Jackson tragedy begets cinematic triumph

Sun Nov 1, 2009 4:18pm EST
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By Ray Waddell

NASHVILLE (Billboard) - For "This Is It," Michael Jackson's planned 50-concert residency at London's O2 Arena, the star's sudden death really could have been "it," with millions of dollars lost for producer/promoter AEG Live and the star's vision never realized.

Instead, the movie and music divisions of Sony have a film and soundtrack to sell, and AEG will share in the proceeds. But neither would have happened if the companies hadn't had fire-drill-paced meetings to turn a human tragedy into what is already being described as a creative and financial triumph.

On October 26, Sony's Epic label released the double-disc set "This Is It" to coincide with the release of the movie of the same name, which arrived in theaters to critical acclaim October 28 and grossed $101 million worldwide during its first five days.

"The film answers a lot of questions," says Rob Stringer, chairman of Sony Music. "I can't comment on a lot of issues that were going on with Michael, nor can anyone else, it's very difficult. But you want to know that he was still a fantastic entertainer, that he still cared, that he was still musically amazing. And all those things are just obvious in this film."

The saga began with the announcement last March of Jackson's string of shows at the O2, the result of two years of talks between Jackson and AEG Live. The ideas discussed included a tour, a few shows and, finally, a residency.

"It took a while for (Jackson) to get comfortable with this, but when he finally made the decision that he wanted to do something, we were in the unique position where London was obviously the perfect place to do it," says AEG CEO Tim Leiweke.

Ticket sales for the initial 10 shows blew up at the box office, and the number of dates was raised to 50. Although all parties were taken aback by the demand, Leiweke says Jackson was fully committed to 50 shows, despite reports to the contrary. "We've heard all of the speculation and opinions out there, but the reality is this is something Michael wanted to do," he says.

Conceptually, Leiweke says the production was "all Michael's" vision -- and that vision was expensive. "It was budgeted to be $12 million, but Michael had big dreams and big vision," Leiweke says. "By the time we were ready to go to London we were at $35 million."   Continued...