But the obvious difference with Jackson is that he is no longer alive, and that’s why Adamson believes the Michael Jackson brand may weather “Leaving Neverland.”
“There is not going to be an echo chamber where he denies it [and] the lawyers get involved,” said Adamson, who also believes the past allegations may potentially mitigate the documentary’s effect. “I don’t think it will surprise the vast majority of the marketplace. The whole ‘Neverland’ idea always seemed sketchy at best.
“The best thing for the Jackson brand,” he added, “would be to not respond, not argue, to dial back and go into a quiet period and wait for some time to go by.”