The organizers behind "This Is It," Michael Jackson's 50-concert residency at London's O2 Arena, billed it as a spectacle for the ages that would mark the return of the King of Pop after a 12-year hiatus. But after Jackson's sudden death on June 25, the series, scheduled to open July 13, will probably be remembered as the most lavish musical comeback that never was.
AEG Live, the Los Angelesbased entertainment company behind the concerts, invested more than $20 million to bring about "one of the greatest musical events in history," replete with 22 sets, high-wire acrobatics and elaborate pyrotechnic lighting. Just last week, producers revealed that Swarovski would crown Jackson, his costumes and the sets with 300,000 pieces of crystal, adding even more glitter to the massive 20,000-seat O2.
Now that stage will be dismantled and AEG must deal with the financial aftermath. Jackson's death means the firm will have to refund $85 million in ticket sales. The company will also miss out on expected profits of $115 million from VIP packages and merchandising, and it will lose the chance at an additional $450 million from the three-year worldwide tour they hoped would follow the London gigs.
It all looked so promising. Mass hysteria kicked off on March 5 when Jackson made a rare public appearance in London to announce the series. "I love you so much," he said in a three-minute speech before a crowd of 2,000 people. "I'll be performing the songs my fans want to hear. This is the final curtain call." That prompted an online frenzy, with 360,000 people registering applications before the ticket office even opened. When tickets ranging from $75 to $115 went on sale the next morning, fans snapped them up at a rate of 40,000 an hour that's 650 a minute smashing all box-office records. Some 800,000 tickets were sold.
But Jackson's emaciated figure, wan complexion and erratic behavior during the announcement he repeatedly told the audience members he loved them, before pumping his fists, striking a catwalk pose and disappearing behind a curtain led to speculation that his health would prevent him from completing the marathon residency. More recently, British tabloids suggested the singer had skin cancer.
In May, AEG Live CEO Randy Phillips dismissed those worries in an interview with Billboard. "Michael's in incredible physical shape, he's got tremendous stamina, he's been working out aerobically preparing for this, and he is totally engaged," he said. Phillips also claimed that AEG was well insured for the event because Jackson had passed a physical "with flying colors."
But in its March issue, London-based Reinsurance magazine reported that the city's insurers were skeptical that Michael would make it all the way through: no insurer was willing to cover all the concert dates, and AEG could arrange a policy only for the first 10 concerts. The magazine added that AEG would face a liability of $492 million if the series were to be canceled.
As of Friday afternoon, AEG had not responded to queries regarding its insurance coverage. "We're dealing with a tragedy. We have no comment on that," an unnamed company spokesman told the Los Angeles Times. And as for refunds, AEG announced that ticket refund informaion would be released early next week.
But right now, Jackson's fans are focused on their mourning, not their money. "I haven't even thought about the money," says Luke Fletcher, 27, who lives in London. Fletcher says he has been in constant communication with friends since Jackson's death and is just trying to remain positive: "Michael will be remembered for his music now, and all of the controversy will be forgotten." It's a different kind of comeback, but maybe an even better one.