The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Sony's $60-million Michael Jackson gamble: Creepy exploitation or showstopping hit?

July 27, 2009 |  6:20 pm

Jackson

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.

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