Jackson Settles Debts at Heavy Price | Warner's Falling Stock | Oscar Race Ambivalence

Jacko Settles Millions in Debts

Michael Jackson apparently has gotten his money.

On Thursday, he began paying off millions of dollars in debts, thanks to settlements and lost legal cases.

The payoffs could amount to at least $20 million, by some accounts.

That’s good news for the creditors, but bad for Jackson. In this latest refinancing of a $300 million loan secured by his interest in Sony/ATV Music Publishing, Jackson may only have received about $25 million in fresh cash. He was otherwise so cash poor that he and his kids were living in Las Vegas with his mother, waiting for the deal to be finalized.

Still pending is a deal to let him set up shop at London’s O2 Arena for performances over a three-month period beginning in February. (We reported that story first exclusively on Dec. 11.) But Jackson’s legendary eccentricities have made getting insurance for him nearly impossible.

Sources tell me the new owner of Jackson’s humungous debt is HSBC Private Banking, with Sony Music acting as a guarantor.

It seems that every 18 months, Jackson manages to refinance the loan, originally begun at Bank of America in 1995. Always at risk is his 50 percent stake in the publishing company that contains all the songs written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

“The Beatles catalog,” as it is known, has come to be Jackson’s only security and the smartest investment ever made by a performer. He can thank his then-attorney John Branca for leaving him with some protection against his own whims.

What remains a mystery is the fate of Jackson’s Neverland Ranch in Los Olivos, Calif. Technically, the Ranch is still in danger of being foreclosed on. A default notice, first reported in this column, for $23 million, has been in effect since Oct. 19. Its 90-day grace period runs out in two weeks.

Thursday, a title company sent a smaller lien holder on Neverland, F. Marc Schaffel, a “Request for Payoff of Lien or Judgment,” asking for information so they could remove him from the bill. But that still leaves Fortress Investments, and their $23 million. It’s unclear whether Jackson has the money or inclination to save Neverland. He hasn’t lived there since June 30, 2005.

In the current rash of payoffs to eagerly waiting parties, Jackson is thought to have divided about $4 million between Schaffel and a former manager, Dieter Wiesner. Another million may have gone to sometime lawyer Brian Oxman. About $5 million is thought to have been owed to Darien Dash, cousin of Damon Dash, who sued Jackson almost 10 times that last year. There are also about four different sets of legal teams awaiting unpaid bills, and one major accountant.

One pending question will be a payoff for Prince Abdulla of Bahrain. He recently sued Jackson in the UK for $7 million.

Bronfman's Free-Falling Stock

WMG aka Warner M. Group (formerly Warner Music Group, now Warner Meshugenah Group) finished the day Thursday at $5.31. That’s a 50 cent drop in one day. Friday could be the day Edgar Bronfman and Thomas Lee drop below $5.

I remember when records cost $4.99 at Korvette’s in 1972. The big Warner release then was James Taylor’s “Mud Slide Slim.” Now they could call it “Stock Slide Slim.”

What next? A week ago, Warner gave away its catalog to Amazon for downloading. Unfortunately, this plan had little impact on sales. WMG MP3s have barely made a dent in the Amazon.com top 25, with the exception of Led Zeppelin’s greatest hits (lion's share to the group), Matchbox Twenty and Linkin Park.

So now what? The staff has been mostly laid off, the music is gone. Are there any chairs left? Three hole punchers? Sangria fountain? Maybe Ahmet Ertegun's little black book is tucked into a seat cushion…

Oscar Race Ambivalence: Sweeney Swings

Reading the Oscar blogs and pundits and whatever can give you a headache. I’m a little surprised by all the pontificating. Some of it is way off the mark.

At this point, I’m sticking with Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd” as Best Picture, followed by Joel and Ethan Coen’s “No Country for Old Men” and Joe Wright’s “Atonement” as locks in that category. I’m picking the latter even though I’ve heard a lot of people say they just don’t like it, or not as much as everyone thought when the race began.

The two extra slots are up for grabs. They could include “Juno,” considered this year’s “Little Miss Sunshine.” I feel bad that two Fox Searchlight pictures with more heft — “The Namesake” and “The Savages” — have been ignored thus far.

Then comes Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” It’s a masterpiece, and Lumet deserves to win Best Director as well. Ethan Hawke and Marisa Tomei are perfect Supporting choices. Maybe Lumet’s Lifetime Achievement award from the Los Angeles Film Critics on Jan. 12 will help. I hope so.

That leaves a raft of so-so candidates: Denzel Washington’s “Great Debaters” would be a solid old-time, feel-good choice. There are no others. Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” are heavy and violent. The Coens and Lumet may take those slots. And still out there is Julian Schnabel’s “Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” A great movie, but no one’s seeing it.

For Best Actor, my choices: Philip Seymour Hoffman ("The Savages"), Daniel Day-Lewis ("There Will Be Blood"), George Clooney ("Michael Clayton"), Mathieu Amalric ("Diving Bell"), James McAvoy ("Atonement"). Spurned perhaps: Emile Hirsh from "Into the Wild." You kind of feel he will take Amalric’s place. It’s a toss-up.

For Best Actress: Cate Blanchett as "Elizabeth"; Laura Linney in "The Savages"; Julie Christie in "Away From Her"; Marion Cotillard in "La Vie En Rose"; and Ellen Page in "Juno." I’m thinking Christie has the Hollywood sentiment. Spurned: Helena Bonham Carter, from “Sweeney Todd.” Linney would be her most likely knock-off.

Supporting Actress: Blanchett again in “I’m Not There,” and she should win without any question. Also: Amy Ryan in “Gone Baby Gone,” Marisa Tomei in “Devil,” Queen Latifah in “Hairspray,” Tilda Swinton in “Michael Clayton.” Saoirse Ronan from “Atonement” could make Latifah or Tomei vulnerable. It doesn’t matter. If you have the “I’m Not There” DVD, fast forward to the segment where Blanchett “performs” Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Case closed.

Supporting Actor: I’m so fervent about Casey Affleck in “The Assassination of Jesse James,” little else matters. Right behind him are Paul Dano in “There Will Be Blood,” Tom Wilkinson in “Michael Clayton,” Ethan Hawke in “Devil” and Javier Bardem in “No Country.” That’s the group.

Without a doubt this is the hardest category. Spurned are Hal Holbrook in “Into the Wild,” Ben Foster in “3:10 to Yuma,” Phil Hoffman in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” Clive Owen in “Elizabeth,” Michael Cera in “Juno,” Irfan Khan in “The Namesake,” Tommy Lee Jones in “No Country” and so on. Too many! If only!

The Academy still hasn’t announced any special awards for legendary actors or directors for 2008. My two choices would be Richard Widmark and Doris Day, whose work in the '50s is simply stellar, respectively, in film noir and romantic comedy.

Widmark is 92, Day is 80-something. Among directors and producers, the beloved Sidney Pollack is the obvious choice.