The ongoing feud between Michael Jackson’s estate and HBO over the documentary “Leaving Neverland” escalated on Thursday, with the estate filing a lawsuit alleging that the cable channel is violating non-disparagement agreements it had made with the pop star prior to his death.
Jackson’s estate claims in its complaint filed in Los Angeles Superior Court that HBO and others associated with the documentary are engaging in “posthumous character assassination” of Jackson, who died in 2009. The estate is seeking non-confidential arbitration and damages that it said “could exceed $100 million.”
“Leaving Neverland” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The four-hour documentary generated considerable controversy by reviving claims from interview subjects Wade Robson and James Safechuck that Jackson sexually abused them when they were minors.
HBO, which is a division of AT&T-owned WarnerMedia, has scheduled the documentary to premiere in two installments on March 3 and 4. The cable channel said Thursday it will proceed with its plans to air the movie.
“Despite the desperate lengths taken to undermine the film, our plans remain unchanged,” HBO said in a statement. “This will allow everyone the opportunity to assess the film and the claims in it for themselves.”
The Jackson estate alleges in its suit that HBO entered into a series of non-disparagement agreements with the singer in 1992 when the cable channel aired a two-hour television event, “Michael Jackson in Concert in Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour.”
The estate claims that HBO agreed to the non-disparagement agreements as part of its licensing arrangement with Jackson, and that the agreements would cover periods both during and after the televised event.
The new lawsuit represents the latest effort by Jackson’s estate to block the movie since its Sundance debut.
Earlier this month, lawyers for Jackson’s estate sent a letter to HBO Chief Executive Richard Plepler, requesting a meeting to discuss “Leaving Neverland.” In the letter, attorney Howard Weitzman criticized the movie’s director, Dan Reed, for failing to reach out to the estate for comment about the allegations being made against the pop star by Robson and Safechuck.
Weitzman described Robson and Safechuck as “serial perjurers, whose sole agenda has been to extract money from Jackson’s rightful heirs and chosen beneficiaries.”
Jackson’s estate alleges in Thursday’s lawsuit that HBO never responded to the Feb. 7 letter. HBO’s programming president Casey Bloys addressed the letter publicly during the Television Critics Assn. press tour this month, saying that the cable channel had no plans to meet with the estate.
Robson was one of the witnesses who testified during Jackson’s 2005 child molestation trial in Santa Maria, Calif., claiming that the pop star never abused him though they did sleep in the same bedroom. Jackson was eventually acquitted of all charges.
Later, Robson changed his story, alleging sexual abuse that lasted several years. Both Robson and Safechuck sued the Jackson estate but their cases were dismissed.
Jackson’s estate said that it is seeking arbitration because its agreement with HBO contains a mandatory arbitration clause. The estate said it is seeking public arbitration in order to alleviate any suggestion of secrecy.