It seemed for a while that nobody could say no to a Jackson video—not MTV, which broke its own rock mold to play "Billie Jean," at his label's insistence; not network TV, which also premiered Jackson's videos; and not the people who took the then-unheard-of step of buying the "Thriller" video and its making-of documentary on videocassette—which were packaged together and sold more than 1 million copies, director John Landis told Fangoria magazine in a video interview. That's an even bigger feat considering that VCRs weren't omnipresent at the time.
With its length, Vincent Price voice-over, choreography and zombie makeup, "Thriller" was a terror and a delight. Former Epic Records president Dave Glew, who came to the label a year after "Bad" arrived and later became chairman before retiring in 2003, remembers Jackson saying, "'These are not video[s]; I make short films.' Every time our marketing guys would say 'video,' he would say, 'No, short films. You tell your team they're short films.' The video was almost as important to him as the record. And if it were up to him, he would have made a video of every track on the record."
Mark Goodman, an early MTV VJ, says that attitude redefined the medium for artists and the nascent music video channel. "It was the ultimate symbiotic relationship—we made him, he made us. He, with the help of CBS Records [the corporate parent of Epic and Columbia], kind of forced us to realize there was a change going on in music."
Flattery recalls MTV was interested in "Beat It," given its rock sound and Eddie Van Halen's participation. But "Billie Jean" was the first video from "Thriller" because it catered to Jackson's core audience. "I don't think it was, 'We don't want to play this urban artist or this black artist or this dance artist,' " says Harvey Leeds, former VP of promotion at Epic and now owner of the management company Headquarters. "It would be like going to [a rock station] and asking, 'Will you play this Luther Vandross record?' There was no denying that they thought it was great, but they were a rock'n'roll channel at the time. It just didn't fit the format."
"Thriller" was a different story—greeted, like nearly every Jackson video that came afterward, as an event. The key to Jackson's "event" videos was his drive to showcase something that hadn't been done before, whether it was a 14-minute running time, celebrity cameos or the morphing technology used for "Black or White." There was also creative thinking about where to showcase his videos; Landis told Fangoria that the "Thriller" video was financed by selling it and the making-of documentary to Showtime and MTV for broadcast.
"Making Michael Jackson's Thriller" spent eight weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's Top Video sales chart; "Moonwalker," a collection of long-form videos released in 1989, has been certified eight times platinum by the RIAA.
MTV co-founder John Sykes, now CEO of Playlist.com, says "Billie Jean" and "Thriller" prompted other acts like Madonna and ZZ Top to invest in videos, which at the time created a more immediate effect on album sales. That higher-quality content also increased MTV's cachet with audiences and advertisers. "We were growing nicely during our first couple of years, but Michael Jackson put MTV on the map," Sykes says. "There were very few VCRs out there at the time, and we heard that people set their alarm clocks in the middle of the day to turn on MTV and catch the 'Thriller' video. We would see our ratings for the channel shoot through the roof. Every time we played it, we would see ratings double or triple."
Jackson was perhaps the first and only artist to attract well-known movie directors to work with him: Landis, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and John Singleton all directed his videos. "Some artists set up an [ongoing]relationship with a video team, but Michael was more interested in the 'wow' factor," Flattery says.
A more lasting effect may have been on a new generation of movie directors that got their start in music videos—which became more ambitious after "Thriller" ushered in an age of cinematic, high-concept videos with budgets to match. "We saw videos get more sophisticated—more story lines, way more intricate choreography," says Nina Blackwood, an MTV VJ from 1981 to 1986. "You look at those early videos and they were shockingly bad."
The irony is that with the decline of the music industry's fortunes, and the rise of viral video, the bar that Jackson raised has dropped. Smaller label budgets and the popularity of online videos have reduced the need for a visual epic; the faster something can be made to stir up YouTube buzz, the better.
"People have found clever ways to make great videos that don't require tons of money," says Rick Krim, executive VP of music and talent programming for VH1. "I don't know if we'll ever see another 'Thriller.' " But an appetite still exists for Jackson's videos, even for those too young to remember when the King of Pop was crowned. MTV had its highest-rated Friday in five months the day after Jackson's death; VH1 Classic scored its highest total day ratings on Saturday and its second-highest on Sunday, courtesy of a Jackson video marathon, according to the channel.
The video channels are likely to continue their Jackson-related programming for the time being. MTV will celebrate its 28th anniversary Aug. 1 by airing Jackson videos and footage and performances from its vaults, with celebrities paying tribute to him.
Of "Thriller," the video that changed everything, Leeds recalls, "We got a lot of flack and there was a lot of press about how the video scared little kids. But it was undeniable. It's probably the greatest video ever made."