Michael Jackson | Pixar | Jill Krementz | Beatles, Benny Medina

Jacko: Pulling a Fast One on Old Manager?

While Neverland is burning, people aren't being paid and the Michael Jackson camp is in chaos, here's yet another log to throw on the fire.

You may recall Jackson's last famous trial in Santa Maria, Calif., the one during which he received a spider bite.

That was related to a lawsuit brought by a German concert promoter named Marcel Avram who claimed that Jackson stiffed him by not performing at two "millennium" concerts to which he had previously agreed to do. Avram won the case and about $5.5 million.

But here's the wrinkle: Jackson, in trying to settle the case with Avram, recently offered him a chance to make money from two concerts the German did promote in Munich and Seoul back in 1999.

According to my sources, Jackson's attorney reached out to Avram and gave him the rights to make CD soundtrack recordings of the concerts.

With rare live performances of hits like "Beat It" and "Billie Jean," Jackson figured the CDs would be worth a lot and get Avram off his back. The promoter happily agreed and began to make plans for the new albums.

Unfortunately, the world will have to wait for these CDs a little longer. Jackson, in his zeal to pay off Avram, forgot one important thing: He doesn't own the rights to the CDs.

Because they were recorded while he was under contract to Sony, Jackson doesn't have the right to assign the recordings elsewhere.

(Of course, both he and Avram have probably forgotten that both the Munich and Seoul shows were billed as charity events with the proceeds supposedly going to children's groups. But 1999 was five years ago, and that's a long time.)

So it's back to the drawing board for whoever in the Jackson camp thought up this bright idea. Avram's Los Angeles lawyer, Louis "Skip" Miller, declined to comment on the situation yesterday.

Meanwhile, a rally for Jackson in Times Square yesterday — with a call-in from the embattled pop star to FOX News Channel's Geraldo Rivera — almost didn't come off. The organizers had to arrange for a Plan B when a deal for a rented raised platform and sound system fell through. Jackson's loyal fan-club staff came through in the end.

In other Jackson news, the booklet for his box set — currently up to No. 363 on Amazon.com a few days before release — is, as usual, full of decodable messages.

Several people who were thanked profusely on Jackson's last album, "Invincible," are omitted this time, including Jackson's former managers Ronald Konitzer and Dieter Wiesner, videographer Marc Schaffel, family friends Dominic and Connie Cascio and their son, Frank, Jackson's former assistant, as well as any mention of the Schleiter family of Germany or any other young people with whom Jackson has had close associations.

Replacing all of those former insiders is, primarily, Randy, Michael's younger brother, who now manages his affairs and is blamed for alienating many of Michael's allies.

Also thanked are Charles Koppelman and Alvin Malnik, the two men who have restructured Jackson's finances with Bank of America and Sony Music Publishing.

Jackson also throws a thank-you to his former security chief Bill Bray, calling him a "father figure" for him and his brothers.

"We love you dearly," Jackson adds.

I told you several weeks ago that Bray, who is 79 and gravely ill, has not heard from or seen a Jackson in at least five years.

Pixar's Jobs: Talking to All the Studios

Disney had better start adjusting to life after Pixar. The animation studio is definitely talking to "all the majors" now about leaving the Mouse House and finding a new distributor among the other big players: Universal, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount.

This was big news coming out of Pixar's conference call with Wall Street analysts yesterday afternoon. Pixar chief (and also Apple Computer chief) Steve Jobs announced that the company's earnings were up 70 percent in the third quarter of 2004 and that the company is in the enviable position of being debt-free.

"Starting with our next film," Jobs and Simon Bax said of the computer-generation animation company, "we will own 100 percent of our films."

The analysts were happy with the news, but they were more interested in whether Jobs and Pixar planned to stay with Disney or leave, as has been long rumored.

Even though Jobs wouldn't commit to leaving, he conceded that the upstart studio that made the "Toy Story" movies, "Monsters Inc.," "Finding Nemo," and "The Incredibles" is courting new suitors.

"We're not doing nothing," Jobs said, and predicted that a new deal would be in place by next year.

Of course, Jobs hasn't exactly gotten much encouragement from Disney's Michael Eisner and Bob Iger. Even though Pixar would be a valuable association for any studio, Iger told a lecture audience on Sept. 29 that he felt the relationship had probably run its course.

Eisner, by his actions towards both Pixar and Miramax, doesn't seem interested in retaining Disney's ties to the filmmakers who've brought them the most success in the last few years.

"You have to understand that Michael hates Steve [Jobs] and Harvey [Weinstein]," an insider said recently.

Eisner's hands-on style of management is currently on trial in a Delaware federal court over a sweetheart deal he cut with former agent Michael Ovitz that wound up costing the company between $140 and $200 million.

It's also clear that Jobs has decided to wait and see what happens when the dust settles and Eisner is either replaced at Disney by someone more to his liking or some other player, such as Weinstein, ends up running another studio.

One analyst asked Jobs: "What are you waiting for? What has to happen to get more active in discussions about a new distributor?"

Jobs responded, "As observers it looks like Disney is seeking a new CEO," he said, not mentioning Eisner by name. "There's musical chairs at the studios. Who knows where people are going to end up? ... You try to make your decision at the last possible moment. There seems to be a time when change is going on. We'd like to see how that turns out. We're getting to know people and learning quite a bit about how studios work with partners."

Of course, the really telling questions are the ones that could be posed to Disney at this point. How will their shareholders feel next winter when, after Pixar has the highest-grossing film of the season and Miramax another raft of Oscar nominations, the two smaller outfits are merely Disney memories ready to be preserved in a corporate scrap album?

Writers Keep the Faith

Considering the "new morality" we keep hearing about from exit polls, here's the perfect Christmas gift: famed photographer Jill Krementz 's handsome spiral-bound 2005 desk calendar entitled "The Writer's Faith."

Krementz assembles some of her extraordinary pictures of literary giants with accompanying short interviews regarding their religious beliefs.

The writers are an all-star group, living and dead, including Krementz's husband, Kurt Vonnegut, plus Alice McDermott, Allen Ginsberg, Madeleine L'Engle, John Updike, Mary Gordon, James Baldwin, Amy Tan, Andre Dubus, Tony Kushner, Dan Wakefield, the Catholic of all Catholics, Walker Percy, playwright Arthur Miller, and poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who contributed a poem.

It begins:

"I think it must be lonely to be God
Nobody loves a master. No. Despite
The bright hosannas, bright dear-Lords, and bright
Determined reverence of Sunday eyes."

And ends with these lines:

"Perhaps sometimes He tires of being great
In solitude. Without a hand to hold."

Beatles Bounce, Benny Strikes Out

The Beatles' new four-album box set, "The Capitol Years, Volume 1," is at No. 12 on Amazon, five days before its release. ...

What's happened to pop-star manager Benny Medina? In the last few months he's lost both Monica and Brandy. He's even parted company with "American Idol" singer Justin Guarini. Now Ricky Martin has left Medina's stable, leaving J-Lo's former manager with just Mariah Carey . And even that relationship might not be so solid: Medina did not accompany Carey to P. Diddy's birthday bash last week. ...

Legendary writer William Styron ("Sophie's Choice," "The Confessions of Nat Turner") made it to the Paris Review's annual fundraiser held in his honor on Wednesday night at the new Cipriani at 26th Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City. But guests who mistakenly went to the wrong Cipriani, across from Grand Central, got the cold shoulder from the manager who wouldn't let them come in out of the bitter wind. "This is an event for the Atlantic salmon," he shouted over a tuneless bagpipe player on the front steps, "and I don't think they'd want you in there." ...

Movie actor Ray Liotta did a boffo job on "ER" last night, guaranteeing him an Emmy for a guest appearance this season. And the show even seemed like its old self for once. ...

Word from the European set of Merchant-Ivory's "The White Countess" is not so good. I'm told the original script by "Remains of the Day" writer Kazuo Ishiguro is something of a mess, and that among the featured Redgraves — sisters Lynn and Vanessa, plus Vanessa's daughter Natasha Richardson — two of them have banded against the third. And you think you have a dysfunctional family!