More than a dozen kitted-out members of the Park City Police were stationed in front of the Egyptian Theatre on the ski town’s Main Street and across the road.
Calling the screening and expected disruption “one of our highest security priorities for the festival,” law enforcement sources said that many more officers were undercover and unseen among the hundreds lining up to get in to see the film this morning.
In a far cry from Thursday’s opening-day press conference with Robert Redford, attendees of the Dan Reed-directed Jackson docu had to go through pat-downs and metal-detecting wanding to get in the Egyptian’s doors. Inside, officers stood guard with dogs in the lobby and back of the theater itself.
Perhaps warned off by the very chilly morning, there were only two or three protesters decrying the documentary and its allegations of frequent sexual abuse of children by the late “Beat It” singer. In fact, the media greatly outnumbered the anti-Leaving Neverland crowd and as they tried to get quotes on how the accusers have been discredited and Jackson was acquitted on such charges more than 12 years ago.
At least one of the protesters who were outside the Egyptian earlier this morning is in the venue, Deadline can confirm. Law enforcement told Deadline that they expect many more protesters might show up at Saturday’s Salt Lake City screening – a scenario that the SLC Police have anticipated.
“We’re getting real very early,” joked festival director John Cooper to the jam-packed venue in a lighthearted manner as the last patrons found seats. In a more serious tone, Cooper also noted that if viewers felt “overwhelmed” by the film and its subject matter, there were Utah state healthcare professionals in the house to assist them.
There were so many police officers, other law enforcement officials and Sundance staffers in the lobby that organizers had to ask them to quiet down so people could properly hear the documentary in the theater.
“Really it’s a film about two families that have been very very brave … whose paths crossed with one of the greatest entertainers that America ever produced,” a seemingly nervous director Reed said in a very short introduction of Leaving Neverland after a half-hour delay in the documentary kicking off.
Reed as well as Jackson accusers Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who claim they were sexually abused by Jackson years and years ago when they were ages 7 and 10, were scheduled to conduct a Q&A after the four-hour screening.
Since it was announced earlier this month that Leaving Neverland would open at Sundance, Jackson fans have taken to social media and elsewhere to condemn the documentary. With the constant whiff of legal action in the air, representatives for the estate of Jackson — who died in 2009, four years after being acquitted of seven counts of child molestation and two counts of giving a drug to a 13-year-old boy — slammed Neverland as “just another rehash of dated and discredited allegations.”
HBO and Channel 4 plan to air Leaving Neverland in the spring.
The Sundance Film Festival continues until February 3.