In late July, a month after Michael Jackson died from the effects of a powerful anesthetic plus other medications, Sony Pictures bid $60 million for a movie after seeing just 97 seconds of footage.
That brief clip was a glimpse of more than 100 hours that concert promoter AEG Live shot of the late singer during rehearsals for a planned London concert series called “This Is It.”
“We had a very strong gut feeling that this could be a cultural event despite the fact that none of us really saw any of the footage before we concluded the deal,” said Sony’s production president, Doug Belgrad.
When “This Is It” opens in 63 countries Tuesday night with a Los Angeles premiere at 6 p.m., Sony will find out quickly whether it has a global blockbuster on its hands or merely a pastiche of backstage video that appeals mostly to rabid Jackson fans.
With the huge amount it spent to buy the footage, and tens of millions more in marketing costs, Sony has a lot at stake in “This Is It,” which is scheduled to play in theaters only two weeks. The movie was put together in an extraordinarily short period of under three months and has been seen by virtually no one outside the studio. Moreover, as something akin to a concert film -- about 80% of the picture shows Jackson singing and dancing -- it is in a genre that has little history of big box-office success.
Many film industry executives expect that “This Is It” will earn considerably more overseas than in the U.S. given Jackson’s global appeal -- his last tour in 1996-97, for instance, played all around the world, but the American shows were only in Honolulu.
“This Is It” will also be one of about 20 foreign movies that the Chinese government will allow to be played in the country this year.
“I would be disappointed if this doesn’t significantly outdo its domestic performance internationally,” said Tim Richards, chief executive of Vue Cinemas, a major British theater chain.
Everywhere the movie will play, big ticket sales Tuesday night and Wednesday seem assured -- more than 1,600 U.S. showings have sold out online. “This Is It” could easily collect more than $20 million domestically by Wednesday, according to people who have seen surveys of potential moviegoers.
However, many similar movies, such as Disney’s 2008 concert film “Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana: Best of Both Worlds,” have experienced steep drop-offs in ticket sales after the first rush of fans came out for the opening. Depending on the rate of decline, Sony could end up in a losing position even if the picture’s early grosses are impressive.
“It’s a two-week picture that might do all of its business in the first week,” said Alan Grossberg, the president of Ultrastar Cinemas of Vista, Calif., which has booked “This Is It” in 12 of its 13 locations. “Michael Jackson fans will rush out to see it, but whether they will come back a second or third time, we don’t know.”
Sony is hoping to win its costly bet on “This Is It” by transforming the global outpouring of emotion when Jackson died into global excitement over a final chance to see one of the most popular musical performers ever in action, a major reason it is arriving in theaters so quickly after his death.
The movie was edited by about 20 people working under director Kenny Ortega, who was also overseeing the concert, in what Sony’s Belgrad described as a “vault” on the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City.
The team put together a rough cut of about 2 1/2 hours and showed studio executives more than three versions of the film before Labor Day. Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal watched several cuts via a private video feed while on vacation in Hawaii.
“There were a lot of technical obstacles,” Belgrad said. “Some of the footage was hi-def, but some was lower [resolution]. The music and sound had to be recorded and mixed. . . . We had to make over 18,000 prints in dozens of languages.”
Most movies as expensive as “This Is It” go through numerous test screenings during post-production and are shown to exhibitors and journalists ahead of time in order to drum up interest.
Given the extremely short timeline on which it was made and the sensitivity of the footage, however, nobody outside of Sony Pictures -- with the exception of a few members of the Jackson family and AEG executives, as well as a small number of theater executives -- have seen the movie, which hasn’t been tested in front of an audience or shown to critics.
Sony’s marketing campaign hasn’t revealed much, either. There have been few TV advertisements, as Sony has put most of its marketing budget into outdoor images of Jackson performing within a silhouette of himself, as well as online ads.
In addition, there’s the obvious challenge that the film’s star is not alive to do promotional interviews.
“The biggest issue we feel we have in the marketplace is to try and clarify what the movie is,” Belgrad said. “There’s some confusion as to whether it’s a documentary and whether it deals with parts of his life beyond the rehearsal period.”
There’s evidence that Belgrad’s concern is legitimate. In an unscientific survey of more than 1,000 people conducted by Fandango, 52% of respondents said they believed “This Is It” is a documentary, while 39% said it’s a concert film.
By next Thursday, however, the word on “This Is It” will have spread around the globe and Sony will know whether its audience is already petering out, or if those who turned out on opening day are going back and bringing friends -- the formula for a huge box-office success. If that’s the case, Sony will probably extend the movie’s planned two-week run.
“We would love it if it’s playable enough to give us justification to extend the run,” Belgrad said. “But if it’s a fast burn and people flock to it when it opens but it plays out like other concert films, that will probably still work out for us.”