Published March 17, 2006
Michael Jackson has shut down his Neverland Ranch for good. Employees were summoned to the ranch Thursday at 5 p.m. PST in staggered groups, given back pay for 12 weeks through today and told the ranch had been shut down by the California Department of Labor.
In fact, Jackson made the decision to lay off more than 60 loyal staffers after making them wait through three months with no pay. Their health insurance ran out on Feb. 28. Last week, the State closed the ranch because Jackson carried no workmen's compensation.
Despite misleading statements from Jackson’s spokeswoman Raymone Bain, I am told that Neverland is indeed closed except to Jackson’s family members and security staff.
Some of the employees of Neverland had been there with Jackson since he bought the place in the late '80s. A few actually had worked for the previous owner. They leave without pensions or the ability to apply for COBRA health insurance.
All they can do now is apply for unemployment. My sources say many of them have already done that.
"It's unbelievable," says one longtime staffer. "We got nothing for the pain of what just happened, and nothing to see us through. Some of the people here are close to retirement age and they have nothing to retire on."
Sources tell me Jackson, who may be in London tonight, has been living very well in the Middle East island country of Bahrain. Prince Abdullah has supplied him with a driver, a Bentley GT and a Rolls Royce Phantom.
"He is not returning to the U.S," says a source who spoke with Jackson last weekend.
In this country, Jackson faces several lawsuits as well as the foreclosure on $270 million of loans.
Still not clear is who paid the final back pay, which could have totaled $400,000. Jackson also has to pay the state two separate fines, one for $69,000 and another, to be determined on Friday, over $100,000.
"I will miss Neverland," my source concedes. "There were a lot of good times."
But now it's all over.
Secret deals and a lawsuit from six years ago may be coming back to haunt Paramount Pictures chief Brad Grey as talk of his involvement in the case of jailed Hollywood private eye Anthony Pellicano continues to grow. Grey is best known as the producer of the "The Sopranos."
Court documents uncovered by this column show that Pellicano's alleged spying on a movie producer and his family could be related to a contentious lawsuit filed by that producer against Grey in 2000.
The lawsuit was filed by producer Vincent "Bo" Zenga against Grey over the making of the film "Scary Movie," a Miramax/Dimension movie which was released in 2001.
The law firm of Greenberg, Glusker et al, in which Pellicano's frequent employer Bert Fields is a senior partner, represented Grey.
Fields, like Grey, is now under a microscope as more indictments are expected in the Pellicano case.
At issue in Zenga vs. Brillstein-Grey: Zenga claimed to have been hired to produce "Scary Movie" by Grey exec Peter Safran.
This is the short version of a long story: Dimension bought the idea and went ahead with the project. Zenga claimed that he had an oral agreement with Brillstein Grey to be partnered with them as producer on the film. When he felt he'd been cut out by Brillstein Grey, Zenga sued them for breach of contract.
In 2002, the case went to court and it was thrown out. Zenga lost. Even though there was lots of evidence that he was the producer of the film, Brillstein-Grey won. The case itself got surprisingly little attention. But in retrospect, it was a big deal.
The revelations of the Zenga case come in matching up the dates. According to the indictment, Pellicano's assault on Zenga, his father and his wife, media reporter Zorianna Kit, began on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2001.
What would have instigated Pellicano? Here's one theory: On the preceding Thursday and Friday, Feb. 1 and 2, Grey had been subjected to an unpleasant deposition conducted by Zenga's attorney, Gregory Dovel, in a lawsuit filed by Zenga against Grey's production companies on July 7, 2000.
For one thing, the way Brillstein-Grey did business came to light in an unflattering way. During those February 2001 depositions, Grey was grilled by Zenga's lawyer Gregory Dovel about a secret agreement that Brillstein-Grey had cut with Dimension Films behind Zenga's back (to be fair, Dimension didn't necessarily know it was a "secret" deal). The deal made sure that B-G would get $100,000 extra for "Scary Movie."
The agreement was for a "second look" deal, issued by Hollywood super lawyer Jake Bloom and dated Jan. 28, 1999. It would only activate if "Scary Movie" went forward.
At that time, Brillstein Grey would automatically receive $100,000 to exclusively show Dimension any projects it wanted to make for the following 30 days. And if such a project came in, Dimension would have five days to say yes or no if they were interested.
The problem was, no projects were ever shown to Dimension. B-G got the money anyway, and right away. Zenga, a novice producer and small fish, got zilch.
Zenga never knew about the "second look" deal until after he sued Brillstein Grey. He also didn't know that a week earlier, on Jan. 21, Brillstein-Grey, its executive, Peter Safran and the agency for which he'd worked prior to BGE, Gold/Miller, signed another agreement with Miramax in which they received numerous bonuses based on percentages and box office.
Zenga not only would get nothing, he wasn't supposed to know these memos existed.
Grey could not have been happy about the intrusive questioning by Dovel during his deposition.
In his deposition, Grey had to concede that in 23 years he'd never made another "second look deal" with anyone.
In fact, almost no one in Hollywood has ever heard of such a thing. While first look deals are common, a search of Variety's archives reveals few if any announcements of "second look" deals.
Another area Dovel explored: his own assertion that Grey had contemplated selling the company to The Krassner Group/Creation Management/Wilhelmina Models, the Miami outfit owned by Brad Krassner.
Dovel suggests in his questioning that Grey or someone associated with him misrepresented the value of the company to a potential suitor. But Grey denied it and claimed he didn't even know Krassner. Dovel moved on, but Grey could not have been happy.
That was Friday. By Tuesday, Pellicano — according to his indictment — was performing one of his scorch-the-earth investigations into Zenga's background.
According to his own indictment filed by U.S. District Court in Central California, Pellicano illegally investigated not only Zenga, his father and his wife, but also associates Jessica Schutte, Stacy Codikow and Paul Durazzo, all between Feb. 6 and 20, 2001 — right after Grey was deposed.
Three weeks later, on March 13, 2001, Pellicano went even further — he did the same number on Zenga's lawyer, Dovel, the man who actually asked him the questions about the second look deal and other potentially embarrassing subjects.
And Grey was not the only one on his team who came out looking badly. Safran, the Brillstein-Grey exec who'd originally contacted Zenga to rewrite the "Scary Movie" script, and to make a partnership deal between the two parties, had his own issues.
When Safran first came to Zenga, he told him he had a script that needed working on called "Scream If You Know What I Did Last Halloween." Zenga immediately went to work with the writers on a "fix."
But prior to working at with Grey, Safran had been at the Gold/Miller Agency, where he worked with Keenan Ivory Wayans. It soon surfaced that Wayans had his own script, called "Last Summer I Screamed Because Friday the 13th Fell on Halloween." The similarities between the two scripts were too coincidental.
The Wayans claimed Safran had stolen their script. In return for not suing, they were given the movie to direct. Now the Wayans and Gold/Miller, as well as Brillstein Grey and Safran, were all waiting for pieces of the "Scary Movie" pie.
The "Scary Movie" deal then turned on partnerships. Grey claimed in testimony that he never would have entered into a partnership with Zenga, who claimed to have an oral agreement with him and Safran.
In fact, Safran wrote in a memo to Grey on Oct. 28, 1998: "I just spoke with Brian Burkin at Dimension business affairs and he reiterated that BGE and Bo Zenga are producing this project for Dimension. He apologized that the press release did not reflect that."
But Grey refused to negotiate with Miramax/Dimension as partners with Zenga. According to court filings, BGE told Zenga to negotiate on his own with the studio.
When Zenga — now lacking leverage — could not get his usual fee, he complained to Safran. In his deposition, Safran recalled:
"At one point, I believe it was early 1999 [Zenga] called me and expressed frustration with the fact that Miramax were not going to — were not inclined to pay him his full quote, and I indicated to him that it was my understanding that Brillstein-Grey was not receiving their full quote either. And when he heard that information, he seemed satisfied."
But according to court papers, Brillstein-Grey was indeed receiving its full quote — as stated in the Jan. 21, 1999 agreement — and $100,000 more in the "second look deal."
Zenga, who knew nothing about this at the time, found out about it two years later when Grey and Safran were deposed.
The question to be explored by the government: was it just a coincidence that Pellicano went ballistic spying on Zenga and friends once Grey and Safran had been confronted with all of the evidence?