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This Is It Almost Wasn't 

The strange, surprising story behind this ghoulish Michael Jackson movie

Wednesday, Oct 28 2009
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What’s the difference between a dead Michael Jackson and a dead cow? You can’t milk a dead cow. I’ve been sickened by the way Hollywood has attempted to deify Jackson in death after its denizens vilified him in life. For instance, when he became embroiled in legal and financial trouble, Sony kept renegotiating deals with the singer to its advantage.

Now this shameless exploitation continues posthumously with This Is It, the movie compiled from Jacko’s high-def concert-rehearsal footage for which Sony Pictures and Sony Music Entertainment are pocketing record-breaking sales. And let’s not forget that as soon as AEG executives organizing Michael’s 50-night schedule of shows at London’s O2 arena learned of his death, they met at Staples Center and secured all 100 hours of rehearsal footage from March through June with the intent to turn it into live albums, a movie and a TV special.

Randy Phillips, president and CEO of AEG Live, has ghoulishly boasted to the media, “He was our partner in life and now he’s our partner in death.”

click to enlarge Michael Jackson: off to see the wizard
  • Michael Jackson: off to see the wizard

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Against this bizarre backdrop, AEG has been openly predicting that This Is It will make a staggering “$250 million in its first five days.” And they claim the pic is already $5 million in the black even after Sony Pictures paid $60 million for the movie rights. But that’s assuming the worldwide moviegoing public can separate the brilliance of an artist like Jackson’s work from his shambles of a life.

Apparently, people can. David Letterman’s ratings are up. Roman Polanski’s supporters are many. Two weeks from release, This Is It was already outselling the previous bestselling limited-run concert film, Hannah Montana 3D, by 2-to-1 at the same point in that film’s sales cycle. Rick Butler, COO for Fandango, said theater owners are posting additional showtimes on multiple screens. “At this point in the film’s sales cycle, This Is It is outpacing Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen and Star Trek as one of our top presellers of the year.” This Is It was scooping up 61 percent of all online ticket sales before its opening on October 28. And a Fandango survey showed that 48 percent of This Is It filmgoers became more interested in Jackson’s work after his death.

Yet the rehearsal footage, including meetings, auditions and more behind the scenes, was only shot because Jackson wanted it for his personal archive. Then the whole preconcert production began running wildly over its $25 million budget, and I learned AEG almost stopped the high-def crews from filming the rehearsals — to cut costs.

“Michael had no concept of budget,” an AEG insider reveals. “So the thought was, We might as well fire the HD crew because there was no real plan to use the footage.”

So, to save money, AEG almost lost one of its biggest opportunities to make money off MJ.

Major studios like Viacom’s Paramount/MTV, NBC Universal and News Corp.’s 20th Century Fox/Fox Broadcasting Co. all had been battling with Sony Music and Sony Pictures during AEG’s auction of the live music and film rights to the rehearsal footage. AEG started the bidding for the movie rights at a staggering $50 million, and the TV-special rights at $10 million. Sony had the inside edge because it controls the distribution rights to Jackson’s music. The reason for the Hollywood feeding frenzy was, “as you know, it will be huge,” one Sony exec told me earlier. “The footage is so moving. My fingers are crossed.”

Aside from AEG, the Jackson estate will get the “lion’s share” of any profits from the high-def footage. That’s why a judge had to bless the deal with Sony. That’s why insiders kept telling me about the “sensitivity and confidentiality” of the ongoing negotiation process. Death be damned. This was about money.

High School Musical’s Kenny Ortega, a Jackson collaborator, was hired to direct, and MTV had the exclusive first look at the movie trailer. Sony launched thisisit-movie.com simultaneously with the trailer debut. In addition, the full trailer was made available on mtv.com immediately following the VMAs. In theaters, the trailer started screening on September 18 with the Sony Pictures Animation release of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.

Tickets for the limited engagement went on sale September 27. “With reports still coming in from nations around the world, it is believed no movie in history has generated so many ticket sales so far in advance of its release,” Sony said in a news release.

Domestically, an unprecedented number of shows sold out in the first 24 hours of ticket availability in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Nashville, New York and other cities. More than 500,000 U.S. fans searched for showtimes on thisisit-movie.com. In Los Angeles, at Regal Cinema’s L.A. LIVE Stadium 14, fans began lining up on Thursday night, and within hours of the starting bell on Sunday the exhibitor reported selling out.

In London, Vue Entertainment’s film-buying director, Stuart Boreman, said Jackson’s This Is It sold more than 30,000 tickets in its first 24 hours, setting the biggest ever one-day sales record in the U.K., eclipsing advance buying for Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. Boreman said, “It’s a true phenomenon and sales show no sign of slowing down.”

In Japan, more than $1 million in ticket sales were recorded in the first 24 hours, setting an advance-sales record unmatched in movie history. In Australia, tickets for This Is It purchased through Village Cinemas exceeded the lifetime presales of Transformers and X-Men Origins. Record sales and sellouts occurred in Holland, Sweden, Belgium and New Zealand, among other countries.

Meanwhile, Sony Music Entertainment’s Columbia/Epic Label Group released two-disc album This Is It internationally on October 26 and in North America on October 27.

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think it was smart business for AEG and Sony Pictures and Sony Music to use that rehearsal footage and make it into a movie. The studio promised “raw and candid detail capturing the singer, dancer, filmmaker, architect, creative genius and great artist at work as he perfects his final show.”

Even people who don’t like Jackson or his music say it delivers as a riveting look at the creative process. The issue for me has never been the pic. It’s about the purgatory of it all.

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