That same afternoon, representatives for the Jackson estate issued their response.
The four-hour documentary, which HBO will air over two nights March 3 and 4, was described as “shattering” and “horrifying” by Times film critic Justin Chang after its Sundance Film Festival premiere last month. The Jackson estate’s 10-page response directed at HBO Chief Executive Richard Plepler used equally strong language against Robson, Safechuck and the network itself.
Continually referring to “Leaving Neverland” with quotation marks around the word documentary, the estate’s legal counsel Howard Weitzman refers to Safechuck and Robson as liars and perjurers, disputing their claims while also decrying the network and Reed for not allowing members of the Jackson estate to present their side.
Claiming Reed’s project’s lack of research and opposing views, the letter calls the documentary’s methods “a disgrace” and describes HBO as “reduced to the pay television version of [1990s tabloid news program] ‘Hard Copy’ (with a little mix of ‘The Jerry Springer Show’).”
While the letter refutes the accounts of abuse in “Leaving Neverland” and references previous legal action against Jackson beginning in 2013 (which were dismissed for being outside the statute of limitations), the estate does not threaten further legal action. Instead, the letter questions the network’s ethics in documentary filmmaking, adding “if HBO does care about such things, this documentary will never air.”
In another particularly pointed flourish, the letter implies that such claims against Jackson are the result of a media and music industry resentful of Jackson’s success, citing comments made by writer James Baldwin, who said in 1985 that Jackson “will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables.”
This is not the first time the Jackson estate has made its displeasure with the documentary known. Prior to its screening at Sundance, the estate released another lengthy statement calling “Leaving Neverland” a “pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson.” A subsequent statement followed the premiere.
In a statement to The Times, HBO said it will air the documentary as planned next month. “Dan Reed is an award-winning filmmaker who has carefully documented these survivors’ accounts. People should reserve judgment until they see the film,” the network said.
At a post-screening Q&A at the festival, Safechuck said the documentary “was really trying to tell the story and shine a light on it. To give people [who have survived abuse] the same connection and comfort we’ve got going through this.”
“We’ve been looking for a platform to be able to tell the truth,” said Robson.
Speaking to the Hollywood Reporter shortly after the letter was released, HBO programming chief Casey Bloys dismissed the letter and its demands.
“[The documentary] is not changing because of the letter and I ask that everybody watch it and decide for themselves,” he said.
In a separate interview with Variety, Bloys said “Leaving Neverland” “absolutely” meets HBO’s documentary standards.
“We’ve been doing documentaries for a long time,” he said. “I think this one is a very important one … both men were very brave to share their stories, and they deserve to be heard.”
Staff writer Meredith Blake contributed to this report