The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Sony's $60-million Michael Jackson gamble: Creepy exploitation or showstopping hit?


As the insatiable media hoopla of the past month has proved beyond the shadow of a doubt, Michael Jackson turns out to have been worth far more dead than alive. If you had asked most experts six weeks ago to assess the pop star’s ability to mount a successful comeback, the odds were somewhere between slim and none. Abandoned by many of his fans, unable to sell any new records, marginalized by a new generation of tabloid celebrities and dogged by persistently ugly gossip about his strange private life, he was basically a freak-show attraction, an aging pop icon whose best years were behind him.

And then he died. For his family and friends, it was a tragedy. But for his public persona, it was a brilliant career move. Since his death, 12 million people have played his "Thriller" video on YouTube. According a number of news reports, he’s sold upwards of 9 million CDs and downloads. And of course his TV ratings have been phenomenal, with every network and cable show known to man running Jackson specials, along with a tsunami of commemorative issues emanating from dozens of newspapers and magazines.

But the media giant that's made the biggest bet is Sony Pictures, which reportedly has shelled out close to $60 million for the rights to 80 or so hours of rehearsal footage from the singer’s “This Is It” tour concert. The footage is being edited into a concert film, also tentatively titled “This Is It,” which will hit theaters on Oct. 30. No one from Sony is talking, since the final details of the deal are still in negotiation. But insiders say the lion’s share of the profits from the film will go to Jackson’s estate.

Sony gets its cut from the studio’s distribution fee on the film, though the studio also has to foot the bill for the marketing costs of the release. On the other hand, Sony has worldwide rights for the film, which extend through the movie’s ancillary life, from its theatrical release into what are normally lucrative home video and pay and free TV windows. According to insiders, Sony’s distribution fee is slightly above 10%, with escalator clauses in the deal providing the studio with a bigger cut if the film performs better at the box office.

Is it a good deal for Sony? The simple answer is: Nobody knows. There’s really no precedent for the Jackson death mania, so its impossible to say whether it will spur millions of fans to pay $11 to see footage of his tour rehearsals a full four months after he’s died -- especially considering that between now and then the media will once again be full of stories about his excesses after the coroner’s office releases a long-awaited toxicology report.

Fans forgive everything when media icons die at the peak of their appeal, especially if they have lived fast, died young and left behind a beautiful corpse. This has been true throughout the ages, whether it was Rudolph Valentino in the '20s, Carole Lombard in the '40s, James Dean in the '50s, Marilyn Monroe in the '60s, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin in the '70s, Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls in the '90s or Heath Ledger less than 18 months ago. It’s normal for fans to express both grief and adulation, as much for the loss of future accomplishments as for the star’s past achievements. Ledger died with “The Dark Knight” still in an unfinished state; while the movie clearly benefited from the outpouring of emotion over the actor’s untimely death, it was clearly going to be a major hit anyway. It would be hard to claim that Ledger’s demise had any dramatic impact on “The Dark Knight’s” mammoth box-office appeal.

But Jackson, and the fate of his upcoming film, falls into a very different -- and very nebulous -- category. He didn’t die young and vital. In fact, at 50, he was largely washed-up, his slender frame a frail, disfigured reminder of the exuberant young sensation who once ruled the 1970s and 1980s pop charts. He was the modern-day equivalent of Elvis, who died fat and forlorn at age 42, his best days long behind him, yet still a star whose death inspired a huge spontaneous burst of national mourning.

Is it really realistic to expect a Michael Jackson movie to be a mega-hit? Why is Sony so bullish about its prospects? Keep reading:

Sony insiders insist that the footage they’ve seen of Jackson’s concert rehearsals will offer the moviegoing public a dramatic reminder of the pop star’s glory days. Shot with multiple cameras, the footage -- they say -- captures him back at the top of his game, looking vibrant and energetic. They believe the movie will be a genuine Big Event, providing a sort of cinematic catharsis for fans hoping to have one last reminder of his potent performing skills. If Disney’s “Hannah Montana” concert movie can make $65 million simply by appealing to 8-to-13-year-old girls, the sky is the limit for a Jackson film, honoring a star whose appeal cut across all demographic barriers.

Count me as a skeptic. It’s one thing to make an impulse purchase of a favorite CD a day or a week or two after a star dies, another thing to plunk down $11 to see rehearsal footage four months after the star’s demise. If I were Sony, I’d have my crisis management experts already on the payroll. Much of the film’s success or failure will depend on how the movie’s release plays in the mass media. The media angle matters because it provides a much-needed context for the raw rehearsal footage. Until now, the media has essentially given Jackson a free ride, printing the legend, largely relegating the tawdry tales of child molestation, obsessive cosmetic surgery and Wacko Jacko eccentricities to the back pages.

But after the toxicology reports surface -- it's looking as if a powerful anesthetic called propofol killed the singer -- the tide could turn, with Jackson’s history, already having undergone one dramatic example of media focus pulling, enduring yet another 360-degree transformation. We live in an incessantly revisionist culture. While today we might imagine Sony’s movie as a revealing glimpse of a performer’s attempt to make one last star turn, if the pendulum swings in the wrong direction, the same footage could appear ghoulish instead of glorious, symbolizing the final, pathetic days of a compulsive spotlight seeker, desperate to the end for our attention.

I’m guessing it could go either way, with one small wrong step, one seemingly flimsy Internet story tipping the scales in one direction or the other. What remains most fascinating to me is that the public -- those of us out here in fan land -- can do something that a giant star can’t seem to do for themselves: reset the clock. The one thing that Michael Jackson has in common with so many stars who’ve suffered untimely deaths, be it Elvis or Marilyn or Cobain or Ledger, is that no matter how sad or pathetic the star’s demise, we insist on reclaiming their original, unblemished innocence, eager to remember what they were like when we first loved them, not when they left us.

Can Sony’s film possibly return Michael Jackson to a state of grace? It’s easy to do that when you buy an old record or watch an old video. But if “This Is It” shows him as he was in the weeks before his death, it seems hard to imagine that it could offer the public what it really wants, which is a fond, airbrushed memory, not the genuine article. The beautiful corpse long ago left the building.

Photo of Michael Jackson taken in June at Staples Center during rehearsals for his planned shows from  AFP/Getty Images.

Comments () | Archives (45)

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I wish people would stop calling him "desperate" saying he was "washed up" and pathetic before he died. Either way, he agreed to the 50 concerts because it was another chance for him to appear before and excite his fans after being hidden away for a while, not a frantic attempt to get attention. If that were the case, he would have done this years before now instead of keeping to himself. He died doing what he loved to do, so stop trying to dissect the reason for his death or what he was thinking when he began rehearsals for the tour and such. He was an absolutely amazing person inside and out and his fans such as myself don't want to and will not remember him as a pitiful desperate has-been because that is an big lie. Also, when someone dies, you celebrate their entire life. Not just one part of it, that being the "best" part. He had one life and the whole of it should be appreciated.

I love you, Michael. Rest in peace angel.

"If you had asked most experts six weeks ago to assess the pop star’s ability to mount a successful comeback, the odds were somewhere between slim and none. Abandoned by many of his fans, unable to sell any new records, marginalized by a new generation of tabloid celebrities and dogged by persistently ugly gossip about his strange private life, he was basically a freak-show attraction, an aging pop icon whose best years were behind him."

I don"t know if the writer knew this BUT, Michael sold out all 50 tour dates in 5 hours, averaging about $115 per ticket, and 15,000 seats per concert.

Um, that doesn't look like he was abandoned by his fans.

His worst selling album was only worst compared to himself, he still came out on top. I mean, his worst selling album was 10 million copies. Taylor Swift is the top selling artist this 1.5 million.

Just letting you know.

ps He was set to make $100 million from his London tour, with is $40 million more than the $60 million Sony paid.

He was still worth more alive then dead in that sense. Of course, now he's just a legend.

This is the most ignorant article I have read in a long, long time. Worth more dead than alive? Tell that to his children and loved ones. I am more than positive they'd give up plenty to have him back. The inherent problem your article exposes is that it only frames the person as an object, a commodity, not as a person. Which is the problem MJ had during his life. Because we could not 'see' him as a person first ~ a commodity second~ we let him die. Maybe if AEG Live weren't so busy counting the millions to be made in London, they would have noticed how MJ was cachexic, not just emaciated. They must of had a clue, why else was it so important to have a doctor on the payroll ~ and a doctor under suspension from a hospital at that. Don't get me wrong, MJ was not the total victim and is ultimately to blame for how his life turned out, but this article represents, unfortunately, how our disregard for human beings has degenerated to the basest form possible. This is really a sick commentary on our society and what it values.

Writers just don't get his fans. And how washed-up was he? He was preparing for a sold-out run of fifty shows. I for one was keeping my fingers crossed for excellent reviews of his shows. And I consider myself a moderate fan. Underestimated in life, underestimated in death. And yes, I want to see the footage. For myself. I am not waiting for some writer with an ax to grind to persuade me to go. I am going.

Well written.

Dear Patrick Goldstein,

I agree with you on one thing and that's on the hypocrisy of the media and general public who used to belittle and mock this man have now 'reclaimed' him as a hero. That really disgusts me as I know in essence they aren't being sincere... some have had change of heart out of guilt of being too harsh on someone they have never known and others are just following the crowd. So yes this might be a temporary 'hoopla' that I as huge MJ fan hope dies out soon because its all too superficial and I see it as the media's way of further profiting of this man, even now when he's dead. Respectively, I'm curious and eager to see how the "This Is It" concert was planned to become by Michael Jackson yet I think what Sony is doing is highly exploitative. Only Michel Jackson doesn’t get any peace while being dead.

Or I could be wrong and people might have finally come into realization that Michael Jackson was all along an ordinary man within a bizarre environment, which we might not understand wholly as most of us have never been a young child star, with millions of screaming fans and paparazzi chasing us our entire lives or have people around us that aren’t necessarily looking out for our best interest, etc Perhaps with the media’s latest examination on facts for once and not on speculations on all the things that made Michael Jackson appear strange is revealing him as a very misunderstood and vulnerable man (which are two main things that we all can relate to).

This being said in regards to your comments about the 'fallen stars' being sad or pathetic... you are judging them completely unfairly, not taking into account what the likes of you journalists do with your pen - whenever you build them up only to turn against them and take more pleasure in bringing them down, your not taking into account how the entertainment industry is an unhealthy environment on several levels, your not taking into account how much of themselves these artists have to sacrifice.... I take full responsibility as an audience for providing the niche that enables such destructive road for many of these stars. Before you go on to blame these individuals (because no matter what they are first and foremost human beings!) I think we all need to reflect on the role each one of us play both as individuals and as part of society in placing inhumane amount of expectations and pressures on these celebrities. Both you and I don't know how long we would last had we been in their shoes and lived their lives... so please get off your high horse.

Michael Jackson wasn't perfect, he had issues, and he had flaws... please tell me who in this world doesn't? Despite of his limitations he managed to use his need and strive for significance in this world (which we all have but seldom make anything out of) in becoming a paradigm shifter in modern culture inspiring undeniably everyone that would come after him. Mr. Jackson didn’t solely use his success for his own gain but contributed in several ways to humanitarian deeds. Hence as a fan I have no intention on resetting the clock or insisting on reclaiming anything of the past but I want “the genuine article” because that’s what made me love Michael Jackson even more. In my book if one is able to achieve greatness despite their human vulnerabilities then they are always in a state of grace. As that fact alone is what really separated Michael from the rest of us.

Yes, but there's something else that's still in play here: Michael's music. "After Monterey" by Robert K Walcott of Blue Ribbon Press.

It makes you realise even more that whether its love, life or death, its all about money, so sad.

not true, i dont need to forgive him for anything, i neeever believed that michael was child molester, i always believed michael was child inside an old man body, i was very young(i was 12) when all that shit started, i guess that when we get old we lose our humanity i guess and thats one of the reasons i believed michael loved children....michael will live forever in my heart. RIP to MJ the human being

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