Leaving Neverland, a controversial documentary centred on the child abuse allegations that dogged Michael Jackson for decades, hit the mainstream this week, airing its first of two parts overseas on HBO last night.
As millions tuned in to the four-hour documentary — so damning it triggered $100 million legal proceedings from the Jackson estate — millions more are mobilising to defend the popstar 10 years after his death.
Few fan armies hold a candle to Michael Jackson devotees — fans who have spent decades defending the star.
Leaving Neverland director Dan Reed described them as "the Islamic State of fandom".
"One can only compare them to religious fanatics really," Reed told the New York Times.
Within 20 minutes of the film being announced in January, Reed said his company received endless emails, describing them as a "deluge of hatred".
Social media posts from fans dismissing the film as a "mockumentary" are liked thousands of times, while other Twitter accounts are actively encouraging and planning attacks on allegations aired in the film.
The first bombshell allegations came last month when Australian-born choreographer Wade Robson and former child star James Safechuck broke their silence in the documentary that aired at Sundance Film Festival last month.
Jackson was cleared of child abuse charges in 2005 with the assistance of lawyer Tom Mesereau who still defends him today.
In a marathon 14-week trial, Jackson fought 14 charges — of child molestation, supplying alcohol to minors and of conspiring to imprison his accuser and their family at Neverland.
After eight days of deliberation, the jury found Jackson not guilty on all charges.
The singer's not guilty verdict is still vigorously defended to this day by his millions of fans.
Across social media, Michael Jackson fan accounts spent weeks mobilising to hijack the Leaving Neverland hashtag.
Jackson's family also vigorously defend the star — especially his nephew Taj, who was responsible for bus ads proclaiming the singer's innocence splashed around London.
Taj also started a GoFundMe on January 21, the same day the documentary was announced.
It's raised close to $70,000 since launching.
Jackson's brother Jermaine also jumped into the pile-on after the first episode aired, taking aim at Oprah.
The former talk show host will interview Safechuck and Robson tonight before the second episode of Leaving Neverland airs.
"It's a very serious crime and it shouldn't be glossed over"
The documentary has shattered the glittering veneer around the late King of Pop, presenting in lurid detail the stories of Robson and Safechuck who say Jackson abused them for years as minors.
Leaving Neverland was considered so potentially devastating that counselling was made available at its Sundance Film Festival premiere in January.
Reed said he tried to include "sexual detail in a very measured way, so it wasn't done for shock value".
"We tried to make it graphic enough to be eye-opening and for people to be confronted with what it means for a little child to be seduced and raped by an adult paedophile," Reed told AFP.
"Of course it's shocking. It's a very serious crime. And it shouldn't be glossed over."
It's not the first public airing of abuse claims against Jackson, but the release marks the scandal's first major explosion since his fatal overdose at age 50, almost 10 years ago.
The documentary centres on Safechuck, 41, and Robson, 36, who recount separate but consistent accounts of how their idol molested them as boys.
Both describe the childlike Jackson wooing them — inviting them into his fairytale existence, gaining their families' trust and manipulating them into keeping their sexual relations secret.
"You and I were brought together by God," Robson said Jackson told him.
Their mothers also offer narratives of seduction into the cult of Jackson — and the ensuing guilt that haunts them.
Robson first met Jackson as a 5-year-old after winning a dance competition.
The megastar invited the boy to his Neverland Ranch, where Robson, by then seven, said the abuse began.
He describes how their sexual relationship "escalated rapidly," with Jackson telling him: "This is us showing each other that we love each other."
Safechuck, who said his abuse began at age 10, tells a similar tale, saying Jackson told him if anyone found out their lives "would be over".
Decades of denial
Jackson's estate has vehemently defended the late star, suing HBO for $100 million over a "posthumous character assassination" it says breaches an agreement made not to disparage the icon, a condition for airing one of his concerts.
Jackson faced accusations in 1993 of sexually abusing a 13-year-old boy and settled out of court, with Robson and Safechuck saying at the time that Jackson hadn't touched them.
In 2003, more accusations triggered a dramatic trial — that time, Safechuck kept a distance, but Robson testified for Jackson who was acquitted.
Neither man reversed their stories until recently after becoming fathers themselves.
Both filed their own lawsuits that were dismissed over statutes of limitations.
"You loved him in a lot of ways. And then you know Michael does these things to you that are not healthy," Safechuck said.
"It's really hard to have those two feelings together. I still, today, am grappling with that."
Neverland ranch hits the market again
Amid the deluge of publicity and white-hot controversy that surrounds the release of the explosive documentary, Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch in California's scenic Santa Ynez Valley has popped back up for sale at US$31 million (NZ$45.6 million).
The asking price for the 1093-hectare spread, which has been renamed Sycamore Valley Ranch, is gasp-worthy by any fiscal standard, but it's remarkably less than half the US$67 million (NZ$98.7 million) price the property was listed at in 2017 and a staggering 69 per cent below the pie-in-the-sky US$100 million (NZ$147 million) ask it was originally saddled with in 2015.
Secluded among rolling, sycamore-covered hills about 64km outside of Santa Barbara and close to the centre of the wine-centric town of Los Olivos, the property was purchased by the famously reclusive pop star in 1987 for US$19.5 million (NZ$28.7 million).
Prior to his 2009 death, Jackson secured a loan using the ranch as collateral, and when he defaulted, the note was purchased by a real estate investment fund managed by Colony Capital, which now owns the place in a joint venture with the Jackson estate.
In addition to a stately six-bedroom, faux-timbered French Normandy-style main house of about 1161 square metres, surrounded by a manicured refuge of flowering gardens, vast lawns and a 1.6 hectare lake, the super-sized compound comprises three guesthouses plus a spacious entertainment pavilion between a lagoon-style swimming pool and a lit tennis court.
Jackson's private amusement park, replete with Ferris wheel and carnival games, has been removed, but the professional-quality movie theatre and the Disney-esque train depot Jackson built atop a floral clock that spelled out "Neverland" remain.
The illustrious ranch property is represented by Compass agents Suzanne Perkins and Kyle Forsyth.
"Having sold many of the largest ranches on the south coast in Santa Barbara County, I can easily say without hesitation that this is one of the more spectacular ranches in so many different ways," Forsyth said.
HBO's Leaving Neverland will air on TVNZ 1 on Sunday March 10 and Monday March 11 at 8.30pm and on TVNZ OnDemand.
- With wires