I was a little off about a salient part of Michael Jackson's now-ended deal with Sony Music. I said Jackson would leave Sony without the masters to his famous albums Thriller, Off the Wall, Bad, etc.
I stand corrected. According to very solid information I obtained this week, Jackson negotiated in the early '80s for the reversion of the rights to his masters. He will get them back in about seven years or so.
He might have had them sooner if he hadn't called Tommy Mottola a racist. But there were Al Sharpton and a cheering crowd and people waving signs — even Michael can get caught up in the moment. I'm sure he regrets all of that now.
What's more, I am told that Jackson is talking to a number of big record companies, and there's some hope of making a deal when all the Sony dust has settled. Certainly his manager, John McClain, who is also an executive at DreamWorks Records, would like to have him come aboard.
One hitch is that David Geffen, one of DreamWorks' founders, is an ally of Tommy Mottola in the often brutal, warlike atmosphere of the record industry.
But that may not be a problem if Geffen decides to side with Jackson. He's shrewd enough to see that Jackson would put DreamWorks on the map. Also, Jackson has a long friendship with another DreamWorks founder, Steven Spielberg.
More likely is a deal with Doug Morris and Universal Music Group. Morris has already rescued Mariah Carey from Mottola. If he takes Jackson too, the Japanese owners of Sony could just buy UMG and make Sony Music a division. That would be a funny ending. Morris, a less flamboyant presence in the business than most, would finally get his due.
Is Michael completely broke? The answer is no, but it's complicated. With all the music catalogs, he might be worth $750 million on paper.
"I didn't say he was floating in cash, though," cautions my source on this, who knows the numbers better than most anyone.
What about the million dollars I reported that Jackson gave to Marlon Brando for appearing in his Sept. 7 Madison Square Garden carnival?
"That's the problem," says my source.
Says another, separate source: "Michael put $1.75 million into Neverland Valley Entertainment with that porno guy, Marc Schaffel. He immediately disbursed a million to Brando, then the rest to others within a short time. He knows how to spend."
Schaffel, through friends, tells me that he has not received money for What More Can I Give?, the charity single. He insists that the funds he got from a Japanese outfit paid off the $2 million loan (this is a separate chunk of money from the funds Jackson invested in Neverland Valley) he took from Royalty Advance Funding — which I first reported here in April.
That left a balance of expenses totaling nearly $300,000. The Japanese money paid those bills. Schaffel says through pals there are more bills. He says if Jackson's people were correct in a Los Angeles Times story, and he had pocketed $500,000, Schaffel would just walk away from the project.
(For an interesting take on the whole Schaffel business, check out Tony Ortega's well-researched story at New Times Los Angeles online.)
So much confusion, so many names. But Michael Jackson's great flaw in all this is that he has been easily swayed by dealmakers, con men and charlatans.
Schaffel aside, Jackson was taken in by Shmuley Boteach. He went into a nutty deal with two guys named Derek Rundell and Cort Coursey for an online ticket sales venture. Last winter he announced a movie company with an actor no one's ever heard of.
He's vulnerable to all kinds of come-ons. Jackson is still involved in a long-running suit with the former head of his company, a man named Myung-Ho Lee. David Gest, who produced Jackson's 30th anniversary shows, became famous on Jackson's coat tails and married Liza Minnelli.
One source told me this week: "I've heard him say, 'Let's make a deal, don't tell my lawyers.' Then the lawyers find out and have to clean up the mess."
Well, we won't feel too bad for the lawyers. Jackson's primary attorney, John Branca, knows his efforts will pay off one day. His firm, Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca & Fischer, has a 5 percent stake in Sony/ATV Music Publishing, in which Jackson himself is a 50 percent owner.
"That's how they bill most of their clients, on a 5 percent basis," says one observer. You'd think that Ziffren et al. would want the publishing company to be sold for hundreds of millions, but my source says: "It's not going to be sold. And Sony will not foreclose on it. They don't have the right to take it from Michael. They simply guaranteed a loan."
Jackson also employs at least two other law firms. The second one, which handles litigation (lawsuits) is Lavely & Singer, run by the notorious celebrity-defending bulldog Martin Singer.
When Schaffel was "rubbing people the wrong way" last fall, Branca called Brian Wolf at that firm, and Wolf sicced a private eye on Schaffel to get the goods. When the P.I. turned up the news that Schaffel made adult videos, another firm stepped in. That was the one run by Zia Modabber, another celebrity defender.
Everyone in the chain has a purpose. The only one not always in lockstep, unfortunately, is Michael Jackson.
So what happens next?
I am told that Michael had a long friendship with Sony Japan President Akio Morita, who passed away in 1999 at age 78. The relationship translated down to his son, Masao Morita, who is the head of Sony Entertainment Worldwide and loves Jackson.
The word is that Mr. Morita, as Jackson calls him, was busy working on a video game with Michael using the Invincible songs. Neither of them bothered to tell Mottola this. When things went crazy here in New York between Mottola and Jackson, Morita was not pleased.
Martin Singer is now threatening to bring a lawsuit against Sony. Trust me, this will not come to court. If Singer makes enough noise about a forensic audit, Sony will go into a bookkeeping frenzy. This is one thing they do not like over there.
I know artists who recorded for Sony 25 years ago who are still not earning money from their hits because Sony says the artists owe them money. A court-mandated investigation into Sony's accounting practices is something Sony will avoid at all costs.
Singer knows that. Expect Michael to get his masters back sooner than in that seven-year period, and take his catalog of albums to a new recording company.
"Sometimes Michael is his own worst enemy," a Jackson insider concludes. "The racism thing wasn't smart. But he feels betrayed by Sony. He's been a good friend to Tommy, done a lot of things for him personally."
"Once Invincible came out, he wouldn't take Michael's calls," the source continues. "It was just bizarre. They would only do one video from the album, and it's sold seven million copies worldwide. And Michael is paranoid about Sony wanting the catalog. But they've been told it's absolutely never going to happen."
The bankruptcy receiver for Dana Giacchetto's Cassandra Group has filed a suit against Richard Lovett, the president of Creative Artists Agency. Robert Geltzer says in the complaint that Giacchetto wrote Lovett a check for $150,000 in April 1999, but it's unclear why.
Last year, Geltzer sued Leonardo DiCaprio's agent, Rick Yorn, claiming he'd received $1.3 million from Giacchetto in a fraudulent stock scheme. Yorn settled the case by paying all the money back to the receiver.
Lovett's money came from a deposit Giacchetto made to his accounts four days earlier for $320,000. There is no notation in Giacchetto's ledgers for where the money came from, but earlier that month he helped himself to money from accounts belonging to the rock group Phish in order to stay afloat.
The fact that Lovett hasn't just settled and paid the receiver back the money could mean that he's innocent of any wrongdoing. It could also just be folly. Giacchetto's affect on everyone around him has been bad, and fighting him is like shadow boxing. You can't win in the end.
Of course, the irony of all this can't be lost on Lovett. Giacchetto made inroads at CAA through another agent, Jay Moloney, who wound up committing suicide after years of struggling with drug abuse. Moloney had started out as the assistant to Michael Ovitz at CAA but Giacchetto, it's felt, put him into a much-too-strenuous job right before his death.
The bad feelings toward Giacchetto at CAA are possibly worse than the ones for Ovitz, if that's possible.