With millions at stake, Sony is on a bizarre campaign to stomp out negative publicity for This Is It, Michael Jackson's final performance. Jacob Bernstein goes behind the veil.
On Wednesday, Sony will release the Michael Jackson pseudo-documentary, This Is It, a movie that purports to show “a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the performer” as he put together the concert series that was to take place this past summer at London’s O 2 Arena. The folks at the studio are proceeding with a tremendous amount of caution.
They’re denying writers the opportunity to attend advance screenings, quickly changing the topic when the folks at the Today show ask thorny questions about whether the film exploits Jackson’s death, and doing everything they can to minimize the damage Jackson’s antics caused to his reputation while he was alive.
As one Hollywood source put it when asked whether the studio has a PR problem on its hands: “I wish I had their problem... It’s practically an insurance policy.”
The stakes are high. The studio spent a reported $60 million acquiring the worldwide rights to the concert’s rehearsal footage. Moreover, Sony is—in addition to being the movie’s distributor—Jackson’s record label. That means that the same people putting out the film are the ones who own a 50 percent stake in Jackson’s song catalogue. If the movie successfully creates the impression that the person who had the greatest downfall in popular culture history was on the verge of a massive comeback, it could have an enormous impact on his music sales for years to come. Consequently, everything they’re doing with the marketing campaign is about minimizing Jackson’s reputation as a possible child molester and drug addict, and reviving the sense that he was the unassailable “King of Pop.”
Already there have been indications not everyone is anticipating the film with open arms. A group called This Is Not It has popped up on the Internet. They say concert organizers exploited Jackson and should be called to the carpet for pressuring him to continue with a show that he was physically unfit to perform. TMZ, which has been at the forefront of Jackson coverage since breaking the news of his death, was carping last week that Katherine Jackson, Michael’s mother, had not received tickets to the premiere (she eventually did), along with the allegation from his father, Joe, that the movie “is mostly body doubles.”
And addiction specialists are blanching about the fact that the movie reportedly avoids dealing with the complex reality of Jackson’s drug addiction. Said Marty Brenner, a Los Angeles-based drug-dependency counselor: “it doesn’t show the real life of the human being and what actually happened.”
A backlash is, perhaps, inevitable. But don’t bet on one that actually affects the movie’s box office.
Privately, just about every Hollywood marketing expert admits that the most likely scenario is that the studio will ride Jackson’s death all the way to the bank and that the film will be a smashing success, in part because there is no greater draw at the box office than a giant star appearing—for the last time ever!—in a film that showcases him at his best. As one Hollywood source put it when asked whether the studio has a PR problem on its hands, “I wish I had their problem. It’s a recently departed star, it’s the core of the sell, and it’s practically an insurance policy. We’ve seen this with Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, and we’ve seen it with Brandon Lee in the Crow movie.”
Actually, the tradition of dead stars doing well at the box office goes back way further than that. In 1937, the blond bombshell Jean Harlow died of renal failure at the age of 26, while filming Saratoga with Clark Gable. At first, MGM considered re-shooting the film with Virginia Bruce or Jean Arthur, but fans complained and so they used Paula Winslowe to supply voice, and Mary Dees as a lookalike for additional scenes. The film went on to become a box-office bonanza, and served as a pretty good indicator that audiences see nothing distasteful about a studio trying to make a lot of dough off a dead celebrity (particularly if the material’s good).
In 1956, James Dean died in a car wreck, shortly before the release of Giant. The result at the box office? Warner Bros biggest hit until 1978, when Superman came out. (Dean also received an Oscar nomination for his role in the film.)
Said Jeanine Basinger, the chair of film studies at Wesleyan University: “When a famous performer dies, people become intensely interested in them again. How interesting would it be to go to a biographical movie with Michael Jackson if he was still alive? Not very. Dead he’s a star, alive he ain't. Alive, people are thinking of him as a possible child molester, possible weirdo, possible out-of-date performer. But dead you view him in a positive way. All of a sudden people are curious and interested. It gives dramatic shape to his story and gets people to put into perspective what he's done as a singer and a dancer. It makes you want to look at him again.”
Consequently, everything we’ve heard thus far from Kenny Ortega (the director of both the show that never was and the movie that will soon be) seems to deify Jackson and steer clear of tackling what Jackson’s life was really like at the end.
No, Jackson was not ambivalent about doing a grueling 50 shows over the course of the summer, Ortega told The Daily Beast in a phone interview Friday. “The film will show you that’s just not the case,” he said. “He was more invested in this project than anything he’d ever done before.”
Nor did Ortega see Jackson’s being deeply in debt at the time of his death as a deciding factor for going on tour. As he presented it, Jackson was about to do these shows merely because he had a good heart and felt he had a duty to help save the world. “The biggest reason for doing the shows,” Ortega explained, “Honestly, were his ecological concerns, his concern that there was a lack of love on the planet, his concern about a lack of consideration for the health of the planet, his concern that we were doing irreversible damage to the planet, that we were sadly hurting our chances of the planet surviving for future generations. This really hurt him. It really bothered him.”
“’Earth Song,’ ‘Heal the World,’ ‘We Are the World,”’ he continued. “These songs had great messages within them. Even though they were written over 10 years ago, they showed his concern about taking better care of each other and promoted the greater health of the planet. He thought these were really important ideas to keep alive and remind people and so these shows were an opportunity to do a call and response.”
When asked what percentage of the ticket sales from the shows were going to be going to environmental causes Ortega didn’t have a specific answer. So he said, “Probably a lot. Michael was the single greatest donor to charities of any man on the planet in history. He’s gone down in the Guinness Book of World Records as having donated $300 million personally to charities, so the answer to your question would be probably a lot. But Michael didn’t do that publicly, he did it privately.”
Of course, Jackson’s foundation was plagued by mismanagement and reports that for many years, virtually no money there got to the people it was supposed to help. But Ortega was busy mythologizing the hottest dead celebrity since Marilyn Monroe. His movie was about to be a smash. Why let reality get it in the way?
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.