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Michael Jackson's rehearsal footage: Everybody wants it

July 19, 2009 |  5:43 pm


Over the weekend, Sony Pictures emerged as the front-runner in a frenzied bidding war to acquire Hollywood’s hottest entertainment property: the film rights to footage from Michael Jackson’s rehearsals for his “This Is It” comeback concert series.

According to sources close to the negotiations -- who declined to be identified because they are not authorized to publicly discuss the matter -- AEG Live, the concert promoter behind the superstar’s planned 50-date performance residency at London’s O2 Arena, offered the rights to some 1,200 hours of rehearsal footage to all the major movie studios last week. Sony, Fox, Paramount and Universal all submitted bids.

Although Fox and Universal still have bids under consideration, Sony’s aggressive $50-million offer -- coupled with the fact that the global entertainment giant’s music division controls distribution of Jackson’s output as an adult solo performer and retains the right to block a competing studio from using his songs -- put the studio in the strongest position, a source said Sunday.

Sony also controls the so-called sync rights to most of Jackson’s songs, involved whenever recorded music is used in combination with visual images in a production, an important component in the property’s future DVD release. The plan is for the movie to be theatrically released in October.

AEG is also selling the broadcast rights for a prime-time television special based around staging and choreography that Jackson personally created for his “This Is It” concerts. That property prompted fevered competition among television networks over the weekend.

According to a person with knowledge of the deal, the special would be broadcast in September and it would be directed by Kenny Ortega, the choreographer-director responsible for such hits as “Dirty Dancing” and “High School Musical” who worked closely with Jackson as director of his “This Is It” performances. It is described as featuring an ensemble of superstars that might include Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake and Will.I.Am performing Jackson’s hits using the costuming, choreography, aerial ballet and special effects-driven illusions that had been engineered for the singer’s comeback, a source said.

Although it's been reported that NBC is the front-runner in bidding for the TV special, the network declined comment and denied rumors of a deal. However, sources close to NBC say it is in negotiations to air the special.

An announcement about both the television and film projects is expected Monday, a person with knowledge of the deal said. Calls to an AEG spokesman were not returned. A Sony spokesman and a Universal spokeswoman declined to comment. Representatives for Fox did not respond to inquiries seeking comment Sunday.

Since Jackson’s death Jun. 25, speculation has raged about the content and quality of the rehearsal tapes. According to a source, hundreds of hours of high-definition video footage were shot during full dress rehearsals one week before Jackson went into cardiac arrest. Until now it has been secured in a vault in the AEG-owned Staples Center. The performer is shown to be in apparently fine health, making jokes, singing and dancing with vivacity and weighing in on various creative decisions surrounding the production, a source said. Also included are two or three scenes that were shot in 3-D during the concert’s most high-concept set pieces.

It was not immediately clear who would produce or direct the movie. At a press conference earlier this month, AEG Live Chief Executive Randy Phillips said that Jackson’s estate would get the “lion’s share” of profits from any film made out of the rehearsal footage but that the concert promoter would also get a cut.

-- Chris Lee

Photo credit: Associated Press