Despite only having publicly screened a single time, Dan Reed's extended documentary Leaving Neverland has already cemented itself as one of the most controversial entertainment releases of the modern era, putting a piercing spotlight on pop icon Michael Jackson's alleged sexual relationship with two underage (at the time) boys. The project is set to debut in March on HBO, and the network has confirmed those plans are still on, despite a $100 million lawsuit filed this week by Jackson's estate.
To be expected, Leaving Neverland has received multiple disparaging judgments and complaints from Michael Jackson's estate ever since it was announced. But said reactions had not become litigious until February 21, when a lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles county calling out HBO for breach of contract concerning a non-disparagement clause, as well as for the "breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing."
HBO responded to the lawsuit on Friday, February 22, calling the lawsuit "desperate" and stating no changes are being made regarding plans to air the documentary as a two-night event. The statement, per Deadline, can be read below.
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 legal team for Michael Jackson's estate is taking a very particular angle with the lawsuit, because defamation suits aren't an option in cases where the subject is deceased. (Jackson died in 2009, with the death ruled a homicide.) So instead, the legal petition called HBO out over its 1992 deal to air the live concert special Michael Jackson in Concert in Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour.
That deal required HBO to agree not to make any remarks that could be considered disparaging to Jackson, his agents, his reps and his "business practices," as well as any other act that could lower public opinion of him.
Here's how the lawsuit says HBO breached that contract agreement.
HBO profited off the Dangerous World Tour by airing a concert from the tour and promoting Michael Jackson’s talents. 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.
It's been 27 years since that deal was sealed, and both HBO and Michael Jackson's estate have come a long way since then. It was in 1993 that Jackson was first accused of child molestation, with that case being settled out of court. He faced another trial in 2004-2005, with even more charges laid against him, but he was found not guilty of all counts. (Wade Robson, one of the two accusers at the center of Leaving Neverland, testified at that trial that he was not molested by Jackson.)
Meanwhile, HBO has become a prime destination for top-quality TV, bolstered by shows such as Game of Thrones, True Detective and Westworld, among others. As well, it is one of the small screen's choice destinations for high-quality documentary filmmaking.
The lawsuit and the Jackson estate's legal team called HBO out for wanting little more than to profit off of Michael Jackson's legacy by airing Leaving Neverland. They and others also criticized the documentary itself for only focusing on accusers Wade Robson and James Safechuck, as well as their families, claiming an overall lack of objectivity will skew the opinions of viewers.
It's unclear exactly what will happen with this high-finance lawsuit, with HBO clearly not planning on backing down any time soon. Leaving Neverland caused quite a kerfuffle when it premiered in full at Sundance, and reviews and reactions have been as highly charged as the documentary itself.
For now, HBO will shake up midseason TV by airing Leaving Neverland on Sunday and Monday, March 3 and 4, at 8:00 p.m. ET on each night. The documentary will also be available to stream immediately on HBO Go and HBO Now.