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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He agreed to the shows because he needed the money to pay off his debts.

Anyway, i've seen clips of some footage on TV. I might go to a matinee out of curiosity. A lot of people are also discovering Michael's music for the first time and may be interested.

LA Times you published this information about the author of this article as if you are PROUD of him and as if this gives him credence: (!!??)

Patrick Goldstein has been a film writer for The Times’ Calendar section since 1998 and a contributing writer to the paper since 1979.

His column, “The Big Picture,” offers news and insight on the currents and underpinnings of the film industry.

He also has been a contributing writer to major publications such as Rolling Stone, Esquire, Playboy, Vogue, the Chicago Sun-Times, New York Times Sunday Magazine, and British GQ.

He received a master’s degree in English literature in 1976 and a bachelor’s degree in film studies in 1975, both from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

After the garbage you have allowed him to publish and display on your website you are telling the world that you condone and approve of this information which is so blatantly out of step with reality. Are you seriously proud to have THIS caliber of reporter on your staff?!!!

This guy - (I refuse to even type his name which was copied and pasted in above let alone voice it) - is completely washed up and should be fired for disgracing your newspaper. Or are you now nothing more than a gossip of a similar vain to the National Enquirer. Just in case you haven't noticed Mr. LA Time chairman whoever you are, this guy is ripping you off for his salary and your damned bosses and managers are perhaps a little too busy enjoying cocktail hour to notice what's gong on! If you want to be taken seriously as a reputable newspaper get rid of his ass and publish the fact that you did so on the FRONT PAGE of the New York Times!

What ever this person was in the past HE is now a HAS BEEN and my guest is in reality he is a “never was” decent “journalist” and I use the term very loosely. Somehow this guy has slipped through the cracks and managed to stay hidden at a desk at your newspaper for who knows how long. Well this article in my view has exposed him as a genuine fraud!

Replace him with any number of people who have posted comments here who have stated factual information such as Michael Jackson sets yet another record by selling out more concert tickets in the shortest amount of time in history and probably would have continued to do so around the world for a very long time. Wouldn’t it have been more credible to describe this phenomenon as his GLOBAL legion of fans who have were starving, gleeful and considered themselves extremely lucky at being able to get a ticket to witness the greatest performance of all times live on stage again? Well at least something along those lines.

And my guess is that Michael Jackson (our Michael Jackson) will continue to shatter records as the greatest entertainer of all times and possibly forever. And that my friend is real LEGEND!

This article was actually funny. So many of Michael's "eccentricities" were overblown in the media from his early Thriller days. I mean, so what, honestly, if he had a pet chimp or a large snake? Like that's unheard of?! Big deal. That's just one small example of how every move this man made from the early 80's to his death was labeled "weird" when, if you take him out of his spotlight, really they actually were'nt that big of a deal. Unfortunately, he was a hypersensitive and shy soul who didn't fill the media void around him with his own public appearances, so the media had to fill the void themselves, with ridiculous stories - always slanted just to this side of negative. Invincible was a success by most standards, but when you put it up against Thriller, Bad, etc., well duh it was up against a challenge. Try to tell me that "Speechless", "Don't Walk Away", "2000 Watts" and others would not have been huge hits had Sony promoted videos and performances for them. Michael was performing at an exhilarating level well into the 1990's (World Music Awards, 1996). Michael was relevant to the music business and a creative genius well into the 2000s, working with current forces in music such as members of the Black Eyed Peas. Really, where do you get "washed up" from? Each of his major albums were about 4-5 years apart. Invincible was released in 2001 so we might have expected something around 2004 or so. Oh, pardon Michael, he had to deal with a small matter of extortion between 2003-5, so I think we can pardon him for being behind schedule, and needing some time off afterwards. Along comes 2009, and guess what? 50 (immediately sold-out) concerts so that his children could see him perform. I don't know what "pass" your talking about from the media. He never got one. Not even now. He was never abandoned by his fans and he's never been washed up. Frankly, your article sounds like you don't know Michael's history and had no concept of what he meant, beyond music, to people all over the world.

Honestly, I think you are just an ass hole.
People like you destroyed Michael.
No fan of Michael will ever call him names like you are doing.
Michael Jacksom brought happiness to this world and he diserves respect.

RIP Michael

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