Stakes Are High for Michael Jackson's Brand and Legacy In the Wake of 'Leaving Neverland': 'It's Got to Hurt'
The sexual-abuse charges lodged against Jackson in the HBO doc have raised questions about the future of the King of Pop’s brand.
When the Sundance Film Festival announced in early January that it would premiere Leaving Neverland, Dan Reed's documentary about Michael Jackson's alleged sexual abuse of two boys who are now adults, the late pop star's estate dismissed the film as "just another rehash of dated and discredited allegations." But as the estate's lawyer, Howard Weitzman, would later reveal, it was the first time the estate had learned about the film. Reed had not sought its participation.
"Frankly, it caught John by surprise," a well-placed industry source says of the estate's co-executor, John Branca. "The estate got blindsided by Leaving Neverland. They had no idea it was going to elicit the reaction it did."
The four-hour Leaving Neverland, which HBO aired in two parts March 3-4, relies largely on the first-hand accounts of Wade Robson, now 36, and James Safechuck, 40, who had previously alleged in civil lawsuits that Jackson had sexually abused them for years when they were children. Their accounts of the pop star's behavior are so explicit that Sundance officials stationed health-care professionals in the theater lobby during the premiere to counsel traumatized moviegoers.
Leaving Neverland was well-received by critics. "You'll never listen to Michael Jackson the same way again," wrote Indiewire reviewer David Ehrlich. "In fact, you may never listen to Michael Jackson again at all." Oprah Winfrey also got behind the documentary, agreeing to interview Robson and Safechuck before an audience of sexual-assault survivors following the premiere of the March 4 episode. "For me, this moment transcends Michael Jackson," said Winfrey during the program.
The revelations came at an unfortunate time for the estate. Just days before the documentary's premiere, media reports emerged that Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough, a musical co-produced by the estate and based on Jackson's life, would receive a Chicago tryout beginning in late October, with a planned move to Broadway in 2020. "The last thing you want, if you're going to debut a musical about Michael Jackson, is Leaving Neverland," says the industry source -- and on Feb. 14, the producers of Don't Stop announced the cancellation of the Windy City test run, raising questions about the fate of the musical, and from a larger perspective, the future of the highly lucrative Jackson brand. "The value of the estate is the emotional connection people have with Michael Jackson's music," says Ross Johnson, a crisis communications expert who used to work for Sitrick and Company, which handles publicity for Jackson's estate. "So there's hundreds of millions of dollars at stake."
Howard King, an attorney who represents the estate of Tupac Shakur, puts it more bluntly: "There's nothing good from this documentary for the estate and their ongoing significant licensing opportunities," he says. "Endorsements, licenses — the prices of those, I would think, have plummeted, or they're not available now. It's got to hurt." (Shakur served a prison sentence for sexual abuse in 1995, but King says no posthumous accusations have surfaced.)
Branca and his colleagues are well aware of the withering effect Robson and Safechuck's allegations could have on the late pop star's brand, judging from a 2013 petition the estate filed in U.S. Tax Court. Back then, the estate valued Jackson's name and likeness at a minuscule $2,105, arguing the artist's "reputation was then tainted by child-abuse allegations and his strange public behavior," as The Wall Street Journal reported in 2017. The IRS countered with a valuation of $161 million. (The allegations made in Leaving Neverland won't have any impact on the estate's tax burden. "The IRS values property of the estate at the time of death," says Jennifer Rothman, a Loyola Law School professor.)
Representatives for the estate declined multiple requests to comment for this story, despite assailing Leaving Neverland, its director and HBO since late January. In a 10-page letter sent to then-HBO CEO Richard Plepler in early February, Weitzman attacked the credibility of Robson and Safechuck — noting that both men are appealing lawsuits against the estate that were initially dismissed. He also questioned the documentary producers' decision to not reach out to the estate.
"Why would HBO produce a documentary based solely on the words of these two liars and director/producer Dan Reed?" wrote Weitzman. "Why would HBO produce this documentary without even seeking comment and response from the Jackson estate, who spent years successfully litigating these false allegations?"
On Feb. 21, the estate followed up with a $100 million lawsuit, alleging HBO violated a nondisparagement clause included in an agreement to air a 1992 Jackson concert film, Live in Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour. That film played another role in the dispute, when, in an apparent attempt to counterprogram against HBO, the estate put it and Live at Wembley Stadium on YouTube at the same times the cable network was debuting Leaving Neverland.
Jackson's family, particularly Michael's nephew Taj Jackson, have also gone on the offensive, suggesting in interviews that Robson and Safechuck are driven by money and fame. Johnson says it's a familiar "flood the zone" strategy used by Sitrick and Company where reliable third-party sources refute allegations against a client. He predicts there will be more.
The outcry over the sexual-abuse allegations that plagued the King of Pop died down significantly in the wake of his 2009 overdose death, allowing Branca to convert the estate's $500 million of debt into what Billboard estimated in 2016 was $500 million in cash. Over the last 10 years, Branca, with the help of co-executor and veteran record executive John McClain, brokered a $250 million deal in 2018 for Sony Music to distribute Jackson's recordings for seven more years; worked with Cirque du Soleil to develop the Immortal show, which grossed over $370 million, and the ongoing ONE; and completed the sale of Jackson's stake in the EMI Publishing catalog in 2018 with a final payout of $287 million. Those deals have contributed to a music catalog that's worth $570 million, according to Billboard's calculations.
Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough is one of the estate's most recent attempts to monetize Jackson's music and life. But Mitch Weiss, a veteran show manager and author of The Business of Broadway, says the cancellation of the Chicago tryout could prove problematic for the production's intended Broadway run. "The show has got to prove itself out of town -- that the public in Chicago or Atlanta, or wherever they send it, is willing to overlook the accusations against Michael," he says.
As the Jackson estate battles to protect its brand from the Leaving Neverland allegations, artist managers and executors of other artists' estates are watching closely. It is the second documentary of 2019 to shine a spotlight on a pop star's alleged sexual abuse of underage victims -- the other is Lifetime's Surviving R. Kelly miniseries -- and both are test cases for whether a musical artist's work can weather allegations of predatory behavior in the era of #TimesUp and #MeToo.
Jeff Jampol, who manages estates for The Doors, Janis Joplin and other musical acts, says that when confronting the controversial aspects of artists' lives, honesty is crucial. Joplin died of a heroin overdose; Doors frontman Jim Morrison was arrested for exposing himself onstage. "I don't believe in spinning it. I don't believe in making excuses," says Jampol, who also consults for the Jackson estate, although he declined to discuss his work there. "I believe in saying, ‘This is what happened, this is the art -- make up your own mind.'"
That said, Morrison's exhibitionism seems quaint next to Robson and Safechuck's allegations in Leaving Neverland: recollections of watching hardcore pornography as children with Jackson, repeated oral sex and attempted anal penetration. The film's revelations are reminiscent of the pop star's 2003 arrest for child molestation. At that time, Jackson "couldn't endorse a local car dealer," says King. It took a "not guilty" verdict two years later -- Robson was a crucial witness for the defense at the trial, which he addresses in the film -- for many fans to feel OK about celebrating Jackson's music again. It also helped that Jackson laid low for years after the trial, traveling to Europe and the Middle East, before re-emerging in 2009 to announce his ill-fated This Is It tour. The posthumous film created from rehearsal footage has grossed over $261 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo.
The 10-year anniversary of Jackson's death is coming up in June. "This would be the time that you would want to rerelease a movie or a new film," says the industry source. Or a Broadway-bound musical. "That may be dead for this year, or delayed."
Not everyone believes Leaving Neverland will have a lasting effect on the Jackson brand. John Gallant, an attorney representing Bob Marley's estate in a trademark case, says, "Usually you see a period where there's no new licensing and the estate holds back on his image until the dust clears. I would imagine that's what happens. You ride out the storm."
Additional reporting by Ed Christman.