More than a year ago, the producers at Big Fish Entertainment — the company behind A&E’s hit “Live P.D.” — started talking about ways to create a program timed to the 10th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death. Surely interest would be high, given the King of Pop’s musical legacy and the circumstances of his untimely demise.
Big Fish optioned the 2012 book “Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson,” by Rolling Stone contributor Randall Sullivan, with an eye toward developing an unscripted series. The company, eager to expand into the scripted business, also found writers to develop a version of the book’s narrative as a limited series.
“We worked closely with Randall to identify material and footage and stories that people have never heard,” Big Fish president Dan Cesareo said. “People willing to go on record who hadn’t previously gone on record. We felt we had put together a really compelling narrative that would make a lot of sense for the market.”
Big Fish soon found a network partner, which Cesareo declined to name, and kicked development into high gear. But then came “Leaving Neverland.”
The HBO documentary, which first screened at the Sundance Festival in January, forced networks and producers to rethink their plans on how to observe the anniversary of Jackson’s death — or whether to do so at all.
Directed by Dan Reed, “Leaving Neverland” 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 two-part, four-hour documentary aired in March. Since then, many radio stations and DJs have stopped playing Jackson’s music, and the debate continues over how (or if) to separate the art from the artist.
In the case of “Untouchable,” Cesareo said the impact of the HBO doc was immediate. The network that had been developing the unscripted project with Big Fish? “They suddenly cut bait and ran,” he said. “The project was essentially toxic. That’s the feeling I got. No one wanted to touch it.”
Ditto the scripted version. “When ‘Leaving Neverland’ dropped at Sundance, we could barely get a return phone call,” he added.
But that’s not the only Michael Jackson-related project, timed to the anniversary of his death, that was scrubbed after “Leaving Neverland” came out. According to one insider, producers Scooter Braun and Den of Thieves had put together a plan to re-create Jackson’s “This Is It” concert — the one the singer had been planning and about to launch in London, just before his 2009 death — as a major TV special.
The idea would be to bring back the original dancers and musicians who had been a part of “This Is It,” along with a rotating cast of A-list guest stars sitting in individually, per song, for Jackson. The project didn’t get beyond the early pitch stage, however, before “Leaving Neverland” changed the tenor of the conversation about Jackson in popular culture.
“They went radio silent shortly thereafter,” one source said.
Programmers rarely let a major anniversary go unnoticed without some opportunity to target audience nostalgia. This summer, countless specials and documentaries (including one by Big Fish) will recount the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Apollo Moon landing. ABC News recently ran a two-hour primetime special about Farrah Fawcett, who died on June 25, 2009 — the same day as Jackson.
But ABC News isn’t planning any similar type of special about the singer. NBC and CBS also don’t appear to have anything in the works. As a matter of fact, it appears the only new Jackson special scheduled anywhere is ReelzChannel’s “The Michael Jackson Story,” set to air on June 23.
“In this moment and time, people want to keep a little bit of a distance from this and see if anything else plays out,” said one network exec. “For the time being, it’s radioactive in today’s world. People are having a hard time separating the human from the human artist. This puts people in a place where they do not want to be associated for the time being with this brand.”
The Michael Jackson estate is also taking a quiet approach to the anniversary of the singer’s death, but it said that’s by design. “We have never encouraged ‘celebrations’ on Michael’s death anniversary and don’t do events or shows ourselves,” an estate spokesperson wrote via email. “We suggest things to fans to honor his life — and this year we ask fans to pay tribute to his memory and philanthropic work by their performing an act of charity or kindness and posting it to their Instagram or Twitter accounts.
“When it comes to large celebrations, those are done around positive moments like his birthday,” they added.
But the estate had been planning on launching something in time for the anniversary: It and Columbia Live Stage were originally set to launch the Jackson-themed musical “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” in Chicago later this year. Its cancelation was blamed on a labor dispute, and so far plans continue for the musical’s premiere on Broadway in the summer of 2020. But nonetheless, the Jackson estate has been remarkably quiet in recent months, after its attempts to discredit “Leaving Neverland” didn’t curtail the film’s impact.
“‘Leaving Neverland’ is reconceptualizing [Jackson’s] life and his personal life but also his work,” said Dan Reed, the filmmaker behind the documentary. “Because of that, it may have an impact on the way that people mourn his passing. I don’t want to take a position where it’s wrong not to celebrate his life, that’s an individual choice. Obviously he was a dad, he was a son. But I think ‘Leaving Neverland’ blew a hole in Michael Jackson’s personal reputation. Of course that’s going to impact the anniversary of his death, which would be planned as a celebration of his life and his work.
“I don’t want to say to people don’t make a big deal about the anniversary of his death,” Reed added. “But let’s just confront the fact that as an entertainer he was amazing, but as a man there were facets to his life that were really unacceptable.”
Reed suggested an alternate way to mark the anniversary of Jackson’s death: To take a stand against the sexual exploitation of children, both in Hollywood and in other parts of society.
“I welcome the opportunity at the tenth anniversary for people to contemplate very seriously how prevalent child sexual abuse is and how easily children can fall prey to beloved, charismatic and much admired and respected figures in the community,” Reed said. ” It’s a horrible thing that happens all over the world, it’s not just famous people. We need to wake up to how easy it is for us to be lulled into a false sense of security. If that’s what we take away from ‘Leaving Neverland,’ then great.”
Reed said he has been heartened by the impact that “Leaving Neverland” has had in pop culture, and noted that the timing (post Time’s Up and #MeToo) helped it and another documentary series, Lifetime’s “Surviving R. Kelly,” in keeping the allegations of child abuse by those two entertainers in the news.
“Any kind of sexual abuse is a topic that people don’t want to talk about,” he said. “I think the Me Too movement and the R. Kelly documentary, they opened people’s minds to the fact that victims out there might be telling the truth. Sexual abuse is a crime that often has no witnesses and often has no material evidence to support it… I think [these things] opened people’s minds that they happen often.”
And because “Leaving Neverland” was so thorough in telling the horrifying stories of Jackson victims Robson and Safechuck, it doesn’t seem complete for any other production about Jackson to move forward without including those two or heavily recounting the doc’s findings. That’s also why, besides not wanting to touch this “radioactive” topic, producers might not want to try and top what Reed has just done. Whether producers or viewers will ever again want to watch a program that celebrates Jackson’s music remains to be seen — and is likely very much down the road.
“There was a [10th anniversary] special already, and it was called ‘Leaving Neverland’ on HBO,” said one reality producer. “It stole the conversation for a while. Right now, people are in contemplative mode. I think maybe for his 20th anniversary people will consider doing a [Jackson] music special. After the dust settles a little bit, people might be able to separate the music from the individual.”