HOW BELA LUGOSI SAVED “THRILLER” AND CHANGED ROCK HISTORY
By Stan Sinberg
As has been noted repeatedly since Michael Jackson’s untimely death, the “Thriller” video changed music history. The video effectively “integrated” MTV, and it revolutionized the way music videos were conceived, produced, and budgeted. And it all wouldn’t have happened if not, in an odd way, for Bela Lugosi.
At the time, John Branca was Jackson’s entertainment lawyer. Branca represented many rock acts, including The Beach Boys and Fleetwood Mac, but landing Jackson was certainly a coup. At that time, in 1983, rock music videos were in their infancy, had an average budget of $50k, and MTV was being criticized for ignoring black artists.
In that atmosphere, Jackson told Branca he wanted to budget a million dollars for his next video, “Thriller.” When the entertainment lawyer objected, Jackson snapped, “Make it happen.”
Branca came up with the idea to persuade Showtime to pony up $1.2 million for a “Making of ‘Thriller’” video – the first “making of” video documentary of its kind.
After “Thriller” was completed, but before its release, Jackson, a Jehovah's Witness, told church elders that in the video he turns into a werewolf. The elders scolded him for promoting demonology. Jackson then ordered Branca to destroy the video.
“That was insane,” said Branca, who had the master copy. “I couldn’t destroy it.”
Desperate, Branca recalled that the King of Pop was a huge fan of actor Bela Lugosi, who'd played “Dracula.” So on a bluff, he phoned Jackson. “You know, Bela Lugosi was a very religious man,” he began, although in truth Branca had no idea whether or not this was true. . “And Bela has a disclaimer on his movies that his films don’t endorse vampirism.” This was a complete falsehood.
Branca convinced Jackson to place a similar disclaimer on the beginning of ‘Thriller” (“"Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way...") - and music video history was changed. In the five days following the release of the video, the album “Thriller,” which had already been out for months, sold a million copies, and was on its way to the stratosphere.