In the two years before his death, Michael Jackson had been working on a London concert series called This Is It.
It would have been the pop icon's first major live-music venture in more than 10 years — so when he died unexpectedly in June, at age 50, it wasn't long before a promoter reached out to choreographer Kenny Ortega, who'd been helping Jackson develop the show.
The promoter's idea: Let's turn footage from Jackson's preparations into a film.
Ortega hesitated. His friend had just died, after all. And the footage the promoter was referring to amounted to more than 100 hours of backstage and rehearsal tape.
"I didn't feel I'd have the creative objectivity to step into an editing room and face this material again so quickly," Ortega says.
But he did watch the footage again. And as he sat with the tapes, he decided that he didn't have a choice.
"I was there, I knew what the story was," Ortega says. "It was sort of my responsibility to continue with the journey."
The result of that journey — of several months spent in a dark editing booth — is This Is It, opening this week on 11,000 screens all over the world. Box office prognosticators project good returns for Columbia Pictures, the movie studio that placed a $60 million bet on Ortega's documentary.
But even more lucrative, if analysts are right, will be the earnings that accrue to the Jackson estate.
The Perilous Business Of Brand
"You're talking about the level of The Beatles and Elvis Presley ... and Frank Sinatra," says Jeff Jampol, who manages major pop icons, including The Doors and Janis Joplin.
Not "managed" — manages, as in now. Jampol is the current manager of these dead or long-disbanded greats — or at least of their brands and images. He approves and rejects licensing requests, schedules album re-releases, and tries to get his artists onto the covers of magazines. It can be a perilous business, as he's all too aware.
"Literally, I could ruin in an afternoon what it took these guys 30, 40 years to build," Jampol says.
And then there are all the other people, inside and outside the industry, over whom the official gatekeepers have no control — but who sometimes seek to influence and profit from an icon's image after death.
One of them, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, says he feels a kind of personal responsibility for the image of Michael Jackson. The two men were friends, Boteach says, and that's why the rabbi has recently released a book drawn from 30 hours of recorded conversations with the King of Pop. The Michael Jackson Tapes, Boteach says, is a raw look at a complicated person — a look that might frustrate the people in charge of maintaining the Michael Jackson brand.
"Their principal objective is to ensure the financial integrity of the estate," Boteach says. "I'm not sure they have made it their priority to ensure the integrity of Michael's image."
'Smart And Selective,' Or A Superstar-Sized Push?
Now that Jackson isn't around to guide his own career, Ortega says that he, too, worries about what will happen to Jackson's image.
"All we can do is put our faith in the family and the estate, that they'll be smart and selective," he says.
Ortega does say the process of making This Is It left him cautiously optimistic.
"Do I have complete faith and confidence?" he asks. "No, I don't. But I can say that the experience I've been through has shown some promise."
It appears that decisions about how and — just as important — how often Jackson's image and music will be used will primarily be made by two men: John McClain and John Branca. Both are longtime veterans of both the music business and the Michael Jackson industry.
Doors manager Jampol says they've got an incredible opportunity on their hands. With most artists, the big fear is in going too big — licensing too many products, diluting the brand through overexposure.
But this is Michael Jackson, and with him, Jampol says, there's no such thing as over the top.
"I think you have an obligation to do things on a huge, superstar level," he says. "In the case of Michael Jackson, I don't think you can go too big or too exposed."
In other words, the King of Pop is dead — long live the King of Pop.