Michael Jackson's Estate Sues HBO for $100 Million Over Leaving Neverland Documentary
Two co-executors of Jackson’s estate and Optimum Productions are suing the network and its parent company, Time Warner, for $100 million, claiming that airing the two-part film — which centers on the late pop star’s alleged sexual abuse of minors — will violate a non-disparagement clause, according to court documents obtained by PEOPLE.
In the suit, the estate claim the film violates a clause in a 1992 contract, written up ahead of a televised concert that year — in which HBO agreed to not speak ill of Jackson.
In a statement obtained by PEOPLE, HBO said, “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.”
“Michael Jackson is innocent. Period,” the lawsuit says in part, before referencing the 2005 criminal trial in which he faced multiple counts of child molestation, as well as additional grand jury charges including conspiracy involving child abduction, false imprisonment, and extortion. “In 2005, Michael Jackson was subjected to a trial — where rules of evidence and law were applied before a neutral judge and jury and where both sides were heard — and he was exonerated by a sophisticated jury.”
Wade Robson had testified in Jackson’s defense during his criminal trial, but in the Leaving Neverland documentary both he and James Safechuck alleged Jackson had molested them as boys. The lawsuit refers to both men as “admitted perjurers” who had “previously testified that Jackson had never touched them inappropriately in any manner whatsoever” only for them to “change their stories” by 2013 and 2014.
In the lawsuit, the estate calls the HBO documentary a “posthumous character assassination,” violating the non-disparagement terms of the 1992 contract.
“Ten years after his passing, there are still those out to profit from his enormous worldwide success and take advantage of his eccentricities. Michael is an easy target because he is not here to defend himself and the law does not protect the deceased from defamation, no matter how extreme the lies are.”
The lawsuit added, “The real victims here are the primary beneficiaries of the Estate, Michael’s three children, who are forced to endure this attack on their father, 10 years after they buried him, and when he has no chance to respond.”
Leaving Neverland was one of the most buzzed about films when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last month. A first look at the documentary was released earlier this week, including chilling allegations by Robson and Safechuck.
“The days were filled with magical, childhood adventure experiences. Playing tag, watching movies, eating junk food,” Robson said in the clip. “Anything you could ever want as a child.”
Through old videos and photos, Safechuck and Robson can be seen spending time with Jackson on private planes and at the singer’s Neverland Ranch.
But the clip quickly took a turn as Robson and Safechuck alluded to the disturbing allegations that Jackson abused them. “Secrets will eat you up. You feel so alone,” Safechuck said.
Added Robson: “He told me if they ever found out what we were doing, he and I would go to jail for the rest of our lives … I want to be able to speak the truth as loud as I had to speak the lie for so long.”
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Jackson’s estate issued a statement to PEOPLE in January ahead of the Sundance premiere and blasted the documentary (directed and produced by Dan Reed) as a “pathetic attempt” to make money off of the singer.
“This is yet another lurid production in an outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson,” the statement read. “Wade Robson and James Safechuck have both testified under oath that Michael never did anything inappropriate toward them. Safechuck and Robson, the latter a self-proclaimed ‘master of deception’, filed lawsuits against Michael’s Estate, asking for millions of dollars. Both lawsuits were dismissed.”
>“This so called ‘documentary’ is just another rehash of dated and discredited allegations,” the statement continued. “It’s baffling why any credible filmmaker would involve himself with this project.”
The documentary’s director, however, rebuked these claims in a statement to PEOPLE. “Anyone who sees the film will know it is solely about hearing the stories of two specific individuals and their families in their own words, and that is a focus we are very proud of,” Reed said. “We feel no need to include the opinions of people with no direct knowledge of what happened to those individuals.”
Jackson was 50 years old when he was found dead on June 25, 2009, in his L.A. mansion and is survived by his three children: Prince Michael, 22, Paris, 20, and 17-year-old “Blanket,” who now goes by Bigi.
Leaving Neverland premieres March 3 and 4 on HBO.