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Wrap Exclusive: John Landis slaps singer with ‘Thriller’ lawsuit

Michael Jackson has been slapped with a breach-of-contract lawsuit by director John Landis, who is seeking past profits from the “Thriller” video.

EXCLUSIVE: Michael Jackson, who recently moved back to Los Angeles to be near "where the action is", has been slapped with a breach-of-contract lawsuit by the veteran Hollywood film director John Landis, who says he has not been paid his share of the profits from the iconic “Thriller” video for at least four years.

The suit was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court last week. (Read full complaint here.)

It is not exactly the warm welcome Jackson had in mind for his return to southern California, and it raises new questions about his disastrous personal finances, which have generated almost as much gossip in recent years as his multiple plastic surgeries, his freakshow public appearances and his fondness for the company of pubescent boys.

In the absence of any readily identifiable attorney representing Jackson – none has emerged after six days — the legal action also shines a light on the mysterious Los Angeles physician, Tohme Tohme, who appears to have taken charge of the singer’s business and legal affairs. 

Tohme and other advisers held a council-of-war meeting at the Hotel Bel-Air over the weekend to discuss the Landis suit and other matters, but they have issued no public statement.

The lawsuit comes just ahead of the news that “Thriller” will be coming to Broadway. Producer James Nederlander said he acquired the rights to do so on Monday.

It is not clear whether the suit also covers the “Thriller” stage show, which has played around Europe.

Jackson himself, who recently moved into a 19-room mansion in Holmby Hills for $100,000 a month, was not present at the meeting.

Landis and his company, Levitsky Productions, filed a complaint in the western district of the Los Angeles Superior Court last Wednesday accusing the King of Pop of "fraudulent, malicious and oppressive conduct" – essentially, failing to provide any accounting of the “Thriller” profits for the past four years "and earlier", and failing to pay Landis his 50 per cent cut of the net proceeds.

Landis co-wrote and directed the 14-minute video of “Thriller” in 1983, significantly pushing the artistic boundaries of what was then the fledgling art of music video. The popular director – previously responsible for such hits as Animal House, The Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf in London — also directed an hour-long "making of" documentary.

A contract signed at the time states clearly that Jackson and his company, Optimum Productions, would pay Landis 50 per cent of net profits from both the video and the documentary, and also provide regular financial statements on revenues – quarterly in the first instance, and then yearly from 1986 on.

The contract, drawn up in September 1983 when production on the video was already underway, is signed by Jackson is his trademark looping handwriting, arcing up to the top of the page and swooping down to the bottom.

Landis’s attorney, Miles Feldman of Liner Yankelevitz Sunshine & Regenstreif, said it was the closest thing he could imagine to an open and shut case. "I can’t understand what they are doing to John Landis’ company.  It is such a straight ahead thing," Feldman said. "It makes no sense at all to me."

The contract includes rights to dramatic and musical works, but the extent to which any show is based on the video, as opposed to Jackson’s music, may be open to interpretation — or negotiation.

The case could be the latest in a long string of legal embarrassments for Jackson. In addition to the Landis suit, he is believed to have recently concluded private arbitration with representatives of the Sultan of Brunei over a contract believed to involve Jackson agreeing to perform and offer a percentage of rights to future projects in exchange for payment of several million dollars.

The Landis suit probably does not involve a huge amount of money – the complaint does not assert a dollar figure, but the debt is not believed to be more than about $1 million, even taking into account last year’s successful 25th anniversary re-issue of the Thriller album and the new-found popularity of the video on YouTube. It does, however, raise some singularly troubling questions about the way his affairs are being handled.

Neither Feldman nor the lawyer listed by the state of California as the last known agent for Optimum Productions, Zia Modabber of Century City, said they had any clue who was now providing legal representation for the superstar. Optimum Productions suspended its operations an unknown number of years ago – possibly as far back as the 1990s. According to the complaint, it "failed to observe corporate formalities" including basic record-keeping; Jackson was the sole shareholder and "commingled his funds with those of Optimum".

The man best placed to answer these charges now appears to be Tohme, who describes himself as Jackson’s official spokesman but keeps himself at arm’s length from the media. (Attempts to reach Tohme for this piece were unsuccessful.)

Jackson, who has been spotted around Los Angeles in a hood and surgical mask, is attempting to pick up the pieces of his shattered career three and a half years after his trial and acquittal on child molestation charges in Santa Maria. His return to California marks the end of a period of wandering in which he spent time in Bahrain, Brunei and Las Vegas. 

He narrowly averted foreclosure on the outstanding $23.9 million mortgage he owed on Neverland, his fantasy estate in the hills above Santa Barbara, by transferring the debt to a new company he has established with the Las Vegas hotel corporation Colony Capital. Jackson has vowed never to set foot in Neverland again, and the entire contents – right down to the wrought-iron and gold-leaf entrance gates – will go under the auctioneer’s hammer in Beverly Hills in April.