The Jackson estate has been fiercely critical of the film since it premiered at Sundance in January. The film prominently features the story of two men, James Safechuck and Wade Robson, who claim Jackson molested them and swore them to secrecy when they were children.
However, because Jackson’s estate cannot sue for libel or defamation – as dead individuals are exempt from such laws – the new lawsuit is centered around the claim that Leaving Neverland violates a non-disparagement clause in a 1992 contract between Jackson and HBO over the rights to air the concert film, Michael Jackson in Concert in Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour.
“In those non-disparagement provisions, HBO promised that ‘HBO shall not make any disparaging remarks concerning Performer or any of his representatives, agents, or business practices or do any act that may harm or disparage or cause to lower in esteem the reputation or public image of Performer,’” the lawsuit claims. “Other provisions in the Agreement require HBO to notify and consult with Jackson and Optimum Productions if it wishes to air additional programming about Jackson.”
In a statement to Rolling Stone, lawyers for the Jackson estate said, “HBO breached its agreement not to disparage Michael Jackson by producing and selling to the public a one-sided marathon of unvetted propaganda to shamelessly exploit an innocent man no longer here to defend himself. HBO could have and should have ensured that Leaving Neverland was properly sourced, fact checked and a fair and balanced representation. Instead they chose to fund and produce a film where they knew the two subjects had for many years testified under oath and told family, friends and law enforcement that Mr. Jackson did nothing inappropriate to either of them.”
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A representative for HBO told Rolling Stone, “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 3rd and 4th. This will allow everyone the opportunity to assess the film and the claims in it for themselves.”
The new lawsuit is fiercely critical of both Safechuck and Robson, especially the latter, whom they claim “lied under oath” and “was caught red-handed hiding crucial evidence from the court” during previous attempts to sue the Jackson estate. The lawsuit also alleges the pair have “hundreds of millions of reasons to lie” as they’re still “pursuing claims against the Jackson Estate for hundreds of millions of dollars.”
The suit also accuses Leaving Neverland director Dan Reed of “violat[ing] every rule of responsible journalism and documentary filmmaking” and “refus[ing] to talk to anyone whose statements might not fit the storyline of the fictional film he was dead-set on making.” The suit further claims that HBO refused to meet with representatives of the Jackson estate to “discuss problems” with the film.
Per the suit, Robson and Safechuck’s allegations of abuse are also directly tied to the Dangerous tour – and subsequently the 1992 contract – noting there’s a scene in Leaving Neverland in which Robson’s mother discusses Jackson taking Robson on that tour. “To summarize, HBO profited off the Dangerous World Tour by airing a concert from the tour and promoting Michael Jackson’s talents,” claims the suit. “Now, HBO is profiting off the Dangerous World Tour by airing a ‘documentary’ that falsely claims Michael Jackson was abusing children on the same tour. It is hard to imagine a more direct violation of the non-disparagement clause.”
The Michael Jackson estate is asking a judge to force HBO into non-confidential arbitration. The estate is seeking damages that “could exceed $100 million should HBO succeed in the damage it is intending to cause to the legacy of Michael Jackson.”