The documentary focuses on two men who have accused Jackson of molesting them as children. Despite the lawsuit, the premium cabler has aired the film in its entirety.
The Michael Jackson-focused documentary Leaving Neverland has already caused a mountain of controversy. The film reportedly attracted direct threats ahead of its Sundance Film Festival screening last month—and now the Jackson estate is suing HBO for planning to air the doc in the first place, saying that the network has violated an alleged non-disparagement clause from 1992.
According to Variety, the suit claims HBO entered into an agreement in 1992 to air Michael Jackson in Concert in Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour—a pact that included a non-disparagement agreement. A copy of the suit published by Deadline estimates that damages could exceed $100 million.
“As you must know, contrary to all norms of documentary filmmaking, the Estate was never contacted by the supposed ‘documentarian,’ Dan Reed (or anyone else associated with the program) to provide the Estate’s views on, and responses to, the absolutely false claims that are the subject matter of the program,” the suit states. “Likewise, no one else who might offer evidence to contradict the program’s premise was consulted either, as Dan Reed has publicly admitted.”
The suit alleges that the accusations from both of the Jackson accusers interviewed in the doc, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, are financially motivated. The suit also noted that both Robson and Safechuck initially defended Jackson, denying that they had been abused as children—a fact that the doc acknowledges, and both men explain extensively. “They previously testified that Jackson never touched them inappropriately in any manner whatsoever,” the lawsuit states. “By 2013 and 2014, they were in financial dire straits . . . So, in 2013 and 2014, Robson and Safechuck changed their stories. No doubt reading reports from Forbes and others, and seeing programs like 60 Minutes that reported on the unprecedented success of the Jackson Estate—stories that all ran in the year before these men changed their stories—Robson and Safechuck filed suits against the Jackson Estate.”
In Robson’s case, the suit claims the choreographer was having trouble securing work—and that the Jackson Estate had passed him over for the lead choreography job in a Cirque du Soleil show. Robson addressed that notion during an interviewwith V.F.’s Nicole Sperling. “I was hired three times for that show because it kept taking different iterations,” Robson said. “And the third time was just preceding my second nervous breakdown. I was in between nervous breakdowns. So the third time, as I was crumbling and falling apart, I removed myself from the project. The accusation is completely false.”
In a statement to Variety, Jackson family estate attorney Howard Weitzman said, “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.”
In its own statement, HBO told Variety, “Despite the desperate lengths taken to undermine the film, our plans remain unchanged. HBO will move forward with the airing of Leaving Neverland, the two-part documentary, on March 3 and 4. This will allow everyone the opportunity to assess the film and the claims in it for themselves.”