If MJ The Musical becomes a box office sensation, Paris Jackson, Bigi Jackson, Prince Jackson and the executors of their father’s estate stand to enjoy a bonanza.
Typically, half of a Broadway show’s adjusted net profit is shared among the lead producers. The other half goes to investors, who also qualify for some lead producer profits by raising or investing large sums. On MJ, however, “the entire 50% share of Adjusted Net Profits [due the lead producers] will be paid to the Estate,” according to an investor operating agreement obtained by Broadway Journal.
Lia Vollack, who shares the lead producing credit with the estate, declined to comment, as did estate co-executors John Branca and John McClain.
Per the financial papers, the Jackson estate has control over the portrayal of the pop star, who died in 2009 and whose legacy has been shadowed by allegations of sexual abuse.
The investment document illustrates the estate’s leverage in granting approval for the show, which includes songs from Jackson’s 1982 bestselling album Thriller and other hits he recorded solo and with the Jackson 5.
MJ is set in a Los Angeles studio in 1992 as Jackson rehearses for a tour supporting his Dangerous record. The drama predates his acquittal in a 2005 child molestation trial and the 2019 release of HBO’s Leaving Neverland, in which two men described Jackson grooming and abusing them when they were children. The estate subsequently sued HBO, saying the documentary violated a 30-year-old non-disparagement agreement that the network signed when it recorded and broadcast a performance of the Dangerous tour in Bucharest, Romania.
“Michael Jackson is innocent. Period,” the estate wrote in its complaint in L.A. Superior Court, which successfully compelled HBO into arbitration, now scheduled for February 2023.
Regarding MJ, the estate and Vollack “have complete control, in their sole discretion, both of the production of the play and the exploitation of all rights therein, including…changes in script, choice of cast, directors and designers,” according to the investment prospectus.
In a 2019 interview with the New York Times, the musical’s book writer, Lynn Nottage, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, said the estate didn’t restrict her or director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. “‘If we can’t tell this full story then perhaps we are not the right people to do it,” Nottage said she told the estate. “They know who I am as a writer. I’m very deeply invested in approaching my work with honesty and integrity.”
At one point in the show, the stage manager of the upcoming tour (Antoine L. Smith) asks the concert director (Quentin Earl Darrington) about a family Jackson wants to bring on the road. “It’s gonna raise some questions,” the stage manager notes. Later, reporters ask Jackson (Myles Frost) about “recent allegations.” Neither line is elaborated on. MJ also depicts Jackson’s pill-popping and bouts of rage by his father.
Critic Vinson Cunningham wrote in The New Yorker that he came to see Nottage as “a playwright-hero trying to save this intriguing spectacle from its tendency toward total avoidance.”
Nottage was previously hired by producer Robert Ahrens (Disaster! ) to create a similar Jackson bio musical, according to the investment papers. For MJ‘s script, the playwright earns an undisclosed writing fee, a $40,000 option payment, advance, royalties and a share of net profit.
In the investment papers, MJP Musical LLC “acknowledges that the production may be subject to heightened scrutiny due to possible media coverage and/or lawsuits relating to certain allegations against Michael Jackson, and that the foregoing may adversely impact the company’s prospects.”
That doesn’t seem to be a problem so far. MJ grossed $1.3 million in the seven days ended Feb. 13, its first full week after opening, a person familiar with the production said. At that rate, it should recoup its roughly $20 million of production costs in a little over a year, according to the papers. An influx of tourism and a $10 million Shuttered Venue Operators Grant that the show received from the Small Business Administration could accelerate repaying investors. The maximum anticipated capitalization was $22.5 million.
Once the company recoups plus 10 percent, 13 percent of net profits are to be paid out. That allocation of net profits “off the top” — to the estate, Nottage, Wheeldon, general manager Bespoke Theatricals and Executive Producer Michael David — is relatively high for a Broadway musical and dilutes the adjusted net profits left for investors.
Moreover, the estate didn’t offer any of its adjusted net profits to co-producers as an inducement for raising money. They include Sony (an original lead producer that provided early development funds), theater owner James Nederlander, the John Gore Organization and former investment bankers Roy Furman and Sandy Robertson.
The estate and Vollack are entitled to a $3,500 weekly office charge and a minimum $3,000 a week in producer royalties. The papers don’t disclose how that’s divvied up, or the financial terms of a London company or U.S. tour, which people involved with MJ said are in the works. The Jackson estate, whose primary beneficiaries are the pop star’s three children, also earns royalties for licensing his songs to MJ.
Overall, the co-executors earn 10 percent of new revenue that they generate for the estate, according to press accounts. Branca, Jackson’s longtime lawyer, is well-known in legal circles for his negotiating prowess. “He will walk away from a deal that everybody else around him thinks he should take,” the late lawyer Howard Weitzman, who represented the estate against HBO, said at a Harvard Business School forum in 2019. “‘I don’t care how good it looks,'” Weitzman recalled Branca as saying. “‘I can get more.'”
Branca said at Harvard that any negotiation will be influenced by the parties’ priorities and the leverage each side wields. “If you took Drake and Kanye and Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift and BTS rolled them into one, they still wouldn’t be as big as Michael Jackson was when Thriller came out,” he said.