Doctor's conviction could boost Michael Jackson estate

LOS ANGELES Fri Nov 4, 2011 8:53am EDT

Dr. Conrad Murray listens to his defense attorney Ed Chernoff (not pictured) make his closing arguments in Murray's trial in the death of pop star Michael Jackson in Los Angeles November 3, 2011.  REUTERS/Kevork Djansezian/Pool

Dr. Conrad Murray listens to his defense attorney Ed Chernoff (not pictured) make his closing arguments in Murray's trial in the death of pop star Michael Jackson in Los Angeles November 3, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Kevork Djansezian/Pool

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A manslaughter conviction against Michael Jackson's doctor would boost the late pop star's image and open opportunities for his estate in many markets, including family-oriented products, industry experts said.

A Los Angeles jury begins deliberations on Friday in the six-week trial of Dr. Conrad Murray, who is charged with involuntary manslaughter over the singer's 2009 death from the anesthetic propofol and sedatives.

Jackson is already the top-earning deceased celebrity, with sales of $170 million over the past year, according to a list released last month by financial website Forbes.com.

The "Thriller" singer's global appeal has risen since his death, but some experts said Jackson's image was tarnished by his final days taking intravenous drugs to sleep. Those images may be erased if a jury convicts Murray, and Jackson is seen as the victim of his negligent care.

"In order to sell Jackson for the next generation of consumers and for parents to feel confident with Jackson, this stigma needs to be lifted, and that's what a Murray conviction needs to do," said Jo Piazza, author of the forthcoming book, "Celebrity, Inc," which looks at stars and brand image.

Otherwise, Jackson "will always be known as someone who died of a drug overdose," Piazza said.

Children were some of the most ardent consumers of Jackson music and merchandise dating back to his stratospheric rise up the pop charts in the 1970s and '80s. But his appeal was damaged by child abuse allegations as an adult and his 2005 trial and acquittal on molestation charges.

It was after the trial that his finances hit rock bottom, as he amassed over $400 million in debt.

Court records show the Jackson estate, run by Los Angeles attorney John Branca and music executive John McClain, has fast paid down the debt as it made $310 million in revenue through 2010. But to keep growing, it needs to reach new markets.

JEWEL IN CROWN

In addition to sales of his own music, Jackson's estate is powered by a stake in the Sony/ATV music publishing catalog, which is estimated to generate over $50 million a year. But his name and likeness are licensed in many different ways.

The latest centerpiece in the late King of Pop's crown is "Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour" theatrical production from Cirque du Soleil, which launched last month. That show is generating average ticket sales of $1 million a night, according to tracking firm Pollstar.

With the estate's blessing, Cirque is collaborating with Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas on a permanent show in 2013.

Some Jackson watchers see the possibility of building a theme park inspired by the singer's famed Neverland Ranch in central California, which itself was a private amusement park.

Jermaine Jackson wrote in "You Are Not Alone Michael" that he and his brother sketched out in 2007 the possibility of creating an attraction in the Middle East called "Crystal City" that would incorporate elements of Neverland.

"I think there could be a theme park, where you infuse the historical elements and memorabilia from his storied career," said Marvet Britto of the Britto Agency brand strategy firm.

If the Jackson estate can lock in the family market, annual revenues from that segment alone could bring the estate $50 million to $100 million, which would keep Jackson at the top of the list of late celebrities, Piazza said.

Cooper Lawrence, author of "The Cult of Celebrity," said the trial had helped the singer's sales potential because it brought him back to the top of the headlines, and that innumerable products would come from the estate.

"I think we haven't even scratched the surface of Michael Jackson," she said.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Peter Cooney)

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