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Sony Pictures gambles on Michael Jackson rehearsal footage

The studio has reportedly paid about $60 million for its rights. The plan is to turn it into a movie. But will interest in the eccentric singer remain strong?


As the insatiable media hoopla of the last month has proved beyond the shadow of a doubt, Michael Jackson turns out to have been worth far more dead than alive. If you had asked most experts six weeks ago to assess the pop star's ability to mount a successful comeback, the odds were somewhere between slim and none. Abandoned by many of his fans, unable to sell any new records, marginalized by a new generation of tabloid celebrities and dogged by persistently ugly gossip about his strange private life, he was basically a freak-show attraction, an aging pop icon whose best years were behind him.

And then he died. For his family and friends, it was a tragedy. But for his public persona, it was a brilliant career move. Since his death, 12 million people have played his "Thriller" video on YouTube. According to a number of news reports, he's sold more than 9 million CDs and downloads. And of course his TV ratings have been phenomenal, with every network and cable show known to man running Jackson specials, plus a tsunami of commemorative issues has emanated from dozens of newspapers and magazines.

But the media giant that's made the biggest bet is Sony Pictures, which reportedly has shelled out close to $60 million for the rights to 80 or so hours of rehearsal footage from the singer's This Is It concert series. The footage is being edited into a concert film, also tentatively titled "This Is It," which will hit theaters Oct. 30. No one from Sony is talking, because the final details of the deal are still in negotiation. But insiders say the lion's share of the profits from the film will go to Jackson's estate.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, August 01, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Michael Jackson movie: The Big Picture column in Wednesday's Calendar section about a movie based on Michael Jackson's rehearsal footage said actor Heath Ledger died less than 18 months ago. He died just over 18 months ago, on Jan. 22, 2008.

Sony gets its cut from the studio's distribution fee on the film, though the studio also has to foot the bill for the marketing costs of the release. On the other hand, Sony has worldwide rights for the film, which extend through the movie's ancillary life, from its theatrical release into what are normally lucrative home video and pay and free TV windows. According to insiders, Sony's distribution fee is slightly above 10%, with escalator clauses in the deal providing the studio with a bigger cut if the film performs better at the box office.

Is it a good deal for Sony? The simple answer: Nobody knows. There's no precedent for the Jackson death mania, so it's impossible to say whether it will spur millions of fans to pay $11 to see footage of his rehearsals a full four months after he died -- especially considering that between now and then the media will once again be full of stories about his excesses after the coroner's office releases a long-awaited toxicology report.

Fans forgive everything when media icons die at the peak of their appeal, especially if they have lived fast, died young and left behind a beautiful corpse. This has been true whether it was Rudolph Valentino in the '20s, Carole Lombard in the '40s, James Dean in the '50s, Marilyn Monroe in the '60s, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin in the '70s, Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls in the '90s or Heath Ledger less than 18 months ago.

It's normal for fans to express grief and adulation, as much for the loss of future accomplishments as for the star's achievements. Ledger died with "The Dark Knight" still in an unfinished state; while the movie clearly benefited from the outpouring of emotion over the actor's untimely death, it was clearly going to be a major hit anyway. It would be hard to claim that Ledger's demise had any dramatic effect on "The Dark Knight's" mammoth box-office appeal.

But Jackson, and the fate of his upcoming film, falls into a very different -- and very nebulous -- category. He didn't die young and vital. In fact, at 50, he was largely washed up, his slender frame a frail, disfigured reminder of the exuberant young sensation who once ruled the 1970s and 1980s pop charts. He was the modern-day equivalent of Elvis, who died fat and forlorn at age 42, his best days long behind him, yet still a star whose death inspired a huge spontaneous burst of national mourning.

Sony insiders insist that the footage they've seen of Jackson's concert rehearsals will offer the moviegoing public a dramatic reminder of the pop star's glory days. Shot with multiple cameras, the footage -- they say -- captures him back at the top of his game, looking vibrant and energetic. They believe the movie will be a genuine Big Event, providing a sort of cinematic catharsis for fans hoping to have one last reminder of his potent performing skills. If Disney's "Hannah Montana" concert movie can make $65 million simply by appealing to girls ages 8 to 13, the sky is the limit for a Jackson film, honoring a star whose appeal cut across all demographic barriers.

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