Tales of John Branca’s business acumen are plentiful. How he turned Michael Jackson’s over-budget “Thriller” music video production into a lucrative behind-the-scenes documentary. How he secured for Jackson the coveted Beatles publishing catalog. How he helped Jackson purchase Neverland ranch for $40 million less than the asking price. How 10 years after Jackson’s death, he and the estate’s other executor John McClain -- a childhood friend of the Jacksons who went on to manage sister Janet’s career and was a founding executive at Interscope Records -- built the artist’s music catalog into a $570 million asset.
Now, after HBO’s March airing of filmmaker Dan Reed’s Leaving Neverland -- with its disturbing and graphic first-person accounts of Jackson’s pedophilia -- Branca, 68, faces a new and arguably much more daunting challenge: protecting Jackson’s legacy and the successful businesses that it fuels from fallout over the powerful testimony presented in the film.
Branca, who is a partner at the law firm of Ziffren Brittenham, has been in this position before: allegations that Jackson sexually abused children first arose in the 1990s and Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who are the focus of Leaving Neverland, first alleged that Jackson sexually abused them in separate lawsuits that they filed in 2013 and 2014, respectively. (Both suits were dismissed and are being appealed.) What’s different this time is that Leaving Neverland brought Robson and Safechuck’s allegations directly to the court of public opinion -- via the cable network that brought the world Game of Thrones -- without giving the estate a chance to mount its usually aggressive defense. (According to Nielsen, part one of the film drew 1.3 million viewers, the third highest rated documentary of the past decade for HBO.)
Although Branca declined to be interviewed for this story, two of his close friends Howard Weitzman and Joel Katz -- high-powered attorneys, who also work for the estate -- spoke to Billboard. Both said that Branca and the estate were blindsided by Neverland. “We didn’t have a clue this was taking place,” says Weitzman, explaining that he and Branca learned of the film by “happenstance,” when someone told them that the Sundance Film Festival had announced its premiere. It was, he said, “a trial by social media.”
Katz, founding chairman of the global media and entertainment practice at Greenberg Traurig, says that when he called to discuss the film, an upset Branca told him, “If someone said something so negative and damaging as this about a good friend of yours who had died, and it was immediately taken as true -- and you couldn’t do very much about it -- how would you feel?”
Weitzman and Branca, who speak five to six days a week under normal circumstances, quickly strategized a response, with McClain’s help. When HBO announced that it had scheduled the documentary over two nights in March, Weitzman sent a 10-page letter to then-HBO CEO Richard Plepler, questioning the ethics of Reed’s decision to not seek the estate’s response, attacking the credibility of Robson and Safechuck and predicting that the airing of Leaving Neverland “will go down as the most shameful episode in HBO’s history.” (Weitzman says that speculation that Plepler’s end-of-February announcement that he was stepping down from his post was not connected in any way to the film.)
A week later, the Chicago tryout of Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, a musical about Jackson’s life that the estate is co-producing was canceled, and a week after that, Weitzman filed a $100-million lawsuit against HBO that began, “Michael Jackson is innocent. Period.” The complaint alleges that HBO violated a non-disparagement clause contained in an 1992 agreement made when the network aired Jackson’s concert film, Live in Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour.
According to Katz, Branca is doing just fine amid the turmoil over Leaving Neverland. “His mindset is to protect the asset,” he says. That said, the controversy has cut into his personal life. In March, Branca married for the third time to model and actress Jenna Hurt, 34, at the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. Weitzman and Katz officiated, but then it was back to work. “He is not having a honeymoon right now,” Weitzman says.
No whiff of scandal clung to Jackson when Branca met the pop star in 1980. Branca, who had graduated summa cum laude from The UCLA School of Law, was 29 and working for David Braun, one of the top music attorneys at the time. Braun represented the Jackson 5, and Michael, then 21, was ready to strike out on his own after the success of his breakthrough solo album Off the Wall. He chose Branca to represent him. Jackson was drawn to Branca because of his youthful exuberance and passion for music. The young attorney briefly had ambitions of becoming a rock star himself. At 16, he and a friend formed a band called The Pasternak Progress. They eventually secured a recording contract and even opened for The Doors on the Sunset Strip.
Jackson and Branca became close -- Jackson even served as the best man at Branca’s first wedding, which was officiated by Little Richard -- but as the singer’s fame grew with the monster success of his 1982 album Thriller, he started to surround himself with an array of other advisers. Around 1990, “John just faded out and didn’t want to deal with it,” says Weitzman.
Besides, Branca’s client roster had grown and would eventually include Dr. Dre, Justin Timberlake, Aerosmith, Mariah Carey, Elton John, Mick Jagger and Beyoncé. With a personal style that favored leather jackets over Armani suits, artists were drawn to him, and he shared his clients’ lavish tastes: Rolls Royces gifted to him by Jackson, a Ferrari 488 Spider and Venetian antiques. The nephew of L.A. Dodgers pitching legend Ralph Branca, he also maintained a collection of museum-quality baseball memorabilia.
Despite their parting -- Jackson’ tended “to think the grass was greener elsewhere,” says Weitzman -- the pop phenom repeatedly sought Branca’s savvy dealmaking skills until 2006, when they split again for unknown reasons. Then, in 2009, as Jackson prepared to launch his This Is It tour and a planned 50-show residency at London’s O2 Arena, Branca was asked to return to the fold.
Then-AEG CEO Randy Phillips (now the CEO of dance-music conglomerate Livestyle), who had orchestrated the tour, says that he and recently re-hired manager Frank Dileo, who had served Jackson during some of his most successful years, encouraged Jackson to reconnect with Branca before the tour.
“Michael had all these film projects he wanted to do,” says Phillips, who helped facilitate a dressing-room meeting between Branca and Jackson at the Forum arena in L.A. on June 17, 2009. “There was a King Tut miniseries he wanted to produce, and all these other ideas. No one knew Michael’s business affiliations and rights ownership than John.”
Branca rejoined the team that night, but eight days later, Jackson was dead from a cocktail of drugs that his doctor had administered to help him sleep. Shortly afterwards, Jackson’s only known valid will, dated 2002, was filed at Los Angeles Superior Court naming Branca, McClain and accountant Barry Siegel (who declined to serve) as co-executors of his estate, which was placed in a family trust with 20 percent of its assets going to charity. Half of the remaining assets go to Jackson’s mother Katherine with the remaining 50 percent to be distributed equally among Michael’s three children, Paris, Prince and Michael (also known as Blanket). The appointment initially came as a shock to Jackson’s family, which initially contested the will. According to Weitzman, Branca was shocked too. “He had no idea that the will caused him to be appointed co-executor,” he says.
At the time of Jackson’s death, he was laboring under a reported $400 million of debt. Branca, McClain and Phillips, along with Sony, came up with the idea of pulling together footage of the London residency rehearsals and interviews that had been taped and releasing it as This Is It, the movie. The documentary has since grossed more than $261 million internationally, according to Box Office Mojo.
Over the past 10 years, under Branca’s leadership, the estate’s wealth has grown exponentially. He worked with Cirque du Soleil to develop two successful shows, Immortal and the ongoing ONE; he completed the sale of Jackson’s stake in the EMI Publishing catalog in 2018 with a final payout of $287 million; and that same year extended a $250 million deal for Sony Music to distribute Jackson’s recordings for seven more years. Billboard calculates that Jackson’s music catalog alone is now worth upwards of $570 million.
In the wake of Leaving Neverland, Branca and McClain, who receive a 10 percent commission on new entertainment revenues generated for the estate, are battling to maintain that forward momentum. And whether or not their strategy has been effective, there are indications that Jackson’s fans are sticking by him. Radio is playing his music less but still more than his musical peers Prince and Madonna, and on-demand streaming of his songs is actually up.
Weitzman also says that Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough will hit Broadway as planned in the summer of 2020 and that he knows of no changes that have been made to the show at this point.
In a world where news cycles rarely last more than a week or two, it will be interesting to see if the allegations of Jackson’s sexual abuse become an issue if and when Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough does open.
Katz and Weitzman say they have no doubt Branca will successfully defend Jackson’s legacy, and a member of the extended Jackson family offers praise as well. Michael’s nephew Taj Jackson, the son of Tito Jackson, who has been speaking out against Leaving Neverland, says that even though “our family doesn’t have the best relationship” with Jackson’s estate, “one thing I’ve learned is never underestimate them.”
Additional reporting by Danielle Bacher.