"We had a very strong gut feeling that this could be a cultural event despite the fact that none of us really saw any of the footage before we concluded the deal," Sony's production president, Doug Belgrad, told the Los Angeles Times earlier this month. He was explaining why he bid $60 million (Dh220m) for the new Michael Jackson movie This Is It after watching just 97 seconds of footage. Cobbled-together from 100 hours of rehearsal video and behind-the-scenes interviews, This Is It comes out on October 28. Belgrad is confident that the global outpouring of grief that followed the star's death on June 25 will translate into enthusiasm for this last performance, caught on camera and assembled into a 108-minute movie in just three months.
How much enthusiasm? Sony is estimating This Is It will make $250 million (Dh917m) in the movie's first five days, which would shatter the current record of $204m held by The Dark Knight. By way of comparison, the current number-one film in America, Where The Wild Things Are, grossed $32.5m (Dh119m) in its opening weekend. They believe the movie will end up generating revenues of around $1 billion (Dh3.7bn).
That may sound far-fetched, but Sony points to the movie getting to the number-one ticket-sales position on the US movie site Fandango two weeks before its release, and the fact that theatres are scrambling to set up more showings. Next Tuesday, it will open on up to 30,000 screens worldwide, according to the film's pre-publicity. Sony executives are predicting that the film will make the most money outside America, where Jackson enjoyed his last successful tour in 1996-97. This is why the production company has made 18,000 prints of the film in dozens of languages. It is one of only about 20 foreign movies that the Chinese government has allowed to be played in the country this year.
Randy Phillips, president of the This Is It concert promoters AEG, who shot the Jackson footage, told the UK's Mail on Sunday newspaper: "It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that we were sitting on a gold mine - not only in financial terms, but also in terms of what this footage shows. We have the greatest pop artist of all time showing his every move and thought process." Other observers have suggested that Jackson has taken his place in the pantheon of entertainment greats alongside Frank Sinatra and Elvis, so anything he releases from beyond the grave will sell. "It is all about his legacy and, of course, there is a lot of money in that," says Professor Dann Pierce, an expert in popular culture from the University of Portland.
Damon Wise, a contributing editor of Empire magazine, pointed out the ghoulish appeal of seeing the last thing Jackson ever did before his sudden, bizarre demise. "While the publicity material AEG issued before the sale was tastefully handled, there seemed to be an interesting bit of reverse psychology going on," he said. " They almost seemed to be saying, 'Look! He was fine! See for yourself!' The Guardian's film writer Charles Gant admitted the movie will attract a lot of fans, but like many critics, he doesn't believe that it has "legs".
"I was invited to see it at 1am GMT on Wednesday, October 21, which was when it was being unveiled around the world," says Gant. (Normal screenings for journalists have been impossible as Sony rushed to get the film out before Christmas.) "I think this is a film for Jackson fans. Quality will matter after week two, which is when the superfans will have seen it and it will need broader appeal." Recent movies such as Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana: The Best of Both Worlds Concert have experienced "fast burn": steep drop-offs in tickets sales once hard-core fans have rushed out to see it and word of mouth proved insufficient to draw regular moviegoers. Gant believes that other teen-oriented releases such as Twilight: New Moon and Avatar will destroy any chances This Is It has of scooping up spare movie dollars this season. "This Is It will be far from the biggest-grossing film ever," he says.
By Thursday, word will be in: if the movie gets the thumbs-up from its audience, it will mean that Jackson has performed an extraordinary feat, even by the standards of his extraordinary life. He will have conquered Hollywood from the grave.