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The Sad Story of MOVIE PROJECTS and WINDOW DRESSING for Michael Jackson

September 20, 2018

So much time has passed since the previous post (about the power grab in 1990) that all of us need to refresh our memories about the key changes that took place around Michael Jackson at the time.

The setting of the scene remained unchanged – it was the same old Sony with whom Michael Jackson had a recording contract, initially signed with CBS Records and its head Walter Yetnikoff and inherited by the Japanese company when it acquired CBS in 1988.

However the Japanese bosses were far away and out of touch with the local landscape, and it was the US scene where a monumental shift of power was taking place. As a result of it the Sony before and the Sony after the event were two different companies, at least for Michael Jackson.

Before that tectonic shift Michael’s team included Walter Yetnikoff, the CBS Records President under whose wing the Jackson 5 were since 1975 (when they signed with the CBS subsidiary Epic Records) and with whom Michael Jackson collaborated until 1990, Frank Dileo, initially the head promoter at Epic and Michael’s personal manager since 1984, and John Branca, Michael’s attorney and sort of his chief executive officer of more than a decade.

“Midknight” movie: A shy young man was to turn into a knight

Quite by chance, via a little-known book about a certain “Project M” (for details see this series, please) we learned that another man who grew close to Michael at the newly formed Columbia/Sony Pictures was its co-president Jon Peters, who in 1990 was tirelessly promoting a musical called “Midknight” the idea of which was suggested by Michael himself. MJ was to star in the role of a shy young man who turned into a knight at midnight, so hence the title.

But the person who had the most influence on Michael Jackson in the year 1990 was surely David Geffen.
Different sources give different years for the time when Michael’s cooperation with Geffen began.  The book “MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson” by Steve Knopper says that “Geffen insinuated himself into Michael Jackson’s advisory team in 1989.”

Zack Greenburg in his “Michael Jackson, Inc.” book says that already in the mid-1980s David Geffen was regularly sitting on Michael’s informal advisory team that also included John Branca and John Johnson (the founder of Ebony magazine and the first black man to appear in the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans).

The idea of the committee was to advise Michael Jackson on his financial strategy, and it was as early as 1985 that Geffen was consulting MJ about the Beatles catalog acquisition on a par with John Branca. Greenburg says that Geffen “seemed to think that the bidding had gotten too high.” Yetnikoff also considered the price exorbitant but he wasn’t on the committee and was just Michael’s confidant. The deal was made with John Branca’s help and this situation alone shows the disposition of forces in 1985 and the weight of various characters around Michael Jackson at the time.

The LA Times article places the beginning of Michael’s cooperation with Geffen at an even earlier date and says that the latter was “retained by the singer around the time of the Jacksons’ 1984 “Victory” tour.”

The would-be-billionaire David Geffen was retained by Michael Jackson? But for what? The surprising answer to that is that Geffen promised to work on a movie development project for Michael Jackson, however the plan went nowhere and, in an even more surprising move, the ambitious Geffen admitted that it was his failure.

And the New York Times article takes us even deeper into the past and claims that Geffen won Michael’s loyalty already in 1982 when he first told Michael “Let’s make a movie”.

As we know nothing came of that promise, but it didn’t prevent Geffen from staying on Michael’s advisory team for more than a decade – this time in the capacity of a friend and unpaid business advisor.

David Geffen, MJ and Madonna celebrate Geffen’s birthday in 1991

By the year 1989 Geffen’s influence on Jackson became so strong that it took him a couple of effortless manipulations and some whispering in Michael Jackson’s ear to oust all his old aides and replace them with totally new people loyal to Geffen.

For details of the operation you can see this post, while over here I will mention just the chronology of the dismissals.

The first to go was Michael’s accountant, Marshall Gelfrand who at the end of the Bad tour was replaced with Richard Sherman who worked for Geffen.

On January 27, 1989 – soon after the Bad tour ended – came the turn of Frank Dileo, Yetnikioff’s diehard loyalist and Michael Jackson’s personal manager of five years. A year and a half later, in August 1990 the job of a personal manager was taken by Geffen’s closest friend Sandy Gallin.

Sandy Gallin, MJ and Madonna at David Geffen’s birthday in 1991

In between Dileo and Gallin when the post was vacant, John Branca temporarily filled in. But Branca was close to Yetnikoff whom Geffen considered his most implacable foe, and in July 1990 Branca had to go too.

His place was taken by three attorneys – Geffen’s lawyer Bert Fields was hired for litigation purposes, music attorney Lee Phillips who knew Geffen since the 60s when he represented his label Asylum Records was responsible for music publishing, and Allen Grubman who simultaneously worked for Michael Jackson, Sony and almost everyone else in the music industry, including David Geffen, was to negotiate Michael’s new contract with Sony. Grubman was initially Yetnikoff’s friend later turned into a nemesis, and a bosom friend and ally of Tommy Mottola.

The final touch to the grand power shift came on September 4, 1990 when Walter Yetnikoff was fired too. This was Labor day later dubbed the Labor Day Massacre in the industry, because not only did Yetnikoff have to go but he was also rumored to be unceremoniously driven out of Sony’s back door with no permit to enter its grounds again –  right at the time when Mottola was sitting next door in negotiations with his superiors about his own big future at Sony.

The first to learn about Yetnikoff’s dismissal was David Geffen who announced it to others with a triumphant “Ding dong the witch is dead”.

In April 1991 Jon Peters, the Sony movie man, was also fired and when two more chief  Sony executives, Bob Summer and Mickey Schulhof  standing in the way  to the top were also gone, the monumental power grab was finalized.

MJ and Tommy Mottola

“Tommy boy” by Robert Sam Anson claims that after some reorganization at Sony Tommy Mottola Jr. became Chairman of Sony Music  Entertainment in December 1995. However numerous sources of that period place Mottola as Chairman CEO of Sony Music already in March 1990.

The April 1990 issue of SPY makes it clear that Michael Jackson was both the target and key instrument in this huge power grab – Sony’s fear to lose him made Michael a convenient but unwitting tool in the hands of big players who used his name for getting rid of the people undesirable to them.

To outsiders the dismissals of Michael Jackson’s closest aides customarily looked like the star’s whim with all the blame for the decision-making put on his shoulders. However the SPY article makes no bones about the chief manipulator behind Michael’s back, whose name was David Geffen.

As usual, Geffen’s signature mark was that he was not directly involved in the operation and the power grab by his loyalists was made with the help of Michael Jackson himself, who tearfully parted with his former aides, but was convinced by Geffen that the change was necessary and was only for the better. SPY says about it:

“Geffen must have been pleased to see Michael Jackson help the unthreatening Mottola take over CBS Records”.

Unthreatening to Geffen of course, but not to MJ as the later events showed it.

SPY refreshes our memories about the basic elements of that story. A short excerpt from their article starts with a feud between David Geffen and Walter Yetnikoff which at some point turned for Yetnikoff into a really deadly game.

“Geffen must have been pleased to see Michael Jackson help the unthreatening Mottola take over CBS Records” (SPY, April 1990)

…letting bygones be bygones is not generally Geffen’s style.

…Geffen indulged his vengeance subtly. He was reportedly behind press leaks regarding Yetnikoff’s waning power that hastened his downfall. Geffen also supplanted Yetnikoff as a confidant of Jackson’s. Insinuating himself into Jackson’s confidenceoffering his business advice as a friendGeffen persuaded Jackson to replace his manager and attorney, who had been pals of Yetnikoff’s, with men close to Geffen.

While Yetnikoff foundered, rumors abounded that Jackson would be deflecting from CBS to Geffen Records or MCA. In the end, Yetnikoff left CBS, and Jackson stayed.

Geffen, however, wasn’t through plotting.  As Yetnikoff’s longtime lieutenant Tommy Mottola was looking to shore up his position with Sony, observers noted Geffen’s influence when the reclusive Jackson sat at Mottola’s table at a dinner honoring Mottola in Los Angeles. Sony executives were pleased to see that Jackson and Mottola seemed close, and Geffen must have been pleased to see a not-very-threatening figure to take the helm of a major rival.

Later, Jackson’s publishing company, ATV Music, through which he controls most of the Beatles’ songs, moved from EMI Music to MCA Music for administration. What makes this peculiar is that MCA Music is not set up to manage the catalog outside the United States and will be obliged to hire another company – EMI, say – to perform that task. It’s a testament to Michael Jackson’s esteem for David Geffen that he will needlessly pay more for these back-office services just to be under the same corporate umbrella as Geffen.

The essential point to be added to the above is that earlier that year Geffen had sold his company Geffen Records to MCA Music but was still running it, so the administration of the Beatles catalog fell either into his hands or his parent company MCA.

When asked about the Machiavellian role he played in Yetnikoff’s downfall and the many other changes that followed Geffen brushed off as “Hollywood silliness.”


So what good did the new management team do to the hopeful Jackson?

Michael’s new lawyer Allen Grubman renegotiated his contract with Sony which was announced to the media and public with great fanfare in March 1991. The contract was presented as “the most lucrative arrangement ever for a recording artist” and a striking synergy bargain that was bridging together records, movies and video software to reflect MJ’s versatility.

The price to pay for so great a future were at least six albums to be recorded by MJ including those four that still remained from his previous contract with Epic Records, a Sony subsidiary.

As is the custom with MJ the grandiose contract terms were interpreted by the media and experts by the need to “deal with his ego” – as if it wasn’t Geffen who urged Michael to part with Sony and who spread rumors about Michael’s plans to leave for Geffen Records or MCA, which scared the Sony bosses out of their wits and was a contributing factor to raising their stakes.

The threat to sign Michael with Geffen was a ruse of course, though initially it was Geffen’s real intention. The idea had to be dropped after he made enquires through his lawyer Bert Fields and to his disappointment found that Michael still owed four more albums to CBS, so “whoever signed him could be sued for a sum greater than the gross national product of Uganda”, according to Fredric Dannen’s estimation.

What’s interesting is that among the many bonuses awaiting Michael Jackson under the new contract the New York Times article mentioned the plans to create feature films with Michael’s participation as a number one point.

Here are some excerpts from their story.

Michael Jackson Gets Thriller of Deal To Stay With Sony

March 21, 1991

In what may be the most lucrative arrangement ever for a recording artist, the Sony Corporation announced yesterday that Michael Jackson, the gyrating pop-music icon of the 1980’s, had entered into an agreement to create feature films, theatrical shorts, television programming and a new record label for the Japanese conglomerate’s American entertainment subsidiaries.

Mr. Jackson, whose albums “Thriller” and “Bad” were the two biggest-selling records of the past decade, also agreed to extend by six albums his existing contract with Epic Records, a Sony subsidiary.

Neither Sony executives nor representatives of Mr. Jackson would say how much the singer will receive under the agreement, which had been in negotiations for six months. [~ since September 1990]

Entertainment industry executives and analysts said that to keep the 32-year-old Mr. Jackson, who had reportedly made rumblings about leaving for another label, Sony had no choice but to allow him to produce his own records and films.

Dealing With an Ego

“He doesn’t need the money; this is the guy who owns the Beatles’ music catalogue,” said Emanuel Gerard, a communications analyst with Gerard Klauer Mattison in New York. “What we’re dealing with largely is his ego. And from Sony’s standpoint, no matter what, they could not afford to have Michael Jackson signed away from them.”

A senior executive of a rival entertainment company, who spoke only on condition that he not be identified, said: “My reading is that they were close to losing Michael Jackson. So you start by saying, ‘What do you have to do to keep him?’ He doesn’t need the money. So you say we have this fantastic company that has all these avenues for you. Give us your albums and you can do movies, TV shows.”

“This is the first example where we have been able to combine interests in both film and records,” said Mr. Schulhof, 48, who is directing Sony’s efforts in multi-media packaging.

Mr. Schulhof said the contract with Mr. Jackson was the first involving a performer with Sony Software, rather than with Columbia Pictures Entertainment, Sony Music Entertainment or one of the company’s other entertainment subsidiaries.

Tommy Mottola, the president of Sony Music Entertainment, said the company based the estimate of $1 billion in retail revenues on the 40 million copies of “Thriller” and 25 million copies of “Bad” that have been sold, at an average of $10 per record, or $650 million.

Under the terms of his deal with Sony Software, Mr. Jackson will star in his first full-length feature film, which will be produced by one such subsidiary, Columbia Pictures Entertainment. The company described the film as a “musical action adventure” based on an idea of Mr. Jackson’s.

Many features of the new contract appear to be speculative. For example, while Sony executives publicly said they expect the forthcoming movie to be the first of many with Mr. Jackson, one executive who would speak only on condition that his name not be used, said the current agreement only called for one film. Executives also said that the script for his forthcoming movie was not yet completed and that a director had not yet been signed.

The singer is also creating a new record label, called Nation Records, under the auspices of the Jackson Entertainment Complex. With it, “he will be developing new, young and budding talent, and he will be the magnet to attract superstars to leave their current recording company to come to Sony,” Mr. Mottola said.

Now that we know the background for the story we may very well guess the identity of a certain “senior executive of a rival entertainment company” who preferred to stay anonymous and was mentioned here twice. For someone belonging to another company he was exceptionally well-informed and it was this person who disclosed that the film agreement was for one movie only.

But if that was the case the movie in question could easily be the “Midknight” musical promoted by Jon Peters. However Jon Peters belonged to the previous Sony management team and as soon as he was fired the point about the movies could be easily dropped and happily forgotten.

And this is exactly what happened shortly thereafter. In April 1991, only a month after all that hoopla about Michael Jackson movie projects, Jon Peters was fired.

True that prior to the dismissal there had been much media speculation that Jon Peter was unqualified to head a big film studio like Sony/Columbia pictures (he started his career as a hairdresser to Barbra Streisand and only later grew into a successful producer of films like Batman) and it is also true that after a fight at a party with Geffen’s friend Barry Diller the latter announced to those present that “Peters would never work in this town again”.

However even despite all that Jon Peters’ dismissal came as a big surprise because he was terminated on the initiative of his closest friend Peter Guber, who was also his long-time business partner and co-chairman at Sony/Columbia pictures. Guber claimed that he had done it on the orders of his Sony superiors, and Sony superiors said that it was Guber who asked them for Jon Peters’ dismissal and all of it resulted in their mutual sobbing on each other shoulders.

Whatever the case, there is no denying that the only movie project really intended for Michael Jackson was “Midknight”, but even that was dropped soon after its only ardent supporter was fired. This alone gives us the idea of the true worth of all those grand promises given to Michael by his new management team. Especially since they knew about Peters’ departure well in advance as the LA Times reported that “the move had been in the works for several weeks but was kept carefully under wraps.”

Another LA Times article of that period also glorified Michael Jackson’s new contract and mentioned that the movie in question was indeed “Midknight”.

Michael Jackson Agrees to Huge Contract With Sony

ALAN CITRON and CHUCK PHILIPS Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

March 21, 1991

In a thriller of a deal, pop icon Michael Jackson has signed a long-term contract with Sony Corp. that guarantees him an unprecedented share of the profits from his next six albums, his own record label, a role in developing video software products and a shot at movie stardom.

The contract, the biggest ever awarded an entertainer, is expected to return hundreds of millions of dollars to Jackson. It also cements Sony’s relationship with its biggest star, who reportedly had threatened to move to another label in a contract dispute last year.

“We’re married to him now,” Sony Software President Michael P. Schulhof said Wednesday.

Jackson, 32, reportedly could receive more than $120 million per album if sales match the 40-million-plus level of his smash mid-’80s album “Thriller.” Two sources close to the talks said the reclusive singer is guaranteed an advance payment of $5 million per record plus a 25% royalty from each album based on retail sales.

Jackson’s much-rumored deal is the result of months of difficult negotiations between Sony executives and Jackson’s phalanx of managers and lawyers. People close to the talks said Jackson insisted on striking a bargain that bridged records, movies and video software.

Jackson’s next record, for which he reportedly received an $18-million advance, is due this summer. In addition, Jackson will be paid a onetime $4-million fee, informed sources said, plus $1 million a year to run Nation Records, the record label created under the deal. Sources said Sony also agreed to put up $2.2 million a year in administration costs.

Jackson is not the first star to get his own record label. Frank Sinatra started Reprisebefore selling it to Warner Bros. The Beatles had Apple Records, and more recently labels have been established by such performers as Elton John, the Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and M.C. Hammer. More often than not, the results have been disappointing. Unlike those acts, Jackson will remain on Sony’s Epic Records label.

The deal further assures that Jackson will star in his first feature since the 1978 flop “The Wiz.” People close to the talks said he will be paid at least $5 million to appear in a musical action adventure based on his own idea.

The movie deal is largely the result of Jackson’s friendship with Columbia Pictures Co-Chairman Jon Peters and his partner, Peter Guber. Company officials said further films may follow if the first, set for a 1992 release, is a success. Jackson is also supposed to be given offices on Columbia’s Culver City lot.

Funnily, many years later Peter Guber (who was also dumped in 1994) confirmed that all their promises to get Michael Jackson into the movies was nothing but shallow talk. See what he wrote in his book “Tell to Win” in 2011:

“Back in 1991, Jackson already was a force to be reckoned with. After renewing his contract with Sony for a record-setting $65 million, he released his eighth album, “Dangerous¸” with the singles “Black or White” and “Remember the Time,” both of which dominated the pop charts. As CEO of Sony Pictures, I’d sat in on the studio production of that album and was overwhelmed by Michael’s creative intensity and perfectionism.

His ambition knew no bounds. But when Sony’s most important musical asset invited me to his home in Encino to discuss his plans to get into movies and television, I was taken aback. Michael had proven he knew everything there was to know about pop music, but movies were a different animal. He wanted to produce as well as act…

So Guber was “taken aback” when Michael raised with him the movie issue? Forgetting that their 1991 agreement had a contractual obligation to find a suitable movie project for MJ, twenty years later Guber sounded like he was hearing about it for the first time and presented it as a bolt from the blue, a kind of an outlandish claim and the illustration of Michael’s ambition that “knew no bounds”.

How very nice.


According to Zack Greenburg’s book called “Michael Jackson, Inc.: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of a Billion-Dollar Empire” Michael Jackson learned of the real terms of his new contract with Sony only in the mid-1990s.

Sometime in 1997 Michael began working on his Invincible album but was in no hurry to deliver. Greenburg says that “he believed he could get out of his latest Sony contract in 2000 and simply sell the new material to the highest bidder.”

Artists in California have the full right to do so as contracts governed by California law can be indeed abrogated after seven years. Greenburg explains:

“Back when he signed his first solo contract with Sony’s predecessor, CBS, Branca had insisted that the agreement be governed by California law, which would allow Jackson to terminate it after seven years if he saw fit. The singer assumed the same statutes held true.

As Jackson discovered in the mid-1990s, however, the contract had been reworked by one of Branca’s replacements. Three albumswere added to his original five-album deal, along with massive penalties for early termination—as much as $20 million for each album he didn’t complete—which effectively nullified the benefits of the California law clause.

Jackson eventually determined that he could leave the label only after delivering Invincible and a greatest hits album.”

Branca’s replacement the author is referring to could only be Allen Grubman as it was he who continued renegotiating Michael’s contract with Sony after Branca was fired and the power at Sony Music Entertainment was grabbed by another team.

And it was Allen Grubman, Mottola’s bosom friend and a big Geffen loyalist, who added three albums to Michael’s existing contract and by working into the agreement a multimillion penalty clause bound him to Sony almost forever, doing it in a way that Michael learned about the changes only several years later.

No wonder that M. Schulhof declared in 1991 that they were “now married to Michael Jackson” and the media spoke about “cementing” Michael Jackson’s relationship with Sony.

So much for the promises of a greater future to Michael by his new advisors.

Much more about these events is revealed in another outstanding publication called “MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson” published in 2015.

The book was written by Steve Knopper, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and veteran music reporter, whose earlier “Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age” is already known to us by its description of “paola” in the music industry (the inducement by record companies to broadcast their songs on commercial radio for money, gifts, favors, etc.) and a witch hunt against Yetnikoff on paola allegations, though all recording companies are involved in this business and are level in spending enormous sums on this practice.

The USA Today considers Steven Knopper “a more conscientious historian than tabloid newshound” which is only partially true. Knopper is indeed quite credible when he sticks to the music business subject, but when it comes to the “molestation” issues he often falls into the usual traps. However despite repeating some silly stereotypes his overall conclusion is that “all evidence points to no” – meaning that Michael Jackson was innocent:

«Knopper, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone who is more conscientious historian than tabloid newshound, only deals with whatever can be substantiated. OK, so did Jackson molest children? Concludes Knopper: “All evidence points to no – although sleeping in bed with children and boasting of it on international television did not qualify him for the Celebrity Judgment Hall of Fame.”

Fortunately Steve Knopper’s book is more about business than the allegations and this is what’s most valuable for us at the moment. Here are some more colorful details from Knopper about the coup at Sony in 1990:


When Michael fired DiLeo, he gave no warning. Branca, Michael’s longtime lawyer, made the call: “Michael doesn’t want to work with you.”

“Guy doesn’t want to work with me. I don’t want to work with him, “DiLeo told Branca. “What do you want me to do? Kill myself?”

People speculated DiLeo lost his job because he had been unable to put the big-budget Moonwalker into theaters.  (The film did, however, make a killing in the home-video market, shipping three hundred copies in its first week, at $24.98 apiece, in 1989).

The truth was more complicated. In 1989, David Geffen, the smooth-talking record mogul, insinuated himself into Michael’s advisory team. Geffen didn’t get along with Branca, and he hated Walter Yetnikoff, president of CBS Records and a longtime Michael adviser. Geffen had recently come out as a gay man, and Yetnikoff, ever the crude needler, spread around a story, as he later wrote in his autobiography, that he wanted Geffen “to show my girlfriend how to give superior blowjobs.”

Geffen engineered a coup. He teamed up with Yetnikoff’s CBS number two, Tommy Mottola, and a top music-business attorney, Allen Grubman. Together they worked to sever Yetnikoff’s ties to CBS and its new parent company, Japanese electronics giant Sony Corp. Geffen convinced managers for longtime CBS artists such as Bruce Springsteen and Barbra Streisand to pull away from Yetnikoff. DiLeo had been a loyal Yetnikoff underling when he worked at the CBS affiliate Epic Records. As Michael’s manager, he provided a stable line of communication between the record company and his client. To break the link between Michael and Yetnikoff, Geffen convinced MJ to dump DiLeo.

Another reason: Michael’s goal at the time was to act in movies – he felt The Wiz and Captain EO were just the beginning. Geffen convinced Michael that DiLeo knew nothing about Hollywood. Geffen’s old friend Sandy Gallin was the man for him. In addition to managing music stars such as Dolly Parton and the Pointer Sisters, Gallin was a well-connected Hollywood hand who’d produced Father of the Bride and would later help create Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Los Angeles Times declared he had “an instinct for recognizing talent, hard-nosed negotiating skills [and] a bottomless schmooze capacity.” Michael hired Gallin to replace DiLeo. Thus, Geffen’s plan to cut Yetnikoff’s connections in Michael’s world succeeded. Sony’s executives, weary of Yetnikoff, installed Mottola in his place at the influential record label.

Michael continued to retool his management team. In 1990, he asked Branca to deliver him a new CBS Records contract that was bigger than any other pop star’s deal. Branca came up with a suitably impressive, unprecedented proposal, which would have earned Michael an $18 million advance, a royalty rate of roughly 25 percent of each album sale, and a guaranteed $5 million per album (up to $120 million total if he hit certain sales levels) The deal was to begin with an album that had been Branca’s idea – a greatest-hits package, Decade, with a few new songs, intended to buy time and ease Michael’s pressure to create. Branca met with Michael in spring 1990 and asked for equity in the publishing company he’d helped purchase. Michael said he’d think about it. He called Geffen for advice. Geffen, who liked Branca almost as little as he liked Yetnikoff, convinced Michael to dump Branca, just as he’d dumped Quincy and Frank.

Michael’s deal with CBS Records had essentially expired by March 1991. The company, now owned by Sony, wanted to keep its biggest superstar, even though his sales power had been diminishing since Thriller. Michael’s new attorney, Geffen loyalist Grubman, negotiated a new record deal with Sony Music, including a 25 percent royalty and a $50 million advance. The deal was lucrative and imperfect – it added a couple of albums to Michael’s existing recording contract.

But for Michael, the real enticement to the new contract was movie connections. “He admired Elvis Presley’s career greatly, and he felt that his career should be modeled against that,” says Rusty Lemorande, who wrote and produced Captain EO and worked closely with Michael on movie projects through the early nineties. “He felt Elvis Presley was more remembered because of his films than because of his performances.”

In addition to signing with Gallin, Michael hired well-known Creative Artists Agency to represent him for film projects. The new connections paid off immediately – Sony Pictures executive Jon Peters attached him to a project with Batman production designer Anton Furst (who committed suicide before he could direct his first movie). Later, Michael was supposed to star in Angels with Dirty Faces, and update of the Jimmy Cagney gangster film…

Speaking about gangster films this piece reads like a gangster story too.

First of all we get another confirmation that it was David Geffen who engineered a coup around Michael Jackson and got rid of Michael’s closest aides. The way it looks he did it to avenge himself on Yetnikoff, and this makes Michael a chance victim to Geffen’s personal vendetta and an ugly feud Michael had nothing to do with.

As a result of the coup the terms of MJ’s cooperation with Sony changed, but only for the worse and he got surrounded by people who didn’t have his best interests at heart and were not even above plain cheating on him.

Another interesting note is that Geffen “didn’t get along with John Branca” and “liked him almost as little as he liked Yetnikoff”.

Considering that Geffen hated Yetnikoff you can probably imagine the amount of affection Geffen has for Branca, so it won’t surprise me if Geffen turns out to be the main force behind the never-ending campaign against this lawyer which never ceases and at times only subsides, reaching the climax after Michael Jackson’s death. Getting at Branca via MJ fans, relatives, rumors in the press and overall confusion of minds would be very much the style of our great manipulator.

And if we compare the figures of what was planned for Michael and what he received under his new contract we will have to admit that the most lucrative terms of the new MJ/Sony deal were actually negotiated by Branca and not Grubman (an $18 million advance, a royalty rate of 25 percent of each album sale, and a guaranteed $5 million per album) though Michael’s new team boasted of it as if it was their own achievement.

In fact Allen Grubman only made things worse as according to Knopper’s book he added two ( Zack Greenburg said three) more albums to Michael’s existing contract. In contrast, Branca wanted to ease the pressure on Michael and buy him more time for future creations and to this end he suggested a two-disc “Decade” album of greatest hits that would include only a handful of new songs. However that idea was discarded – with Geffen’s support by the way –  and the pressure to make new albums did not only ease, but built up.

We know these details from another meticulous study of MJ’s career, by Mike Smallcombe who mentioned it in this piece about making the Dangerous album:

John Branca attempted to take some pressure off by persuading him to release a two-disc greatest hits collection (with up to five new songs included) to followBad, rather than an album of entirely new material. The collection was to be titled Decade 1979–1989 and completed by August 1989, in preparation for a November release.

With the Decade format in mind, Branca began renegotiating Michael’s contract with CBS Records. CBS was now under new ownership; the label was sold to the Japanese Sony Corporation for $2 billion in November 1987.

Michael was indecisive about the Decade project and unsure about which songs to include on it, and had already missed the August deadline for its completion. Yet no definite decision was made; Michael would keep creating and see how he felt later down the line.

In the summer of 1990, Michael finally decided to shelve the Decade project in favour of an album of new material, due to an avalanche of song ideas. ‘Michael simply wasn’t interested in old material, he wanted to keep creating.’ David Geffen was also said to have influenced the decision.

Getting back to the 1990 coup around Jackson we also find out that the movie connections promised by his new advisors were the main enticement for MJ to reboot his team (remember the NY Times placing this matter first in their account of Michael’s new contract?)

If we are to believe Steve Knopper’s findings it was in anticipation of a bright new career in Hollywood that Michael Jackson replaced his old personal manager Frank Dileo with Sandy Gallin. As usual, it was Geffen again who whispered in Michael’s ear that Dileo knew nothing of Hollywood and that his friend Sandy Gallin was the only right person for MJ.

Okay, but if Sandy Gallin was so good in his job where are the promised movies then?

I’m afraid there are none, because the “Midknight” project was developed by Jon Peters whom the new Sony team disassociated itself with.

And the idea of “Angels with Dirty Faces” mentioned above sprang from Michael’s personal connection with Rusty Lemorande whom he had known since 1986 when the latter produced Captain EO for a Disney theme park. Here is what Lemorande said about the way he came to cooperate with MJ over that movie:

We remained friendly and had two film projects in the pipeline. He wanted to do films. We developed a film at Turner Films that doesn’t exist anymore; and one at the Warner Brothers. They stopped after Michael’s scandals. That really killed his movie career.

Interesting that neither of those two projects was at Sony/Columbia pictures. In another piece Lemorande provided more detail:

“Michael was pretty pleased with our relationship, and he had just set up his film company at Sony-Columbia. And the problem was, with all the development people, etc. he wasn’t committing to anything.”

“I used to say to him, ‘You’re a little like Arnold Schwarzenegger. You can’t do any part. The part has to be tailored to you. He became a star because of Terminator.

“Well, Michael said, ‘You come up with some ideas.’ And I came up with two fairly quickly.

“One was to remake an old film called 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, which was a [1964] Tony Randall film that involved a child protagonist, and the other was to remake the film Angels with Dirty Faces, which is a James Cagney film. Michael was a huge James Cagney fan.

“Michael loved both projects. One was set up at Warners. And the other was set up at Turner – who owned the remake rights. And everything was going great. Fantastic! And then the first scandal hit.”

In fact the list of feature films with Michael’s participation is very scarce, and none of them were suggested by Sandy Gallin, Geffen or Michael’s new Sony team. His only finished projects were “The Wiz”, “Captain EO” and “The Moonwalker”, the producer of which was none other than Frank Dileo – the man dismissed from Michael’s team as someone who “knew nothing” about Hollywood.


In 2007 Dileo actually told us the whole story, though naming no names. But now that we see the overall picture and are familiar with its main actors Dileo’s careful wording can be easily deciphered and is like an open book to us. What’s also wonderful is that he was telling the truth (a rare treat) and his take on the 1990 events was correct.

Here are some excerpts from Dileo’s account.

Hit Man


NOV 22, 2007

In his 1990 exposé Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business, journalist Frederic Dannen makes the case that Dileo pretty much ran the show at Epic.

…Amusing anecdotes aside, Dannen’s depiction of Frank Dileo is not entirely flattering. Much of Hit Men is concerned with the use of independent promoters, particularly a group known as The Network.… Dannen suggests that these third-party promoters were a way for record companies to keep their own hands clean while using guys who weren’t afraid to bribe program directors. Though he never accuses Dileo of payola, Dannen describes him as a staunch advocate of indie promo men, a claim Dileo doesn’t deny.

“This is what guys like Dannen don’t understand,” Dileo says. “That was my field force. I had 60-some people. Say 40 of them are in the field. They have to cover all the pop stations, the album stations, the AC stations. Well, sometimes it’s too much. So you hire independents to help. They can do things with the PD that the local guy can’t. And I don’t mean illegal things. I mean they can take him to dinner—it’s just the way businesses operate. It’s no different than having a lobbyist in Washington, D.C.”

Still, Dileo’s hot streak at Epic can hardly be pinned exclusively on his use of indies. Every major label at the time had a sizable budget for independent promotion—whether or not it was a shady business, the playing field was level. Yet in a short time, Epic had risen from No. 14 to No. 2, in no small part because of the way Dileo handled a record that would become the greatest-selling album of all time. …When Jackson released Thriller in December 1982, in the heart of Frank Dileo’s Epic reign, it went on to sell more than 51 million copies.

…Jackson, who had been without a manager for eight months, asked Dileo to fill the position on a Monday in March 1984 at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Two days later, when Dileo accepted, the music industry was abuzz. One unnamed source in Dannen’s book says, “Everyone turned fucking green when Frank pulled that one off.”

Out of the record-label frying pan, into the megastar-management fire. Dileo started managing Jackson three months before the start of the Victory Tour, which reunited all of the Jackson brothers.

“Believe me, that was work,” Dileo says. “Every brother had a lawyer and an accountant. We had to have white promoters and black promoters. It was quite a complicated fiasco. But I got Michael through it safely.” [On the Victory Tour] “Michael used to moderate everything I ate,” Dileo says. “It’s amazing—when I started with him I was 210; when I ended with him, I was 265. So that’s what eating healthy does to you.”

…In September 1987, Jackson embarked on his first tour as a solo performer, the Bad World Tour, which Dileo produced. Though the hassles of dealing with the Jackson brothers’ handlers were absent, Dileo was in for the ride of his life—123 dates over 16-and-a-half months. It was the largest-grossing tour of all time, putting Michael in front of 4.4 million fans on four continents.

“It was a headache,” Dileo says—a grand understatement to be sure. “You were moving 213 people every three days. …Of course, there was a lot more to managing Michael Jackson than producing world tours. “We did a lot of things, Michael and I,” Dileo says fondly. “I got to executive produce all the videos of the Bad album. I did Moonwalker. I got nominated for two Grammys: for ‘Smooth Criminal’ and ‘Leave Me Alone.’ And I won a Grammy for ‘Leave Me Alone’—as the producer of the video, not the record.”

Dileo harbors no ill will toward Jackson over his firing in February 1989. “It’s a shame it ended,” Dileo says. “I really like Michael. It ended for a lot of reasons. First of all, Michael and I spent every day together for five-and-a-half years. A lot of people were jealous of that.

And at that point in time, we had a lot of power between us. There was one or two record executives, and a lawyer, possibly two lawyers, that sort of needed me to get out of the way, so that they had more control with Michael. And it also was a way for them to get rid of Yetnikoff, who had a lot of power and was my friend.”

It’s not hard to imagine why a bunch of industry suits wanted to get their hands on Jackson. But how was Jackson convinced?

“Unfortunately, they talked Michael into it,” Dileo says, “by promising him—now this is according to Michael, and I believe this—by promising him that if he fired me and hired Sandy Gallin, that he’d be able to make movies in Hollywood. Now the truth be told, Michael never made a movie. The only movie [besides 1978’s The Wiz] he’s ever made was with me, and that was Moonwalker.”

The rest of the story is beyond the scope of the present subject but I can’t resist quoting it too.

…When Jackson went on trial in 2005, Frank stayed in Los Angeles for over three months, on his own dime. “I know that he is innocent,” Dileo says. “A lot of people attack him for a lot of different reasons. One is, everybody would love to get their hands on the Beatles’ publishing. And he’s just one of those guys, he’s real kind and real nice and he can easily be taken advantage of.

“In this particular case, this kid had cancer, he found him a doctor, they didn’t have any money, he allowed them to live on his ranch. And when it was over, they didn’t want to leave. It was like blackmail. That’s all it was.

“We talked at each and every break,” Dileo continues. “I wanted to let him know that I know he didn’t do it. In fact, when I went there, he didn’t know I was coming. It was very emotional. He went, ‘Frank, I can’t believe you’re here.’ And he started to cry. And I went over and I hugged him and we got on the elevator and he told [defense attorney] Tom Mesereau, ‘This is Frank Dileo. He used to manage me. I’ve had nine managers since then. He’s the only guy that showed up, or even called to see how I’m doing.’ That was a very rough thing on him, a very emotional thing.”

There is no man without a fault, but what’s definite about Dileo is that he supported the truth and was on Michael Jackson’s side at the time he needed it most. 


By now it is clear that Michael expected Geffen and Gallin to be his doorway to Hollywood and for this reason alone he changed the whole team of his aides. But was Sandy Gallin supportive of Michael’s pursuit?

Well, when talking about it Gallin was never able to get his story straight.

To Zack Greenburg he said that “he shared Michael’s dream of making him as big in the film world as he was in music” and this was the reason why they bonded.

“Before Branca was fired, Gallin had approached him to set up a meeting with Jackson, who’d just dismissed Dileo. Gallin (who has also managed Cher, Neil Diamond, and Dolly Parton) thought he might be a good fit for Jackson. The singer had considered a handful of others, but Gallin eventually won the job after bonding with the King of Pop over the scope of their shared dream of making Jackson as big in the film world as he was in music.

And Mike Smallcombe says that when Sandy Gallin first met Michael Jackson they didn’t even discuss movies – which is a ridiculous and hardly believable statement considering that the reason Michael retained Gallin was movies and movies alone.

To support this laughable version Gallin claimed that “in his mind” Michael “might have thought” that Gallin could help him with the movies (thus suggesting that it was more Michael’s imagination than reality).

Gallin recalls the first time he spoke to Michael at Record One. “John Branca called me and took me to the studio, and we clicked right away,” Gallin said. “We had conversations about his music, and where he could go with selling records and touring. That night, we got talking about how big a star he could become, and he felt we were on the same wavelength. Michael knew how to seduce people better than anybody, and he just told me how much he liked me, and that I made him feel good in the meeting.”

One thing the pair didn’t discuss was movies. “Our conversation was much more about Michael continuing to be the biggest record seller in the world,” Gallin said. “In his mind, he might have thought, ‘Sandy has produced many television shows and he’ll be able to get me into the movie business’. But we didn’t actually discuss that until later on.”  

Now is there anyone on this planet who is capable to tell us the truth at last? Did Geffen and Gallin really mean it or was all that talk about getting Michael into the movies just tongue-in-cheek which Michael had the misfortune to take at face value?

Surprisingly, the person who dots the I’s and crosses the T’s is an apparent Geffen’s supporter whose name is associated with almost every story written in the press about Geffen and his circle. Back in the 90s this journalist was writing for the Washington Post and was covering Hollywood for the Vanity Fair.

Her name is Kim Masters and together with another author, Nancy Griffin, she co-wrote a book called “HIT AND RUN: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood” published in 1997. Yetnikoff is portrayed there as a delirious personality and his protégés Jon Peters and Peter Guber as the ultimate Hollywood con job and biggest blunder in the industry, while Geffen looks more like an awe-inspiring force not to be meddled with.

So what do Kim Masters and Nancy Griffin say about the 1990 power shift at Sony?


In August 1990, Walter read in the Wall Street Journal that he would be phased out of day-to-day operations at the record company. The article – followed by a similar report in the Los Angeles Times – didn’t comport with Walter’s understanding of his situation. True, he had turned over domestic operations to Tommy Mottola, the former talent manager whom he had hired after Sony bought CBS Records. But he wasn’t yielding control of the company.

At this point Yetnikoff was surrounded by enemies in the industry. The heads of other major record companies all had feuds with him.<> But his most dangerous enemy appeared to be David Geffen, the man who had sold his record label to MCA for more than $500 million. Geffen had a long memory. He was a bad enemy to have.

Yetnikoff had tossed a number of insults at Geffen over the years, but one story emerged from the many. The general outlines involve Yetnikoff coming across one of Geffen’s female assistants and asking her in crude terms whether Geffen, was gay but not yet openly so, would teach Walter’s girlfriend to perform oral sex. Whether that especially enraged Geffen or some other Yetnikoff behaviour was to blame, there was a widespread perception that Geffen did what he could to undermine Walter.

And Geffen was a man of influence with two of CBS Records’ biggest stars. He was close to Bruce Springsteen’s manager, Jon Landau, and Michael Jackson, who began to complain about the way CBS Records was treating him. Walter was said to be incensed when Jackson dropped his lawyers and retained Allen Grubman. Grubman had become one of the most influential attorneys in the music business, in part with Yetnikoff’s assistance. Yetnikoff had steered many clients to him, including Bruce Springsteen. Now he and Walter had split and Grubman was closer to Geffen.

This is the closest Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters come to describing Geffen’s role in Yetnikoff’s fall. However another piece from the same book is much more tale-telling, and not in the way the authors intended it.


Jackson’s much-vaunted deal, brokered by Jon Peters, had amounted to nothing. It had been “all window dressing” from the start, said a Columbia executive. “Everyone knew it was.”

Everyone except Peters and Anton Furst, Batman’s brilliant production designer, that is.

“Although most Hollywood insiders believed that Jackon’s persona was too weird for him to become a film star, Peters was developing MidKnight, a fantasy project about a superhero, for him. MidKnight was shelved after Peters left the studio.” (from HIT AND RUN)

While most people in Hollywood had long been convinced that Jackson was simply too weird to put into a feature-length film, Peter and Furst had tried to develop MidKnight for the star.

But Jackson had lost his two collaborators in 1991. Peters had left the studio, while Furst had died tragically in November.

On the day he was scheduled to admit himself into a detox program for an addiction to Valium, Furst had either fallen or jumped off the eighth floor of a Culver City parking garage.

So here is the answer to our question and straight from the horse’s mouth at that– the movie projects promised to Michael Jackson were just window dressing and everyone at Columbia knew that it was. And since they knew about it from the very start, it means that they were just paying lip service to it when they were drawing up that ground-breaking contract of theirs and trumpeting about it in the press.

And it was only Jon Peters who was taking this job seriously. However the new Sony team did not only refuse any help to him, but also prevented him from carrying out the project by firing him and leaving him in complete isolation.

Before you habitually start throwing stones at Sony please ask yourself who were the initiators of all that window dressing and who were those Hollywood insiders who had long been convinced that movies were not for Michael Jackson.

Was it Yetnikoff of CBS/Sony who had successfully worked with Michael for more than 15 years? No, it wasn’t.

Was it Frank Dileo, the head promoter at Epic/Sony who produced for Michael Jackson the Moonwalker and most of the videos for his Bad album? No, it wasn’t Frank Dileo.

Was it the Japanese bosses sitting in Tokyo? No, it wasn’t Tokyo either as the people there were often unaware of the plans and day-to-day operations of their local US team. “Tommy Boy” by Robert Sam Anson says that the board members in Sony Japan were kept so much in the dark about some of Tommy Mottola’s activities that they had to approach reporters to provide them with information:

“…a befuddled Sony board member told a reporter, “Maybe you can find out what the facts are” “Maybe you can tell me.”

Sony Corporation President Nobuyoki Idei complained to the LA Times: “If I write a memo to Tommy, he gets mad. He goes crazy. He says, “What’s the matter, don’t you trust me?”

Tommy didn’t help matters when during a visit to Japan he publicly lectured Idei, telling him to leave him alone”.

But if all these people were not involved, then who was?

The people who came to the top at Sony as a result of the power grab engineered by David Geffen. The people who promised Michael to help him launch a career in Hollywood that would match his stellar achievements in music and videos. The people who in March 1991 made all that fuss in the press about an “unprecedented synergy contract” for Michael Jackson that would bridge music, videos and movies to reflect his versatility.

So before anyone is habitually tempted to repeat those trite little expressions like “Sony sucks” it is probably worth thinking about some fresh word combinations with individual names of Mottola, Grubman, Gallin and Geffen in a similar context.

And now that we know the sad story of Michael Jackson’s movie projects no one will probably think it “weird” that sometime in 1993 at a private dinner to discuss Michael Jackson’s film career Michael “inexplicably” placed his head on the table and began to cry uncontrollably.

Prominent executives and others who have worked with Mr. Jackson in recent months have expressed concern about his apparently fragile emotional state, even before the recent allegations. At a private dinner several months ago to discuss Mr. Jackson’s film career, some of the biggest players in Hollywood joined the superstar.

Several people who attended the dinner said that while the discussion was going on, Mr. Jackson, inexplicably, placed his head on the table and began to cry uncontrollably. The dinner reportedly broke up soon after.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2018 1:59 pm

    Your comments about Zack Greenberg and the book are quite correct. The same holds true over the Man in the Music book by Joseph Vogel. The vast majority of the book is impressive and corrects many myths, but even Vogel can’t help but fall into the usual traps, though not so much the allegations as about Michael’s history regarding addiction and plastic surgery. It also states that the hyperbaric chamber and Elephant Man bones stories were planted by Michael himself, which many books and documentaries, including sympathetic ones say. Is there any truth that Michael planted and planned those stories at all?


  2. susannerb permalink
    September 24, 2018 1:51 pm

    “Is there any truth that Michael planted and planned those stories at all?”

    @luv4hutch: I’m answering for Helena who is away for a couple of days and will be back by the weekend.
    I think we cannot be 100% sure who created these fake stories. But in my opinion it is very probable that Michael’s management at that time – people like Bob Jones – spread these stories in the media to make Michael a myth. So I doubt that Michael was completely aware of these activities because he rarely was in touch with media people himself, but let his PR people do the job. It’s like the story of Paul McCartney in the 70ies, when the media spread the rumor that he died in a car accident and that his successor with the Beatles was a double. Later it turned out that his management invented and spread the fake story.
    Superstars and creative people like MJ cannot do everything themselves, they have to rely on their managers and lawyers, who unfortunately not always had his best on their mind. And like Helena describes how Michael was kept in the dark about his contracts, it is very likely that he also didn’t know anything about the PR activities of the people working for him.
    As for Joseph Vogel I would say he didn’t research very deeply into these issues because his book was mainly about Michael’s “creative life and work”.


  3. September 24, 2018 1:57 pm

    I see. That makes a lot of sense. Will you make sure that Helena sees the posts I made about the recent developments Woody Allen/Dylan Farrow/Soon-Yi story by way Soon-Yi breaking her silence. I think it deserves her attention, not just as a comment, but possibly as a full post.


  4. susannerb permalink
    September 24, 2018 2:05 pm

    I’m sure Helena will see your comments about the new developments in the Woody Allen story (I also can tell her).
    It may be interesting, but I don’t know if Helena will be able and willing to go into this issue again and write a full post, as this blog is dedicated to Michael Jackson in the first place.
    But I cannot speak for her in this matter, she will have to decide herself. So let’s wait for her return.
    Thank you for making us aware!


  5. susannerb permalink
    September 24, 2018 2:18 pm

    @kaarin again: I copied your comment of Sept. 21 to this post because it certainly was meant to be posted here. Thank you very much for your longstanding interest and support!

    “I never understood why “The Wiz” was a flop. I saw it with my then young son and found it good family entertainment.My present feeling is that it was because of racism.. If you only knew how this has flared up again under president Trump.You cannot believe what is going on in Disqus blogs.
    -Also that Geffen was bad news.He was a master manipulator.I know his name came up long time ago ,that Michael had been affiliated with him ,but they then they broke up..
    -And thank you again for keeping up this blog-“
    kaarin again (@AgainKaarin)


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