Leaving Neverland airs early next month on HBO. It's a tell-all story from two men who claim to have been sexually abused at Michael Jackson's Neverland ranch back in the 1990s. Its Sundance premiere saw extra security present, thanks to death threats. A trailer came out this week, and its YouTube comments are a nightmare.
Predictably, HBO is being sued by the estate of Michael Jackson. The suit seeks to force HBO to engage in a public arbitration process, with the aim of extracting damages worth $100 million (or more!). According to Jackson attorney Howard Weitzman:
“Nearly four years after Michael died [documentary subjects James Safechuck and Wade Robson] suddenly changed their recollections, sued the Estate of Michael Jackson for hundreds of millions of dollars and had all of their lawsuits dismissed. Yet they are still seeking money, having appealed. HBO and the director were well aware of their financial motives and that ample opposing facts are available from numerous sources, but made the unconscionable decision to bury any evidence casting doubt on their chosen narrative. Had they made an objective film it would have allowed viewers to make up their own minds about these allegations, instead of having a television network dictate to them that they must accept these false claims about Michael Jackson.”
I'd say the audience has probably made up their minds already at this point, but that's by the by.
Despite Weitzman's statement, the lawsuit doesn't actually centre on defamation per se. Back in 1992, HBO aired Michael Jackson in Concert in Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour, and according to the estate, the contract included an agreement not to disparage Jackson - in, I'm assuming, perpetuity. According to Variety, the estate isn't accusing HBO of defamation - which would require proof the allegations were false - but of breaching the terms of a contract.
Contract law is no joke. Late last year, I was in the middle of writing an exposé of sorts, about a now-deceased multimillionaire I once worked for. The piece got killed before it could see the light of day, and for essentially this same reason. It sucks. But that multimillionaire absolutely did all the things in the (you'll have to trust me, amazing) story I was writing. Take that in the context of this article however you like.
HBO programming head Casey Bloys said Friday that the channel had "no plans to change the airdate," and that it would not be meeting with the Jackson estate over the issue. There's no way they didn't see this coming and lawyer up, though, so the coming months should be interesting, to say the least.
Leaving Neverland airs March 3rd and 4th on HBO.