Jackson's New Career: Permanent, Posthumous Brand The Michael Jackson concert film This Is It — cut together from rehearsals filmed in the months before the pop star's death — is just the latest venture to highlight how valuable the coin of celebrity can remain even after a star's life is over. Nate DiMeo looks at the big business of posthumous brand management.
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Jackson's New Career: Permanent, Posthumous Brand

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Jackson's New Career: Permanent, Posthumous Brand


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Jackson's New Career: Permanent, Posthumous Brand

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Audiences around the world have a chance to see Michael Jackson's last performance. It's a documentary made of rehearsal footage from the huge show he was planning for London when he died. The film is called "This is It." Despite the finality of that title, we can expect to see a lot more of Jackson's work, as Nate Dimeo reports.

NATE DIMEO: Kenny Ortega had worked with Michael Jackson for two years developing the "This is It" stage show. And when its promoter came to him and asked him to turn footage of that process into a film, he hesitated. His friend had just died.

Mr. KENNY ORTEGA (Filmmaker, "This is It"): I didn't feel that I'd have the creative objectivity to step into an editing room and sort of face this material so quickly.

DIMEO: But he says as he sat watching the footage, he felt like he didn't have a choice.

Mr. ORTEGA: I was there. I knew what the story was, this was sacred, and that it sort of was my responsibility to continue forward with the journey.

(Soundbite of song, "Beat It")

DIMEO: The result of that journey - that several months spent in a dark editing room - is now opening on 11,000 screens all over the world.

(Soundbite of movie, "This is It")

Unidentified Man #1: There's Michael.

Unidentified Man #2: The man is here.

Mr. ORTEGA: We're all here because of him. May that continue, with him leading the way.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON (Singer, Songwriter, Performer): This is the moment.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JACKSON: This is it.

(Soundbite whipping sound, footfalls)

DIMEO: Box office prognosticators project good returns for Columbia Pictures, the movie studio that placed a $60 million bet on Ortega's documentary. Prognosticators of the earnings of dead celebrities - yes, such people exist -project that the next two years will be incredibly lucrative for the Jackson estate.

Mr. JEFF JAMPOL (Intellectual Property License Manager): You're talking about the level of The Beatles and Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson and Frank Sinatra. These are the icons of the icons in the pop world.

DIMEO: Jeff Jampol manages The Doors and Janis Joplin - not used to manage. He manages everything. He approves and rejects licenses. He times album rereleases. He tries to get the artists on the covers of magazines. And it can be a perilous business.

Mr. JAMPOL: Literally, I could ruin, in an afternoon, what it took these guys 30 years, 40 years to build.

DIMEO: And then there are all the other people who the official gatekeepers have no control over.

Rabbi SHMULEY BOTEACH: As his friend, I do feel a certain responsibility for his image, of course.

DIMEO: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is one of the many parties outside of the official Jackson circle who will be profiting from Jackson's image. He recently released a book drawn from recorded conversations with Jackson. Boteach calls it a raw look at a complicated man, even though, he says, that might frustrate the people in charge of maintaining the Michael Jackson brand.

Rabbi BOTEACH: Their principal objective is to ensure the financial integrity of the estate. I'm not sure that they have made it their priority to ensure the integrity of Michael's image.

Mr. ORTEGA: All we can do is put our faith in the family and in the estate that they're going to be smart and selective.

DIMEO: Kenny Ortega says he worries about what will happen to his friend and collaborator now that Jackson isn't here to guide his own career. But he says he's been encouraged by what he experienced during the process of getting his documentary to the screen.

Mr. ORTEGA: Do I have complete faith and utter confidence? No, I don't. I don't. But I can say that the experience that I've been through has shown some promise.

DIMEO: It appears that decisions about how and importantly 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 the music industry and the Michael Jackson industry.

The Doors manager Jeff Jampol says the two men have an incredible opportunity in front of them. With most artists, the big fear is going too big: licensing too many products and diluting the brand through overexposure. But this is Michael Jackson.

Mr. JAMPOL: I think you have an obligation to do things on a huge, superstar worldwide level. In the case of Michael Jackson, I don't think you can go too big or too exposed.

DIMEO: In other words, the King of Pop is dead - long live the King of Pop.

For NPR News, I'm Nate Dimeo.

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