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The financial stakes are high for Michael Jackson’s estate

Janet Nguyen Mar 4, 2019
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Michael Jackson performing at a New Zealand concert back in 1996. The new HBO documentary "Leaving Neverland" chronicles sexual abuse allegations against the singer.
Phil Walter/Getty Images

As sexual abuse allegations against Michael Jackson resurface, his estate is fighting hard to keep his legacy intact. At stake: revenue streams worth millions of dollars.

The Michael Jackson estate filed a $100 million lawsuit against HBO on Feb. 21 over the documentary “Leaving Neverland,” which chronicles sexual abuse allegations against the late singer. Jackson’s camp is arguing that HBO violated a non-disparagement clause from 1992. 

The four-hour film features stories from Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who met Jackson in the early ’80s and say he abused them for years. HBO will air the documentary in two parts on Sunday and Monday.

The #MeToo movement has encouraged sexual assault survivors to speak out against harassment and abuse, and pushed the public to take existing allegations seriously. “Leaving Neverland” follows January’s Lifetime documentary “Surviving R. Kelly,” which explores the sexual abuse allegations against the R&B singer.

In 2018, the Michael Jackson estate raked in $400 million, with $287 million of that coming from its decision to sell its stake in EMI Music Publishing to Sony, according to Forbes.

Other revenue streams come from Cirque du Soleil’s Jackson-themed shows in Las Vegas, TV specials and his Mijac Music catalogue, which includes his own material and songs from artists like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles.  

The Elvis Presley estate, which occupies the No. 2 slot on Forbes’ list, pulled in just a fraction of what the Jackson estate earned at $40 million.

Jackson left the bulk of his estate to his mother, Katherine, and his three children, Prince, Paris and Blanket, leaving nothing for his siblings and his father, Joseph (who died last year). At the time of Jackson’s death, the executors of his will said his assets were valued at $7 million.

Paul Hardart, a clinical professor of marketing at New York University, said he thinks there are songs of Jackson’s that are so intertwined with our culture that it will be difficult for them to ever fully go away, but large brands may want to dissociate from Jackson. 

“There’s lots of licensing in terms of TV, ads, movies, etc. And that’s where [the estate] could get hurt a fair amount,” Hardart said.

Bob Lefsetz, a music business analyst who created the email newsletter and blog the Lefsetz Letter, said he thinks that sponsors will shun Jackson’s estate and that it won’t be able to bounce back from this — at least for decades.

“People will continue to listen to the music. We’ve learned that with R. Kelly. But all sponsorships, all corporations will run from the Michael Jackson estate,” Lefsetz said. 

Lefsetz points to the postponement of a Michael Jackson musical called “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” which had been set to run in Chicago this fall and will now premiere next summer. (A statement from the show’s producers says they’re delaying it because of “scheduling difficulties brought about by the recent Actors’ Equity strike.”)

“It’s been proven that dead superstars are worth more than ever before,” Lefsetz said. “But we’re in an era where bad behavior is not tolerated and has an impact on your career — dead or alive.”

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