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MJJC Exclusive Q&A with Andy Picheta (producer of Michael Forever Tribute)

As you remember Jackson family's "Michael Forever" tribute in Cardiff had raised a lot of interest and anger among the fans back in 2011. On August 10, Andy Picheta, one of the producers of Michael forever Tribute,  has released a book called How I Paid Tribute to Michael Jackson : The story of Michael Forever The Tribute Concert detailing what went behind the scenes of the tribute concert.

We approached Andy Picheta for a Q&A and he has agreed to it. Below you can find Andy's answers to our questions. Enjoy

MJJC Exclusive Q&A with Andy Picheta

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MJJC: Why did you decide to write this book? Why now? What do you hope your book will accomplish?

Andy Picheta: The process of Michael Forever was a huge, funny, tragic and bizarre happening that needed telling. I hope my book serves as a lesson to entertainment entrepreneurs: to respect the talent, and the fans. I hope it reaches a wide audience, and makes a lot of people laugh a little.  Why now? – couldn’t write it earlier, and would have forgotten a ton of stuff if I’d written it later

MJJC: How did your key partners in this project (Chris, Jeffre, Parojim) really felt about MJ? Would anyone call himself a hardcore fan? A casual fan maybe? Was it anyone’s motivation to actually really pay a tribute, or was it all just business?

Andy Picheta: As a professional, I approach every project with a real desire to do the best I can. I’m not a fan of Michael Jackson in the same way you are.  I’m dispassionate, but very aware that Michael (as every artist I have worked with) put his heart and soul into every lyric, all his talent into every dance step, and did everything to his utmost. I therefore can do no less with my work; it is crucial for me to respect the artist when filming or staging their work. I too put my heart and soul into the film or show, because to do less would be unprofessional and disrespectful. I want the best I can deliver, to be sure to do the right thing at the right time. I’m not unique in this; the desire to do the best possible was exhibited by everyone who worked on the show, from Ron Weisner to the assistant’s assistant. It’s why we stuck it out to the end.

I came to understand however, that Jeffre Phillips and Chris Hunt were not driven by these motives. They had spotted a chance to create an MJ product without understanding that the fans were the key to its success, and their approach was to ignore you all, to the point of treating you with contempt. (eg deleting Facebook posts, refusing to face you or meet you, belittling your opinions in the media). The approach of Jeffre and Chris wasn’t about good business, it was arrogant, naked greed. Their actions were governed by their understanding of what they could legally get away with, not by what was right. Their response to challenges was not negotiation, but battle.  I’m delighted the film has been taken away from them, because I know they would not and could not make anything good from it.

This passage is from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. The lead character and narrator Marlow describes some gold prospectors he meets at a river station on the Congo. I quote it in the book too, as I think it describes Jeffre and Chris perfectly.

“They called themselves the El Dorado Exploring Expedition...their talk was of sordid buccaneers: It was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity and cruel without courage. There was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them and they did not seem aware these things were wanted for the work of the world. To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire with no moral purpose at the back of it than there is with burglars breaking into a safe"

MJJC:Clearly there were even issues prior to the announcement. What stopped you from throwing in the towel at any stage?

Andy Picheta: I’m not the quitting kind.  Once I’ve committed to something I give it my all.  The film takes over, grows a life of its own that is bigger than all the individuals driving it forward. I go into this in the book. Projects of this nature are all about process. First you have the idea, then you develop it and do the deals with the people you need and finally, when enough is known, when the structure is in place, you announce it to the public. With Michael Forever, the deals weren’t done and the finance was flawed, but we all believed, prior to the announcement, it could yet come together. On a personal level I couldn’t walk away from a fantastic credit. Later, I couldn’t abandon a friend, and finally, I understood I had to assist those that wanted to do the right thing with the project.

MJJC: In your book, you unfairly compared fans' reaction to Cirque du Soleil Immortal (which began on October 2nd 2011 during the Murray trial) and Michael Forever. You complained that it wasn't fair, that fans seem to not have a problem with the timing of the Cirque show ...Did you know Cirque du Soleil Immortal was announced back in November 2010? The premiere date was selected/known almost a year BEFORE a trial date was known. Contrary to Chris Hunt who chose the date, knowing in advance the trial had been set for October. Also there was a huge difference in a touring tribute act to a family taking the stage and singing, dancing and smiling during the trial. Do you now understand why fans weren't as harsh towards Cirque as GLE?

Andy Picheta: Yes I do. The Michael Forever tribute was in the early planning stages towards the end of 2010, and the original date, August 27th, was chosen then. But yes, I certainly see your point about the family involvement, and now understand the effect their performances of Michael’s music had on the fan base.  The estate did want Katherine and the children to go to Toronto for the premiere of Immortal. Fortunately for everyone, they didn’t want Latoya and the brothers to sing there. Interestingly, I don’t think Jeffre and Chris knew about Immortal when they planned MF.

MJJC: You insinuated that the estate was behind Warner Chappell's injection on live to air of the show. But they had every right to intervene to protect MJ's copyright. What prevented Chris Hunt & Jeffre, from getting proper authorization to use MJ's songs? Why couldn't they formally request permission to use the songs (like most smart business people would) instead of taking the chance and getting shut down?

Andy Picheta: I repeatedly argued for them to do just that and make a deal with Branca. The MiJac catalogue was owned by the estate but administered by Warner Chappell, so the latter would naturally check with their client before any action.  As of last week of course, this catalogue has been moved over to Sony ATV. I’d suggest the possibility that Warner Chappell lost the business partly because they failed to prevent Michael Forever from going ahead. As for what prevented Chris and Jeffre from going about this properly, well…

Greed, hubris, arrogance, mendacity, conceit, haughtiness…I could keep going but I’d need a thesaurus! I also believe they knew the estate would never sanction such a project, but thought they could use legal loopholes to circumvent the need for Estate permission.

MJJC: How much was LaToya involved with this concert? Were ALL the Jacksons paid to pay tribute to their brother or uncle? Did any of them (3T, the 3 brothers, Latoya) ever come back and offer to help the employees who were never paid?

Andy Picheta: She rehearsed her ten minutes for six weeks. Her Svengali Jeffre Phillips was behind the whole thing, so I guess she was too. Yes all the Jacksons were paid, but no, they didn’t offer any help to anyone.

MJJC: Tell us more about MJ’s kids involvement and who really pushed to have them there. Whose idea was it to use Michael Jackson's minor children to sale tickets? Whose idea was it for the children to give a speech onstage? Did the children wanted to do it on their own, or did someone e.g. the parojim, ask them if they would?

Andy Picheta: I look at photos and video of the three children on stage and I see Prince and Paris gamely battling through an ordeal, and Blanket hating every second. How old is he? Nine?  I never forced my kids to do anything they didn’t want to do unless it was absolutely in their interest (like taking a bath now and again, going to the dentist, eating up their vegetables), and I was very uncomfortable at his discomfort. I wanted to go up on stage and gently lead him away. Sadly the kids were a part of the deal, possible THE deal. Jeffre needed them for legitimacy, and he needed Katherine, as legal guardian, to deliver them, and he needed Latoya to deliver Katherine. Stupidly, they were added to the terms and conditions of ticket sale (again a lack of experience by the in house lawyer) which just wound everybody up more. So I suppose your answer as to who put the kids on the stage is: Everyone involved. Blanket’s unhappiness aside however, I think you can tell the two older children really enjoyed being up there. They were and are innocent of all the dubious business practices around the show, as indeed were the performers and the crew. They were watching and taking part in a fine musical tribute, but one put together by the wrong people at the wrong time.

MJJC: How long did it take for organizers to realize that MJ fans are not, in many cases, Jackson family fans?

Andy Picheta: They still don’t get it. I feel and understand the frustration towards his family amongst the fans, and the distrust of the organisers of Michael Forever.

MJJC: Did the family have any input into who was asked to perform?

Andy Picheta: Jeffre and Latoya would have talked to the three brothers about getting them onto the stage. Originally the brothers agreed only to ‘support’ the event. Their active participation was agreed later.  Interestingly it was Ron Weisner who talked to Janet, and received Janet’s clear but diplomatic ‘no thank you’. Jeffre remained convinced that with more time he could have got Jermaine and Janet on board. Perhaps the fans can tell me if that would have made a difference. Generally however, there didn’t seem to be any plan, just a mad scramble to turn a ‘wish list’ into some booked acts.

MJJC: Why did Stevie Wonder require an invitation direct from Katherine Jackson?

Andy Picheta: I don’t know. This was something Ron Weisner told me when I asked about Stevie for the show. I thought he would have been a cracking addition to the line-up, as did Ron.

MJJC: Do you know why Blanket seemed upset when he was on stage?

Andy Picheta: I can only guess that he didn’t want to be there, and was too young to mask his feelings. I think Paris and Prince enjoyed the experience.

MJJC: What happened to that 100,000$ that was given as a fund for MJ's kids, whose money was it, was that money actually given to Katherine since GLE had all those money problems?

Andy Picheta: Never got paid over to them. The money was sent to LA but then diverted to pay for artists. This is just one example of the money mess surrounding the project.

MJJC: Part of the money was supposed to go to charity, did they receive any?

Andy Picheta: Nope. The Princes Trust were down for a $60,000 minimum guarantee. They have yet to be paid. I’m sure the US charities are waiting too, although they don’t appear on any creditor lists I’ve seen.

MJJC: Did you have any dealings with Howard Mann?

Andy Picheta: I heard he was sniffing around this show, but I believe he was warned off, as was David Gest.

MJJC: What are the chances of employees getting paid and DVD being released?

Andy Picheta: The two things are linked.  The concert itself is a fine musical tribute to Michael. You can see the performers are proud and respectful of the material, and there are some stunning, amazing performances. Christina Aguilera paid fine tribute, Ne-Yo found the spirit of a younger Michael, and I will never forget Yolanda Adams’ rendition of ‘Earth Song’ – it’s as powerful as when Michael did it, but there’s more there too; a sense of loss, of longing, of grieving – it’s really, really beautiful, and it will blow your socks off!

The biggest point here however, is what you think. I sense there’s a feeling of achievement amongst the fans, for putting a stop to some underhand shenanigans that were disrespectful to Michael’s memory. You showed your power and the crooked snake oil salesmen have been chased out of town. But those who worked on the show itself, especially the performers, knew nothing of the business background. For many of them it was a genuine opportunity to honour (spelled the Brit way) his music. I hope you’ll want to see it, once Prince and Paris have control of it and the Estate approves it. If you do take a look, if you do decide that (with the crooks out of the way and Prince and Paris using Michael Forever as a starting point of a proper musical tribute) you can support it, those owed money for work done will be paid from the proceeds.

MJJC: If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently? What's the biggest lesson you have learned from this saga?

Andy Picheta: I’d be more forceful about my initial areas of concern: ticket prices, estate approval, music clearance. The biggest lesson is RESPECT THE FANS. I’ve never known such a high handed, dismissive approach to an audience, the customer, as Hunt and Phillips showed throughout. Hindsight is never available when you want it, but if I could travel back in time I would: Insist the finance was robust enough to allow a free concert. Engage with the estate at an early stage.  Involve the fans in the development of the thing,

And involve the elder Jackson children and make it their journey into the music of their father.

I would probably not change the date, as you need six months clear prep time – but with the fans involved from the start the feeling may have been ‘we won’t allow Murray to rob us of our tribute’ rather than ‘the organisers don’t care about our feelings at the time of the trial’. But such an inclusive, honest approach was beyond the abilities of Phillips and Hunt. I pushed it as far as I could, but in the mayhem I found it impossible to go further.

Oh, and I wouldn’t hire Kiss. Or Alien Ant Farm.

MJJC: As 80% owner of GLE, why wasn't Jeffre included in the lawsuit or called to testify in the trial?

Andy Picheta: The lawsuit was filed in the UK. The financiers QuickDraw were suing GLE and Chris Hunt and Michael Henry. They could have gone for Jeffre as well, but only for giving the instruction to the ticket agency to hand the ticket proceeds to Hunt’s company Iambic. I’m not sure they have finished with Mr Phillips yet tho’, as an awfully large amount of money is unaccounted for in the US and I understand they may bring criminal charges as a result. Hunt and Henry didn’t call Jeffre as a witness, probably because they didn’t want to pay his airfare

MJJC: Are you worried about potential backlash from co-workers (Jeffre, Chris Hunt, ect) due to writing this book?

Andy Picheta: I am more concerned about the damage associating with them has done to my reputation in the industry. I welcome any backlash, as it will give me further opportunity to point out I was as taken in as everyone else, and to remind everyone that a judge in the English High Court of Justice found Hunt to be an ‘evasive and unreliable witness’. I found him an evasive and unreliable boss.

I am petrified of the Estate however, and I hope they don’t shut me down. I asked permission of the Estate to use a picture of Michael on the cover, but they refused. I think that made for a more meaningful image, a better cover, because the book’s not really about Michael, and the white fedora works well as a memory of him, and a hat being tipped in salute.

MJJC: What has become of Chris Hunt now, has he paid any of what he must as per the court judgment? Are you still friends with Chris Hunt? 

Andy Picheta: I’m sure you’ll understand that I am no longer on his Christmas card list, deleted from his birthday salutation auto-reminder, de-friended on Facebook and no longer considered as a suitable husband for his eldest daughter. So we don’t speak as often as before, but I can tell you Chris is in a whole heap of trouble. He has to account for the money he took illegally, probably pay most if not all of it back ($2.2 million), and he needs to find $1m, by September 7th, to pay QuickDraw’s legal fees. He also had to hand over all the recordings of the show. If he fails to do any of these he could be found in contempt of court and go to prison. He was a friend, and part of me feels sorry for how it turned out. But he was in the wrong and would not listen, so he brought it on himself.

MJJC: You were a bit harsh in your views about MJ fans. Michael's fans are quite a diverse group who are frequently dismissed as rabid and 'crazy'. While that element exists in any large number of people, there are many more who are quite intelligent, thoughtful and protective of Michael's memory. Since you started your book with " For the fans of Michael Jackson: You were right" ...have your views of the fans softened a bit?

Andy Picheta: I respect the fans of Michael Jackson, and of every other artist I have worked for, because the fans are the customers for what I am producing. Those of us who work in the industry are there to do a job, and even if we are fans we keep that in check, to stay professional. Track record in the entertainment business is crucial, and I perhaps should have thought more carefully about renting mine out to someone who had none. I regret any harshness; at the time it was an instinctive reaction to the harshness of the fans towards the show.

MJJC: Do you have anything you want to say to the members of MJJCommunity or Michael Jackson fans in general?

Andy Picheta: First of all, I am delighted to have the opportunity to be open and honest with MJJCommunity. Last year, before the show, I was tied to give the GLE line in my dialogue with you. I cover this in the book in some detail. I had no cause at that time to disbelieve what I was being told (about the financial arrangements the Estate had with Katherine for instance), but felt a discussion with the fans was long overdue. I was too optimistic as to what I hoped to achieve with that dialogue, as it was taking place far too late in the process. I see now why the fans consider the Estate a defender of Michael’s legacy, sometimes against his family.

I also write of how affected I was when lucky enough to film Michael nearly twenty years ago. I have never forgotten that experience and I know him to be one of the greatest writer/performers who ever lived.

I’d like to ask you to keep an eye out for Michael Forever (although it won’t be called that). When it has estate approval you can be sure Hunt, Phillips and the Parojim have been completely exorcised from the project because the Estate has made it clear they will not countenance any dealings with them. This will leave some great performances, some new material, and a children’s homage to the music of their father.

And I’d like you to tell all your friends how much you enjoyed my book, and what a wonderful Christmas present it will make!

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MJJC Note: You can order Andy Picheta's book "How I Paid Tribute to Michael Jackson : The story of Michael Forever The Tribute Concert" on Amazon by clicking HERE.