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New projects could restore fortunes of Jackson estate

Despite heavy debt from entertainer's years of overspending, merchandise, a traveling exhibit and surging record sales could put him in a league with Elvis for posthumous earnings.

August 13, 2009|Harriet Ryan

Michael Jackson's estate could double in value by the end of the year, with projected revenue of $200 million from a film project, merchandising deals and other business moves, according to one of the administrators of the estate.

In an interview Wednesday, Jackson's longtime attorney John Branca said that deals negotiated in the seven weeks since the pop icon died had delivered or would soon deliver a total of $100 million in cash to the estate. Two contracts -- a wide-ranging merchandising deal and a plan for a traveling memorabilia exhibit -- are subject to approval by a judge Monday.

Branca said that surging record sales and other revenue are expected to bring an additional $100 million to the estate's coffers by Dec. 31 and that he and his co-administrator, music executive John McClain, project at least $50 million in annual revenue in coming years. That amount would put Jackson in the posthumous company of Elvis Presley, whose estate takes in about $60 million annually.

"We have challenges in the estate in terms of the kind of debt that existed, so it's really not a time to stand up and applaud, but it's time to feel optimistic about the future," Branca said.

Jackson, a notorious overspender who cycled through financial advisors throughout his career, died owing more than $400 million to creditors, but with substantial assets -- such as his master recordings and partial ownership in the Sony-ATV music catalog -- that outweighed his debts by at least $200 million.

Howard Weitzman, an attorney for Branca and McClain, said that if the earnings projections hold, "it's not impossible the debts could be paid off in a time that is unprecedented, given the amounts."

As eager as the estate is to pay off the debts, Branca said, there are no plans to part with Jackson's 50% share of the Sony-ATV catalog, which contains the music of the Beatles among a host of artists. "We're definitely not selling it," he said.

Indeed, the estate plans to add new songs to Jackson's own music catalog. The 50-year-old performer stockpiled as many as 60 songs in the years before his death, Branca said. One new song will be included on a soundtrack for an October feature film that Sony Pictures is making from rehearsal footage of Jackson's planned comeback concert.

McClain, who declined to be interviewed, believes there are "at least a couple of albums' worth" of music, Branca said. He added that McClain, a industry veteran who helped start Interscope Records and engineered Janet Jackson's career, said "there is some really good stuff in there."

Jackson named McClain and Branca as executors in a 2002 will that transferred his assets into a family trust run by the two executors and benefiting his mother, his children and unspecified charities that work with children. Lawyers for Katherine Jackson have not challenged the will but said she has concerns about the executors and the attorneys have asked that she be appointed to a formal role in managing his affairs.

A Superior Court judge made McClain and Branca temporary administrators of the estate pending an October hearing on the will, but has said they should seek and consider Katherine Jackson's opinions in business deals in the meantime. Weitzman said it was unlikely that Katherine Jackson would be named a trustee or executor, but that her opinion is valuable to Branca and McClain.

An attorney for Katherine Jackson said she planned to continue seeking an appointment as an executor or trustee.

"She must have a seat at the table," said the lawyer, L. Londell McMillan. He said the earning projections by Branca represented the minimum that Jackson's name and likeness should be bringing in, but said that his mother was also concerned about the preservation of his reputation.

Branca began working with Jackson in 1980 and shepherded him through some of the most productive years of his life, including the release of his blockbuster album "Thriller" and the purchase of the Beatles catalog. He also orchestrated Jackson's purchase of Neverland, his Santa Ynez Valley ranch, and introduced him to Presley's daughter, Lisa Marie, who became his first wife. But the men split for three years in the early 1990s and then again in 2006 after Branca grew suspicious of other members of Jackson's inner circle.

Jackson rehired Branca on June 17, eight days before his death, in a meeting in a dressing room at the Forum, where concert rehearsals were taking place.

Branca said he came to the meeting with a list of possible projects for Jackson. He knew, from their early days working together, that Jackson loved memorabilia and raved about the smorgasbord of merchandise available at "Star Trek" and Elvis conventions. "He said, 'I want there to be a Michael Jackson convention,' " Branca said.

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