Monday, May 2, 2011 | 2:08 p.m.
The first-ever, estate-authorized Michael Jackson Fan Fest takes place here on the Strip starting Dec. 3 when the new Immortal Tour from Cirque du Soleil opens at Mandalay Bay. Vegas DeLuxe has now learned that for 4 hours before each of the 33 performances, fans will experience the legacy of The King of Pop in a very new way.
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Already planned is an up-close look at Michael Jackson memorabilia, items from Neverland Ranch that have never been seen publicly, photo opportunities in re-created sets from Jackson videos and a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour. There will be a main stage featuring contests and Q&A sessions with members of the creative team from Immortal and Michael’s other associates.
“In addition, the Fan Fest will give visitors the opportunity to play and compete against others in contests centered around the recently released Ubisoft video game Michael Jackson: The Experience. An interactive, engaging and immersive design will create a larger-than-life environment for all Fan Fest goers and promises to be a one-of-a-kind event,” one of the organizers said.
The Michael Jackson Fan Fest will be open to those who want to participate in it and to ticket holders of the touring show. Fan Fest will be set up in the Bay East and West Halls of Mandalay Bay Convention Center.
This week, we’ll post our interviews with the partners of Team Michael Jackson involved with the new Cirque du Soleil shows headed here -- the touring show and the new permanent residency show opening in 2013 as part of an MJ Zone at the resort. First up is a rare and revealing interview with the co-executor of the estate, attorney and former manager John Branca.
Robin Leach: When you took on this enormous responsibility, I think it’s safe to say that at that moment, neither his family nor his fans understood what your role was. You’ve not only polished the reputation, you’ve protected the reputation, and you’ve built an enormous industry going forward. When you sat down those first moments after his tragic death and said I am the co-executor of the estate, what was in your mind to achieve for the man you once managed?
John Branca: That’s a big question. First of all, when that job was handed to me, I was thankful because a lot of Michael’s fans were really supportive. They had felt that since I’d been there with him since January 1980 that John McClain and I were the right co-executors for the job. So that gave me some confidence, but we had to prove ourselves, and there were a lot of challenges. The fact that I’d worked with Michael on and off for 30 years and that I had come to know him so well in terms of his business approach gave me a big advantage.
I kind of felt like I knew what to do right from the start. I think if somebody brand new had come in, it would have taken them a year or two just to figure everything out. But John McClain went to high school with Michael, I worked with him on and off for 30 years. It almost seemed natural.
It didn’t seem like, “OK, we have to figure this out.” It was just once the judge handed the baton to us, we just started running. The one thing that I think made it easy was our decision to authorize and release the movie This Is It because when I saw that footage, I realized, in my opinion, that people would see Michael in a different way. They would see Michael the perfectionist, they would see the reason why he was a great artist. At the same time, you would see his humanity. Michael did not talk down to his musicians and his dancers. He was a very gentle but demanding human being.
We felt if we put this movie out, people would see Michael in a whole different way, and fortunately that was the case. And it went on to become by far the most successful concert documentary movie of all time. As busy as he was, I’m certain he got time to see the video shot of himself from those final rehearsals. I’m sure he did review it to study it to see which parts he might want to do better. I don’t know for a fact, but I’m pretty sure he reviewed some of it, although not all of it.
RL: Do you get any criticism, or if there was any, how did you answer it about making so much money out of his name? First of all, I’m presuming some of that moneymaking was forced on you because of his large debts that had to be straightened out.
JB: We viewed our obligation as really to Michael, in terms of his legacy and his work, and then to his mother and his children. And what we wanted to do over time was to be able to put the Estate into a condition where eventually when it was handed over to his own three children down the line, it would be in much better shape than when we inherited it. So it’s our job to generate income. If we sat around and did nothing, it would be a disservice.
RL: Do you eventually relinquish this work, and then it goes to the three children?
JB: Down the road. Well down the road. Under Michael’s trust, which is confidential, there is a date at which when the children reach a certain age, the assets get distributed, and as is typical in high income, high-network families, you don’t turn it over too soon. You wait until the kids are older.
RL: So they have to be well over 21. If Michael was witness to everything that’s going on now, with what you’ve done, what you’ve managed to achieve, do you think he would approve and it would all have his blessing?
JB: I think so. I think that because of the many conversations I’d had with him over the years. It wasn’t so much that he spoke about his own immortality, but he spoke about his legacy. I met with Michael the week before he passed away, and we had an agenda to go over about future affairs. A couple of months before, he had said through his manager Frank DiLeo that he wanted me to start thinking things, ideas, so when I came into that meeting, I had an agenda with a lot of ideas. I left knowing which ones Michael wanted, and so what we have done is what he wanted anyway.
The other thing is that John McClain had said to me, if we went to Michael and said let’s put out a film of your rehearsal footage, he would have said, “Are you of your mind?” Michael was a perfectionist, so purely rehearsal footage would have been a no. But if we’d said to him, ‘Michael they’re gonna pay you X amount of money, and it’s going to be the most successful concert film ever, and the album will go to No. 1, and it’s going to outsell Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber combined, what do you think then? He would have instantly said, “Where do I sign?”
RL: This meeting that you had a week before he passed. Was it in any way a premonition, or in getting ready to fly to London for an extended stay with This Is It, was it just being protective and the normal case of keeping one’s life in order?
JB: I had not been working with Michael since 2006. I had resigned. But in 2009, he signed up for the This Is It concert tour. I said to myself humbly, “I’m not sure that there’s anybody else that can help Michael achieve what he wants to achieve. Not artistically, because he was the master with that, but business-wise. I called the AEG people and his manager to simply let Michael know if he wanted any help and had the interest, I’m here for him.
I got the calls back, and they said Michael wants you to implement a plan. So over the course of a couple of months, we gave it a lot of thought, and I was ready to meet him on the Wednesday -- never thinking for a moment he would be dead that weekend. It was far more about helping him have a plan from the concerts. The timing was totally coincidental … it was not a premonition. Those outlines, however, became our blueprint for protecting and ensuring his legacy. It’s what he wanted to do anyway.
RL: Would he have wanted this amazing partnership with Cirque du Soleil?
JB: I took Michael to his first Cirque show. We went together back in the early ’80s. It was a tent show in a Santa Monica parking lot next to the pier. He loved it! We had to go backstage after because he wanted to say hello to all of the entertainers. He was a huge Cirque fan. He saw every one of the Cirque shows. He went to Montreal to see Cirque headquarters and watch all the performers at work. In his way, he is now working with Cirque, which is something he always wanted to do.
RL: Your prediction for Cirque’s arena tour and for the second show and the Neverland re-created museum of memorabilia here -- a prediction on it all?
JB: My philosophy is you do the best you can in creating what you’re creating. And if you do a good-enough job and it’s Michael Jackson and Michael’s music with Cirque and Jamie King, well, the results speak for themselves.
RL: Final question: You worked with him for a long period of time. What was his genius, what was it about him that had that mega appeal to connect with everybody around the world? Did he even understand it himself?
JB: Michael’s genius was multifaceted. He started out as this incredible young singer and dancer that then got molded through the Berry Gordy Motown music factory into becoming the consummate entertainer. He then started to write his own music. Who knew he was a songwriter? Then after Off the Wall, he started to produce his own music. He produced “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” with Quincy Jones and co-produced “Bad.”
His talent kept unfolding and growing -- part of it because he was so driven to perfection and he studied the other greats. The other part was an innate likability about him. You read stories of great artists with egos, and nobody wants to be around them. That was not Michael. Michael was a great artist and a great genius, and everybody loved him.
RL: I had the privilege of having a Chinese dinner with him one night at the Wynn hotel here. He was the most regular, likeable guy in the world.
BJ: Exactly, and then when he was ready to go onstage, he went to another level of superstar.
John told me that Michael has 32 million friends on Facebook and that his older brother Jackie Jackson is very involved with the Estate. “Jackie has been working with us at the estate on many projects, including developing a very high-end leather jacket line inspired by Michael’s videos that will be available retail at the MJ Zone in Mandalay Bay,” he said.
Tomorrow, we’ll post the conversation with Jackie, along with how Mandalay Bay President Chuck Bowling plans to set up his hotel for the experience. Later in the week, our interviews continue with Immortal director Jamie King and Cirque President Daniel Lamarre.
John summed up: “We are thrilled to establish Michael’s home away from home here at Mandalay Bay. Very few fans would ever get to visit Michael’s Neverland Ranch because of its remote location. But millions of Michael’s fans will now come to Mandalay Bay to hear Michael’s music and experience Michael in many other ways.
“When we think about Fan Fest, Michael was always a fan of Beatles Fest, Elvis Week, Star Wars conventions, and he used to say, ‘Someday I want to have my own fan convention.’ Michael’s fans have told us they also want the same thing, so we are thrilled to accomplish another one of Michael’s objectives. We look forward to working with our partners to make happen all the things Michael himself wanted.”
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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