For "This Is It," Michael Jackson's planned 50-concert residency at London's O2 Arena, the star's sudden, tragic death really could have been it, with millions of dollars lost for producer/promoter AEG Live and the star's vision never realized. Instead, the movie and music divisions of Sony have a film and soundtrack to sell, and AEG will share in the proceeds. But neither would have happened if the companies hadn't had fire-drill-paced meetings to turn a human tragedy into what is already being described as a creative and financial triumph. On Oct. 26, Sony's Epic label released the double-disc set "This Is It" to coincide with the release of the movie of the same name, which arrived in theaters Oct. 28 and will run for a limited two-week engagement. It opened Wednesday with a one-day gross of $7.4 million in the United States and $20.1 million worldwide.
"The film answers a lot of questions," says Rob Stringer, chairman of Sony Music. "I can't comment on a lot of issues that were going on with Michael, nor can anyone else, it's very difficult. But you want to know that he was still a fantastic entertainer, that he still cared, that he was still musically amazing, and all those things are just obvious in this film."
The saga began with the announcement last March of Jackson's string of shows at the O2, the result of two years of talks between Jackson and AEG Live, spearheaded by AEG Live CEO Randy Phillips. The ideas discussed included a tour, a few shows and, finally, a residency. "It took a while for [Jackson] to get comfortable with this, but when he finally made the decision that he wanted to do something, we were in the unique position where London was obviously the perfect place to do it," says AEG CEO Tim Leiweke.
Ticket sales for the initial 10 shows blew up at the box office, and the number of dates was raised to 50. Although all parties were taken aback by the demand, Leiweke says Jackson was fully committed to 50 shows, despite reports to the contrary. "We've heard all of the speculation and opinions out there, but the reality is this is something Michael wanted to do," he says.
Conceptually, Leiweke says the production was "all Michael's" vision-and that vision was expensive. "It was budgeted to be $12 million, but Michael had big dreams and big vision," Leiweke says. "By the time we were ready to go to London we were at $35 million."
In March Jackson reached out to Frank DiLeo, who managed him during a spectacular '80s run that included the star's most successful albums and tours. "Even though he fired me, Michael was still my friend. We never lost the friendship," says DiLeo, who had "no hesitation" about coming back to work for Jackson. "I was extremely excited about being back with him, because we were a magical team in the '80s. He missed it, I missed it."
As rehearsals got under way, public skepticism turned into anticipation. Even the rehearsals two nights before Jackson's death "were extraordinary," Leiweke says. "Everyone came out of there talking about how incredible it was."
The June 24 rehearsal didn't run as long, Leiweke says, and Jackson spent much of that time reviewing video production elements. "He wasn't taxing his voice that night because he was getting ready for London," Leiweke says.
At 12:30 p.m. June 25, Leiweke received a call informing him Jackson had been taken to the hospital. "Like the rest of the world, we were on the outside," he says. "Randy [Phillips] didn't know specifics until he got to the hospital, and by then, unfortunately, it was our worst scenario. It was shocking because what we knew was he was healthy-of that we were certain."
As word of Jackson's death spread, AEG had no time to mourn. The company shifted from preproduction to damage control. "A lot of decisions were made between Tim Leiweke and myself on cell phone while I was standing outside the emergency room," Phillips says. "The first thing we did was have our security close off Staples Center, shut down the production and put all of our intellectual property into the vault at Staples Center so nobody could get near it or leave with it."
As Jackson's death became a media circus, Leiweke ordered Staples Center GM Lee Zeidman to turn the arena into a fortress. "We locked the building down and said, 'No one goes in and no one goes out,' " Leiweke says. The instructions were clear: No pictures of the set, no one in Jackson's dressing room, no one touches anything. "We fired a couple of employees because they took pictures of the stage and we thought that was inappropriate."