An explosive documentary featuring explicit allegations that Michael Jackson was a paedophile is unlikely to have dire financial implications for his estate, an expert has said.
British director Dan Reed’s Leaving Neverland contains interviews with two men, James Safechuck and Wade Robson, who allege in graphic detail that Jackson sexually abused them as children.
The film aired in the US this week and will be broadcast in two parts by Channel 4 in the UK on Wednesday and Thursday.
It once again shone a spotlight on the life and legacy of Jackson, widely considered one of the greatest entertainers of all time but who was dogged by allegations of abusing young boys for decades.
Since Jackson died from an overdose in 2009, his estate has transformed from being saddled with debt to reportedly being worth billions of dollars, with a Cirque du Soleil production inspired by the singer and a Broadway show based on his music in the pipeline.
Leaving Neverland has led to speculation about whether the estate can survive the latest storm and provoked a furious reaction from the family’s lawyers.
They launched a lawsuit against Channel 4’s co-producers, US TV network HBO, claiming damages from the film could exceed 100 million dollars (£77 million).
However, Adam Streisand, a leading Los Angeles-based trial lawyer specialising in celebrity estates, said he was “sceptical” of the impact Leaving Neverland could have on the estate, citing the fact that the allegations were not new and Jackson has been dead for nearly a decade.
He told the Press Association: “It’s the #MeToo era but they’re not new allegations, they’re a bit baked-in to the story of Michael Jackson and Michael’s been gone for a long time and I just don’t think that people are going to react necessarily the same way as they’ve reacted with lots of other celebrities, whom we can’t stomach the idea of supporting now.
“While I understand the estate’s concern and the #MeToo era creates a whole new environment that didn’t exist in 2009, I’m sceptical that it’s going to have that kind of devastating impact that it’s had with current celebrities.”
Safechuck was 10 years old when he met Jackson in 1986 on the set of a Pepsi advert.
He alleges the King Of Pop, who throughout his life denied any allegations of sexually abusing children, showered him with gifts while grooming both him and his family.
Robson, an Australian, was five when he first met Jackson after winning a dance competition in Brisbane. He alleges similar abuse.
Both men have been accused of lying in a bid to receive compensation from the Jackson estate, wile Michael’s nephew, Taj, said it has “always been about money” and the pop star’s accusers see him as a “blank cheque”.
Mr Streisand, who has worked on cases involving the estates of celebrities including Jackson, Muhammad Ali and Marlon Brando, said the estate’s “combative” reaction to Leaving Neverland was risky.
He said their decision to file a lawsuit against HBO risked bringing further exposure to the film and calling the alleged victims liars risked being damaging post-#MeToo.
He said: “While I understand the estate feels strongly that these allegations are false, we’re in a whole new and different environment now and it causes almost as much damage today to attack the alleged victims than to suffer the damage from the claims from the victims themselves.
“So it’s a risky strategy to bring this lawsuit.
“But I suspect also that there were a lot of feelings by the family members and the estate obviously is very sensitive to harm that this causes, emotionally, to the family members. In other words it’s not necessarily just a financial calculus.”
In the wake of Leaving Neverland, there have been reports of radio stations dropping Jackson’s music from their playlists, while some fans on social media have said they are boycotting the star.
However, Mr Streisand said the biggest risk to the estate was corporate partners deciding an association with the Jackson brand was not worth the risk.
He said: “The fans love Michael, they have a deep connection to Michael. When it’s music you grew up on and so many memories are attached to it, fans can forgive a lot.”
However, he warned corporate sponsors would be less willing to align themselves with a celebrity if they believed it could harm their reputation, adding: “That’s where real damage happens.”
Leaving Neverland is due to air on Channel 4 on March 6 and March 7.