Michael Jackson estate scrambles to control fallout from bombshell documentary

In the decade since Michael Jackson’s death, the late singer’s estate has turned what had been a financial disaster into one of entertainment’s most lucrative properties. But now, the upcoming documentary “Leaving Neverland” threatens to upend all of that — and the estate is in full-blown damage control mode.

Directed by Dan Reed, “Leaving Neverland” was a sensation at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it was met with a standing ovation. HBO, which produced the doc with Channel 4, will air the two-part, four-hour film on Sunday, March 3, and Monday, March 4.

The doc 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 sexual activities are described with unnerving candor, and one’s inevitable response is to recoil in horror at Michael Jackson’s predatory sickness,” wrote Variety’s Owen Gleiberman in his review. “He was a serial pedophile who came on as a protector of children.”

At Sundance some remarked on social media that it might have permanently tarnished their enjoyment of Jackson’s music.

And that’s what likely has the Michael Jackson estate most concerned. On Feb. 21, the estate sued HBO, claiming the network was violating a non-disparagement agreement it struck with the singer in 1992. “‘Leaving Neverland’ isn’t a documentary, it is the kind of tabloid character assassination Michael Jackson endured in life, and now in death,” the estate said in a January statement.

26 PHOTOS
Michael Jackson through the years
See Gallery
Michael Jackson through the years
CIRCA 1969: R&B quintet 'Jackson 5' pose for a portrait in circa 1969. Clockwise from bottom left: Michael Jackson, Tito Jackson, Jackie Jackson, Jermaine Jackson, Marlon Jackson. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
American singer Michael Jackson poses at a hotel while on tour with Jackson 5, London, England, November 1972. (Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)
American pop singer Michael Jackson attends the opening of the stage musical 'Dream Girls,' In Los Angeles, 1983. (Photo by Frank Edwards/Fotos International/Getty Images)
Undated picture of US pop singer Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009 after suffering a cardiac arrest, sending shockwaves sweeping across the world and tributes pouring in on June 26 for the tortured music icon revered as the 'King of Pop.' AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read /AFP/GettyImages)
(FILES) US pop star and entertainer Michael Jackson (R) and actress Brooke Shields arrive at the shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles where Jackson is expected to run away with a major part of the Grammy awards on Febuary 28, 1984. Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009 after suffering a cardiac arrest, sending shockwaves sweeping across the world and tributes pouring in on June 26 for the tortured music icon revered as the 'King of Pop.' AFP PHOTO/Alan ZANGER (Photo credit should read BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images)
American singer Michael Jackson (1958 - 2009) performing on stage, circa 1987. (Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images)
American singer Michael Jackson performing, 1987. (Photo by Dave Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
LANDOVER, UNITED STATES: American pop music star Michael Jackson sings 13 October 1988 at the Capital Center in Landover, Maryland. AFP PHOTO/Luke FRAZZA (Photo credit should read LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/Getty Images)
(FILES) US pop star and entertainer Michael Jackson performs during the opening concert of the Asian leg of his 'Dangerous' world tour in National Stadium in Bangkok on August 24, 1993. Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009 after suffering a cardiac arrest, sending shockwaves sweeping across the world and tributes pouring in on June 26 for the tortured music icon revered as the 'King of Pop.' AFP PHOTO/Pongsak CHAIYANUWONG (Photo credit should read PONGSAK CHAIYANUWONG/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 7: Singer Michael Jackson (R) and guitarist Slash of 'Guns and Roses' perform the opening number at the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards 07 September held at the Radio City Music Hall in New York. Jackson and sister Janet Jackson have been nominted for 11 awards for their video 'Scream.' AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
US pop star and entertainer Michael Jackson performs during a concert at Vincennes hypodrome on September 13, 1992. Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009 after suffering a cardiac arrest, sending shockwaves sweeping across the world and tributes pouring in on June 26 for the tortured music icon revered as the 'King of Pop.' AFP PHOTO/Bertrand GUAY (Photo credit should read BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images)
(FILES) US pop star Michael Jackson waves to photographers during a press conference in Paris on March 19, 1996. Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009 after suffering a cardiac arrest, sending shockwaves sweeping across the world and tributes pouring in for the tortured music icon revered as the 'King of Pop.' AFP PHOTO / VINCENT AMALVY (Photo credit should read VINCENT AMALVY/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 7: Michael Jackson (C) performs at Madison Square Garden in New York 07 September, 2001. It was the first of two performances in New York as part of his '30th Anniversary Celebration, the Solo Years.' AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read BETH A. KEISER/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES: (FILES) This 06 July, 2002, file photo shows pop singer Michael Jackson (L) waving from his limo to fans in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. The child molestation trial against Jackson is scheduled to start 31 January, 2005, in Santa Maria, California. The star has denied 10 charges, including child molestation, plying a child with alcohol to seduce him and of conspiring to kidnap and falsely imprison a child and his family at his Neverland Ranch. He is free on a three million USD bail. AFP PHOTO/Doug KANTER/FILES (Photo credit should read DOUG KANTER/AFP/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES: US pop singer Michael Jackson salutes the audience after recieving the Artist of the Century Award during the 29th Annual American Music Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles 09 January 2002. AFP PHOTO/Hector MATA (Photo credit should read HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES: US singer Michael Jackson and guitarist Dave Navaro perform during the Democratic National Committee (DNC) benefit concert, 'A Night at the Apollo', at the world-famous Apollo Theater 24 April 2002 in New York. The concert was to kick off a nationwide voter registration drive. AFP PHOTO/TIMOTHY A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
404248 10: Musician Michael Jackson performs at the taping of 'American Bandstands 50th...A Celebration' television special honoring the music show April 20, 2002 in Pasadena, CA. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images)
BERLIN - NOVEMBER 19: Singer Michael Jackson holds his son eight-month-old son Prince Michael II over the balcony of the Adlon Hotel November 19, 2002 in Berlin, Germany. Jackson is in Berlin with his three children to accept a lifetime achievement award. (Photo by Olaf Selchow/Getty Images)
BERLIN - NOVEMBER 19: Singer Michael Jackson appears at the balcony of the Adlon Hotel with an unidentified child November 19, 2002 in Berlin, Germany. Jackson is in Berlin with his three children to accept a lifetime achievement award. (Photo by Olaf Selchow/Getty Images)
SOWETO, SOUTH AFRICA - JULY 18: US musician Michael Jackson holds a child 18 July in Soweto, South Africa, where he laid a wreath at the memorial for students who died in an uprising on 16 June. Jackson sang a happy birthday song to South African President Nelson Mandela at a surprise meeting with the president shortly after he arrived in the country. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read WALTER DHLADHLA/AFP/Getty Images)
SANTA MARIA, UNITED STATES: (FILES) This 13 November, 2002, file photo shows pop singer Michael Jackson arriving inside the Santa Maria Superior Court for a trial in which he is accused of canceling concert appearances and costing the promoter several million dollars. The child molestation trial against Jackson is scheduled to start 31 January, 2005, in Santa Maria, California. The star has denied 10 charges, including child molestation, plying a child with alcohol to seduce him and of conspiring to kidnap and falsely imprison a child and his family at his Neverland Ranch. He is free on a three million USD bail. POOL/SPENCER WEINER/FILES (Photo credit should read SPENCER WEINER/AFP/Getty Images)
SANTA MARIA, CA - NOVEMBER 14: Musician Michael Jackson signs autographs for fans as he arrives at his civil trial in Santa Maria Superior Court November 14, 2002 in Santa Maria, California. The artist is being sued for $21 million by his longtime promoter for backing out of two concerts. (Photo by Bryan Chan-Pool/Getty Images)
SANTA MARIA, CA - NOVEMBER 15: Pop star Michael Jackson testifies during his civil trial in Santa Maria Superior Court on November 15, 2002 in Santa Maria, California. The pop star is being sued for $21 million by his longtime promoter for backing out of two concerts. (Photo by Ed Souza-Pool/Getty Images)
SANTA MARIA, CA - DECEMBER 4: Singer Michael Jackson testifies during the morning session of his civil trial in Santa Maria Superior Court on December 4, 2002 in Santa Maria, California. The artist is being sued for $21 million by his longtime promoter for backing out of two concerts. (Photo by Jim Ruyman-Pool/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS - OCTOBER 27: (TABLOIDS OUT) Singer Beyonce' Knowles and singer Michael Jackson, winner of the 2003 Humanitarian Award, hug onstage at The 2003 Radio Music Awards at the Aladdin Casino Resort October 27, 2003 in Las Vegas, Neveda. For more information on Jackson's humanitarian efforts, go to musicforgiving.org. (Photos by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
SANTA MARIA, CA - APRIL 30: Singer Michael Jackson gestures while departing the courthouse after his arraignment on April 30, 2004 in Santa Maria, California. Jackson plead not guilty to the grand jury indictment of numerous child molestation charges. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Family members Tito, Marlon, Jackie and Taj Jackson recently taped an interview with “CBS This Morning” that was slated to air Wednesday morning. In the chat with Gayle King, Marlon Jackson said Robson and Safechuck’s allegations were financially motivated, and that “this documentary is not telling the truth… There has not been not one piece of evidence that corroborates their story. And they’re not interested in doing that.”

HBO and the filmmakers, however, have a powerful voice in their corner: Oprah Winfrey, who will host “Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland.” The special, which will air on March 4 immediately after the doc, is a conversation between Winfrey, Robson, Safechuck and Reed. It was taped before an audience of survivors of sexual abuse “and others whose lives have been impacted by it.”

Depending on the impact “Leaving Neverland” has in popular culture and on social media, the Jackson estate runs the risk of seeing the value of the onetime King of Pop’s name and likeness plummet — perhaps even back to the dark days before his passing. “It’s going to be a bumpy ride for a couple of months,” said brand manager Allen Adamson, the co-founder of Metaforce. “The bigger the HBO movie does, the bumpier it will be.”

By the 1990s, Jackson’s odd behavior had been well documented. But his reputation took a larger hit after he was accused of child sexual abuse in 1993. That complaint was settled out of court, but his career — which had already started to decline — took a steep dip after that. Coincidentally, Jackson’s last big No. 1 hit, 1995’s “You Are Not Alone,” was penned by R. Kelly — the R&B singer who is also fighting numerous allegations of pedophilia and sexual assault.

The real damage to Jackson’s image came in 2004, when he was accused of molesting 13-year-old Gavin Arvizo. Jackson was ultimately found not guilty, but the trial in Santa Barbara County and the surrounding media circus — fueled in part by years of eccentric behavior by the singer, and those previous allegations — seemed to have permanently tainted his reputation.

“I think ten years ago, if you asked most fans to put Michael Jackson on the charming-to-creepy scale, he’d come out much closer to creepy,” Adamson said.

10 PHOTOS
Michael Jackson's mother Katherine Jackson
See Gallery
Michael Jackson's mother Katherine Jackson
LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 03: Michael Jackson's mother Katherine Jackson appears at Michael Jackson Fan Fest prior to the Las Vegas premiere of Michael Jackson THE IMMORTAL World Tour by Cirque du Soleil at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino December 3, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images for Cirque du Soleil)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - NOVEMBER 30: (L-R) Judge Paula Abdul and Michael Jackson's mother Katherine Jackson in the audience at FOX's 'The X Factor' Top 7 Live Performance Show on November 30, 2011 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Ray Mickshaw/FOX via Getty Images)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - NOVEMBER 30: (L-R) Michael Jackson's mother Katherine Jackson and judge Paula Abdul in the audience at FOX's 'The X Factor' Top 7 Live Performance Show on November 30, 2011 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Ray Mickshaw/FOX via Getty Images)
The late Michael Jackson's mother Katherine Jackson (C) arrives at the courthouse in Los Angeles on November 29, 2011 for the sentencing of Doctor Conrad Murray. Michael Jackson's family insisted they were not out 'to seek revenge,' as prosecutors sought a maximum four year jail term for the star's doctor over the singer's 2009 death. Murray was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for administering to Jackson an overdose of the powerful clinic anesthetic, propofol, in a bid to help him sleep, admitting he had given the drug to the star for up to two months before his death. AFP PHOTO / Frederic J. BROWN (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
Michael Jackson's mother Katherine at the Michael Forever Tribute Concert at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff. (Photo by Tim Ireland/PA Images via Getty Images)
Michael Jackson's mother Katherine Jackson (C) and two sons, Blanket, 9, (L) and Prince, 14, (R) attend a ceremony honoring Michael Jackson at Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles, California August 8, 2011. Michael Jackson's three children and mother presented the hospital with a gift of 13 pieces of original art created and signed by the late King of Pop. AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
The late pop star Michael Jackson's mother Katherine (L) and siblings LaToya, (2L) Tito (C), Jackie (2R) and Marlon Jackson (R) pose together after announcing a live concert tribute to the 'King of Pop,' at a press conference in Beverly Hills July 25, 2011. The concert, which will feature performances by some of the world's leading artists, will be held at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales and will benefit U.S. and British charities according the organizers. AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
The late Michael Jackson's mother Katherine Jackson (C) arrives at the courthouse in Los Angeles on November 29, 2011 for the sentencing of Doctor Conrad Murray. Michael Jackson's family insisted they were not out 'to seek revenge,' as prosecutors sought a maximum four year jail term for the star's doctor over the singer's 2009 death. Murray was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for administering to Jackson an overdose of the powerful clinic anesthetic, propofol, in a bid to help him sleep, admitting he had given the drug to the star for up to two months before his death. AFP PHOTO / Frederic J. BROWN (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
Pop star Michael Jackson's father Joe Jackson (L) and mother Katherine Jackson (R) arrive at Los Angeles Superior Court in downtown Los Angeles on April 5, 2010 for the hearing of Michael Jackson's doctor Conrad Murrary. Murray appeared in court on an involuntary manslaughter charge stemming from the pop superstar's June 25 death. AFP PHOTO/Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 08: Katherine Jackson (L) and Joe Jackson (R), mother and father of Michael Jackson, arrive at the Airport Courthouse for the arraingment of Dr. Conrad Murray on February 8, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. Murray is reportedly being charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of Michael Jackson. (Photo by Toby Canham/Getty Images)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

In a 2017 court case with the Internal Revenue Service (which accused the estate of underreporting the value of Jackson’s posthumous assets), the estate admitted as much. Paralegal Karen Langford, who once worked for Jackson’s attorney, testified that Jackson’s merchandise deals dried up after the 1993 accusation, and no national sponsor would back his 1996-97 “HIStory” tour.

During the fight with the IRS, the estate found itself in the awkward position of initially claiming the right to Jackson’s image and likeness was worth only $2,105 at his death, due to the sexual assault allegations.

“Those things are nearly impossible to overcome,” business appraisal expert Jay Fishman, testifying for the estate, said at the IRS trial. “I call it like being in a nuclear winter.” (Fishman said the rights to Jackson’s estate were worth only $3 million at his death, compared with the IRS’ claim of $161 million.)

But after Jackson died, fans were quickly willing to forget the old scandals. Album sales and radio airplay came roaring back. Even now, “Thriller”-era Jackson — who had previously fallen out of favor at many outlets — is a staple on oldies radio stations.

“He had some stigma around him before he died,” one radio executive told Variety. “The things that came out in the Santa Barbara case, those were shocking. When he died, it all went away. There was an immediate love for his music. Some of our biggest songs are from him.”

31 PHOTOS
Joe Jackson throughout his life
See Gallery
Joe Jackson throughout his life
American singer Michael Jackson poses with his parents, Katherine and Joe Jackson at the Golden Globe Awards, 1973. (Photo by Fotos International/Getty Images)
CIRCA 1970: R&B quintet 'Jackson 5' pose for a portrait with their youngest brother Randy and father Joe. Clockwise from bottom left: Jackie Jackson, Tito Jackson, Marlon Jackson, Jermaine Jackson, Michael Jackson, Randy Jackson, Joe Jackson (front). (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - 1972: R&B quintet 'Jackson Five' pose for a portrait with their father and younger brother Randy who would later join the band to replace Jermaine in 1972 in Los Angeles, California. (L-R) Tito Jackson, Joseph 'Joe' Jackson, Michael Jackson, Randy Jackson, Jermaine Jackson, Jackie Jackson, Marlon Jackson. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - FEBRUARY 4: Pop singer and actress Janet Jackson attends the R&B Awards with her father Joe Jackson and sister LaToya Jackson (left) on February 4, 1983 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Joe Jackson during Jackson Family Sightings - Circa 1984, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
CHICAGO - OCTOBER 12: Reverend Al Sharpton and Joe Jackson poses for photos during The Jacksons 'Victory Tour' pre-party at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Chicago, Illinois in October 12, 1984. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)
In a hotel room during the 1984 Democratic National Convention, American sibling pop singers Marlon (left) and Michael Jackson (second right), along with their father Joe (right), attend a press conference with politician Jesse Jackson, San Francisco, California, mid July, 1984. Jesse Jackson was a hopeful for the Democratic presidential nomination, though he lost to Walter Mondale.. (Photo by Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 30: Joe Jackson and Katherine Jackson attend Fifth Annual American Cinema Awards on January 30, 1988 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MAY 8: Joe Jackson and Jackie Jackson attend BMI Michael Jackson Awards Gala on May 8, 1990 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
Katherine Jackson and Joe Jackson (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
Katherine Jackson et son mari Joe, les parents de Michael Jackson, lors d'une conf�ence de presse �Paris en novembre 1991, France. (Photo by ARNAL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Joe Jackson during 'MTV Icon: Janet Jackson' at Sony Studios in Culver City, California, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
Joe Jackson & Chrystal Marvin during Downtown Los Angeles Gold's Gym Grand Opening at Gold's Gym & Body Spa in Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo by J. P. Aussenard/WireImage)
SANTA MARIA, UNITED STATES: US pop star Michael Jackson(C) arrives with his father Joe Jackson (R), lawyer Brian Oxman (L) and members of his personal security detail, 15 March 2005 at Santa Barbara County Courthouse in Santa Maria, California, for another day of testimony in his child molestation trial. Jackson's hard-hitting lawyer Thomas Mesereau, Jr seemed set to pursue 15 March his relentless attack on the credibility of the boy who claims he was molested by the star he once saw as a father figure. Mesereau was certain to capitalize on the massive blow he dealt the prosecution when he got Jackson's now 15-year-old accuser to admit he once told his school administrator the entertainer had never improperly touched him. AFP PHOTO/ POOL / Damian Dovarganes (Photo credit should read DAMIAN DOVORGANES/AFP/Getty Images)
SANTA MARIA, CA - FEBRUARY 16: Joe Jackson, the father of pop singer Michael Jackson, leaves the Marian Medical Center after a visit with his son, who is being treated for the flu February 16, 2005 in Santa Maria, California. Judge Rodney Melville has delayed the singer's child molestation trial until February 22. (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Getty Images)
SANTA MARIA, CA - MARCH 7: Singer Michael Jackson (R) and his father, Joe Jackson, gesture to supporters following proceedings at the Santa Maria Superior Court during the second week of the trial March 7, 2005 in Santa Maria, California. Michael Jackson is charged in a 10-count indictment with molesting a boy, plying him with liquor and conspiring to commit child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion. He has pleaded innocent. (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Getty Images)
SANTA MARIA, UNITED STATES: US pop star Michael Jackson(R) arrives with his father Joe Jackson(L) at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse in Santa Maria, California, 14 March 2005 for his child molestation trial. Jackson's lead lawyer Thomas Mesereau is due to resume his tough cross-examination of the confident 15-year-old boy who claims the singer abused him two years ago. AFP PHOTO/ POOL / Carlo Allegri (Photo credit should read CARLO ALLEGRI/AFP/Getty Images)
Joseph Joe Jackson Feiert Seinen 76. Geburtstag Im Estrel Hotel In Berlin . (Photo by Franziska Krug/Getty Images)
Joe Jackson during Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo Las Vegas Premiere - After Party at The Palms Hotel and Casino Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada, United States. (Photo by Denise Truscello/WireImage)
Joe Jackson during Radio One's 25th Anniversary Awards Dinner Gala at JW Marriot in Washington, DC, United States. (Photo by Shareif Ziyadat/FilmMagic)
LAS VEGAS - MAY 30: Joe Jackson and Rutt celebrate LaToya Jackson's birthday at Prive Las Vegas on May 30, 2008 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Denise Truscello/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 03: In this handout photo provided by Harrison Funk/The Jackson Family, Katherine Jackson and Joe Jackson attend Michael Jackson's funeral service held at Glendale Forest Lawn Memorial Park on September 3, 2009 in Glendale, California. Jackson, 50, the king of pop, died at UCLA Medical Center after going into cardiac arrest at his rented home on June 25, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harrison Funk/The Jackson Family via Getty Images)
Joe Jackson attends the Brenden Celebrity Suites at The Palms Casino Resort on August 29, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
NEW YORK - OCTOBER 24: Joe Jackson speaks to members of the media after receiving an award at the National Action Network headquarters on October 24, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 23: Katherine Jackson (L) and Joe Jackson leave the preliminary hearing for Dr. Conrad Murrary at the Los Angeles courthouse on August 23, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PR - MAY 16: Joe Jackson in Press Conference announces 'Michael Jackson Forever King Of Pop' on May 16, 2012 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Photo by GV Cruz/WireImage)
CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 24: Joe Jackson attends the Premiere of 'Michael Kohlhaas' at The 66th Annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals on May 24, 2013 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Danny Martindale/WireImage)
CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 23: Joe jackson attends the 'Clouds Of Sils Maria' Premiere at the 67th Annual Cannes Film Festival on May 23, 2014 in Cannes, France. (Photo by George Pimentel/WireImage)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - JULY 26: Joe Jackson (L) poses for his birthday celebration at 'Boujis' on July 26, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Robert Marquardt/GC Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 05: Joe Jackson attends the 2017 Soul Train Awards, presented by BET, at the Orleans Arena on November 5, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images for BET)
Talent manager Joe Jackson attends the Elton John AIDS Foundation 26th Annual Academy Awards Viewing Party on March 4, 2018 at West Hollywood Park, California. / AFP PHOTO / TARA ZIEMBA (Photo credit should read TARA ZIEMBA/AFP/Getty Images)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Now, Michael Jackson is easily entertainment’s highest-paid dead celebrity. According to Forbes, in 2018 his estate pulled in $400 million — far more than No. 2, Elvis Presley, at $40 million. The number was further inflated last year thanks to the $287 million sale of his stake in EMI Music Publishing to Sony. According to Forbes, Jackson’s estate has earned $2.1 billion (inflation-adjusted) since his 2009 passing.

Not only have there been multiple posthumous releases of unearthed Jackson music, but the estate has partnered with Cirque du Soleil on ventures including the permanent “Michael Jackson ONE” show at Mandalay Bay Las Vegas. In 2015, the Jackson estate sealed a deal with Authentic Brands Group — which also manages the Muhammad Ali, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe brands — to find new Jackson-themed licensing and retail partnerships around the world.

And in 2016, the estate cashed in on another big payday: Sony/ATV paid $750 million to buy out his half of their joint publishing catalogue — which famously included the Beatles songs. (The estate still owns Mijac Music, which holds the rights to Jackson’s songs.)

There are some early signs, however, that “Leaving Neverland” could have an impact on the Jackson brand, at least domestically. (Jackson commands perhaps an even larger fanbase in many regions internationally.) The estate and Columbia Live Stage recently canceled plans for a Chicago tryout this year for the Jackson jukebox musical “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.” A labor dispute was blamed for the cancellation, but the timing raised eyebrows. Instead, the show is scheduled to premiere on Broadway in the summer of 2020 — perhaps when “Leaving Neverland” is a distant memory. There also has been talk about a potential tribute concert in 2019 to mark the 10-year anniversary of Jackson’s death. But so far there’s no word of if or when that event, which would feature music superstars reenacting Jackson’s planned “This Is It” tour, will happen.

Elsewhere, the radio exec said he’s “trying to figure out right now” what to do with Jackson’s songs should “Leaving Neverland” have traction. “It’s hard to predict what might happen, but we’ll pay attention to the story and listeners’ thoughts and feelings,” he said.

Despite the horrific abuse documented in “Leaving Neverland,” Reed said he’s not advocating a scrub of Jackson music from popular culture. He’d rather leave that up to the individual. “No doubt people will talk about a ‘Mute MJ’ campaign,” the director said. “Personally, I would not endorse that; it’s got to be a personal choice. As someone who’s watched the film, would you want to hear a Michael Jackson track playing at a kiddie’s party? I think that might make some people uncomfortable now. So that will change. The film’s not about Michael Jackson, and my intention is certainly not to topple Jackson from his iconic status, or to undermine his legacy. I just think it needs to be re-contextualized.”

That debate over separating the art from the artist is one also underway with disgraced stars such as Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K. and, most recently, R. Kelly. But the obvious difference with Jackson is that he is no longer alive, and that’s why Adamson believes the Michael Jackson brand may weather “Leaving Neverland.”

“There is not going to be an echo chamber where he denies it [and] the lawyers get involved,” said Adamson, who also believes the past allegations may potentially mitigate the documentary’s effect. “I don’t think it will surprise the vast majority of the marketplace. The whole ‘Neverland’ idea always seemed sketchy at best.

“The best thing for the Jackson brand,” he added, “would be to not respond, not argue, to dial back and go into a quiet period and wait for some time to go by.”

Read Full Story

Sign up for Entertainment Insider by AOL to get the hottest pop culture news delivered straight to your inbox!

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.