HBO Film Revives Lurid Claims, Imperiling Thriving Michael Jackson Estate

Michael Jackson’s damaged reputation began to recover the day he died.

The lurid accusations of child molestation that had dogged him for years fell to the background as fans around the world celebrated the entertainer who had gone from pop prodigy to global superstar over a four-decade career. Flash mobs from Stockholm to the Philippines re-enacted his video scenes, and his music sales again broke chart records.

Now, nearly 10 years after his death, the dark side of Mr. Jackson’s legend has returned through a documentary that rocked the Sundance Film Festival and is being championed by Oprah Winfrey. In addition to delivering a hit to his mended reputation, the film poses a significant risk to the Jackson estate, which has engineered a thriving posthumous career, including a Broadway-bound jukebox musical.

The four-hour documentary, “Leaving Neverland,” to be broadcast on HBO in two parts on Sunday and Monday, focuses on the wrenching testimony of two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who say Mr. Jackson abused them for years, starting when they were young boys. While the accusations are not new, their revival in the #MeToo era, with its momentum of accountability for figures like R. Kelly, Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, gives them new meaning.

“There has always been this shadow or cloud about Michael,” said Charles Koppelman, a longtime music executive who once served as a financial adviser to Mr. Jackson. “With this documentary about to be shown to millions and millions of people, and all the notoriety that it’s now getting, I think it will have a detrimental effect to the legacy and the estate.”

The estate has already begun its war on “Leaving Neverland.” It issued a series of fiery statements around the time of the film’s Sundance debut in January and has filed a petition in Los Angeles County Superior Court for arbitration, seeking $100 million in damages from HBO. In making its case, the estate — whose beneficiaries are Mr. Jackson’s mother and three children, as well as children’s charities — portrays Mr. Robson and Mr. Safechuck as “serial perjurers” for whom HBO has become “just another tool in their litigation playbook.”

The debate over the film is likely to be intense in black communities, where figures like Mr. Jackson and Mr. Kelly have their strongest defenders, said Yaba Blay, a professor at North Carolina Central University whose specialty is black racial and cultural identities.

“If you think R. Kelly tore black America apart, this is going to destroy us,” Dr. Blay said.

On Monday night, after the conclusion of “Leaving Neverland,” HBO and the Oprah Winfrey Network plan to broadcast Ms. Winfrey’s interview with Mr. Robson, Mr. Safechuck and the film’s director, Dan Reed.

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Mr. Jackson and Mr. Robson in the documentary “Leaving Neverland,” which HBO will broadcast on Sunday and Monday nights.CreditHBO

In “Leaving Neverland,” Mr. Robson, 36, and Mr. Safechuck, 41, tell parallel stories of being drawn into Mr. Jackson’s inner circle as boys. Mr. Robson met Mr. Jackson on tour in Australia at age 5 and moved to the United States two years later to be near his idol. Mr. Safechuck was 8 when he was cast in a Pepsi commercial and met Mr. Jackson.

Both men say Mr. Jackson abused them while charming their families at his 2,600-acre Neverland compound in Los Olivos, Calif. He also warned them to keep their sexual relationship secret, the men say.

“He told me if they ever found out what we were doing,” Mr. Robson says in the film, “he and I would go to jail for the rest of our lives.”

Complicating the men’s accounts are their histories as Mr. Jackson’s defenders. Both gave sworn testimony at different times denying that any abuse had taken place, and Mr. Robson was the first witness called by Mr. Jackson’s defense team at his 2005 criminal trial on molestation charges involving another boy. Members of the men’s families say in the film that they knew nothing of the alleged abuse at the time, nor suspected any. No corroborating testimony or evidence for their accounts is presented.

In the film, the men say the change of heart had to do with their becoming fathers. After Mr. Jackson died at 50 on June 25, 2009, they filed separate lawsuits against the estate, making their accusations of abuse public for the first time. Those cases were thrown out for being filed too late, but remain under appeal.

The estate has seized on the men’s past defense of Mr. Jackson to attack their credibility. It also accuses the director, Mr. Reed, whose previous documentaries include “Three Days of Terror: The Charlie Hebdo Attacks” and “The Paedophile Hunter,” of flouting standard journalistic practice by failing to contact the estate for a response.

“It is a disgrace,” Howard Weitzman, the estate’s lawyer, wrote in a 10-page public letter to HBO last month.

In an interview, Mr. Reed noted that “Leaving Neverland” includes footage of blanket denials from Mr. Jackson and his lawyers, and he argued that the opinions of the estate and Jackson family members are irrelevant.

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Mr. Jackson’s Neverland compound in Southern California in 2003.CreditFrazer Harrison/Getty Images

“I do not think that interviewing a member of the Jackson family saying what a nice guy Michael was has any bearing on the credibility of someone who claims that Michael Jackson abused him behind a locked door,” Mr. Reed said.

Born in Gary, Ind., Mr. Jackson became famous as the preternaturally talented lead singer of the Jackson 5, whose first four singles on the Motown record label — “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There” — went to No. 1 in 1970. Joe Jackson, the boys’ domineering father, controlled the group, and it became part of Michael’s mythos that he never had a normal childhood.

With later solo albums like “Off the Wall” and “Thriller,” both produced with Quincy Jones, Mr. Jackson reached superstardom, breaking sales records around the world as the tabloids chronicled his offstage life.

In 1993, he was accused of child molestation for the first time. Early the next year, he paid a reported $23 million to settle a civil case. During that time, prosecutors in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, Calif., built a criminal case against Mr. Jackson, only to drop it when the main accuser — the boy from the civil case — decided against cooperating.

Aside from a No. 1 single in 1995, “You Are Not Alone” — written by Mr. Kelly — Mr. Jackson never achieved the level of success he had attained earlier in his career. Criminal charges were brought against him in 2003, when he was accused of using alcohol and pornography to seduce and molest a boy. In 2005, a jury acquitted Mr. Jackson, but his reputation seemed beyond repair.

In the trial’s wake, he left Neverland for Bahrain, where he was spotted in shopping malls wearing black robes and veils. After his return to the United States, mired in debt, he made plans for a comeback tour, only to die in a rented mansion in Los Angeles, having succumbed to a combination of drugs provided to him by his personal physician, who was later found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

His estate, led by John G. Branca, Mr. Jackson’s longtime lawyer and deal maker, and John McClain, a music executive, struck an array of lucrative deals, including film and record contracts. It also approved two Jackson-related shows by the dance-theater troupe Cirque du Soleil. One of those, “Michael Jackson: One,” has been a Las Vegas staple since 2013.

Since 2009, the estate has brought in more than $2 billion, according to Billboard. Half of that came from the sale of its stakes in major song catalogs: Sony/ATV, which contained more than 200 songs written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and EMI, whose vast holdings include most Motown hits.

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Mr. Jackson arriving at court in Santa Maria, Calif., for his child molestation trial in 2005.CreditPool photo by Aaron Lambert

A test of Mr. Jackson’s market appeal may be “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” the musical produced by the estate and Columbia Live Stage, a division of Sony Pictures. Planned for a 2020 Broadway premiere, it has a highbrow creative team: Lynn Nottage, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is writing the book, and Christopher Wheeldon, a ballet luminary, is the choreographer.

Since “Leaving Neverland” made its debut at Sundance, the fate of the musical has caused talk in theater circles. A Chicago tryout run was canceled; producers blamed scheduling conflicts after an actors’ strike. A spokesman for the show said the production remained on schedule.

The larger question, said Stacy Wolf, a Princeton theater professor, is whether Ms. Nottage, who is known for her politically charged work, has the freedom to stray from a sanitized account of Mr. Jackson’s life story. The show, which will incorporate Mr. Jackson’s songs, was announced as being based on the period leading up to his “Dangerous” tour of 1992 and 1993 — a tour cut short when allegations of abuse surfaced.

“The question is, can she figure out, as a dramatist, how to tell the story she wants to tell, without compromising her politics, and dealing with this very difficult estate?” Ms. Wolf said.

Through the show’s spokesman, the producers and Ms. Nottage declined to comment.

In its petition for arbitration, the Jackson estate accused HBO of being in breach of a 1992 agreement it had made with the singer to broadcast a concert from Bucharest, Romania. The estate said the contract had contained a nondisparagement clause that HBO was violating with “Leaving Neverland.”

The filing — which begins, “Michael Jackson is innocent. Period.” — also targets the credibility of Mr. Robson and Mr. Safechuck. Both men, the filing says, are “pursuing claims against the Jackson estate for hundreds of millions of dollars,” through appeals of their suit. (In response, HBO has said it plans to broadcast “Leaving Neverland” as announced, “despite the desperate lengths taken to undermine the film.”)

In the #MeToo era, aggressive statements against accusers may not be effective, said Matthew Hiltzik, whose firm, Hiltzik Strategies, handles crisis management for celebrities and corporations.

“It’s understandable that an estate would want to fight back in any way possible because of the unique challenges of trying to refute claims against someone who has been dead for 10 years,” Mr. Hiltzik said. “But it may backfire based on the contents of the documentary and the current climate.”

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