EXCLUSIVE: A feature film will be made about the finance scandal that saw mysterious moneyman Jho Low vanish along with an estimated $5 billion from the Malaysian treasury after he and associates blazed a trail of excess in Hollywood, leading the Malaysian prime minister to exit in scandal and Goldman Sachs facing fraud charges that reportedly constitute the financial giant’s biggest scandal since the 2008 financial meltdown.
Ivanhoe Pictures has acquired the movie rights to Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood And The World, a bestseller written about the massive financial fraud scheme by Wall Street Journal investigative reporters Tom Wright and Bradley Hope. Ivanhoe president/CEO John Penotti is among the producers as is Michelle Yeoh. They teamed on Crazy Rich Asians.
Described as small, sweaty and looking like he didn’t at all belong on any A-list, the baby-faced Wharton grad Jho Low blazed an instant trail of excess. He dazzled the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Swizz Beatz, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West with a show of financial largess that included paying for a birthday party for himself where Cristal flowed like water and where a scantily clad Britney Spears jumped out of a birthday cake. Lo had used his social connections to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to create the investment fund 1MDB, financed by government money and helped by Goldman and Sachs and other banks to total fund raise that reached $10 billion. Before he disappeared, Low spent extravagantly on real estate, parties and the production of films that included the Martin Scorsese-directed DiCaprio drama of financial excess The Wolf of Wall Street. The pieces are still being sorted, but Low remains at large, billions of dollars are unaccounted for, Razak was arrested on corruption charges and plead not guilty. And new prime minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad was elected earlier this year largely on the promise to reform the 1MDB abuses and recover funds.
Beyond a dishy movie fraud tale on the order of Wolf of Wall Street and the Bernie Madoff saga Wizard of Lies, the story is a cautionary tale about the instinct of the film and financial and other businesses to quickly embrace new international funding sources like Saudi Arabia or China without fully understanding the culture, customs and business practices of the new players. When a banker questioned Lo on why a wire transfer would go to his father, who then gave the money to Low, he replied that it was Asian tradition borne of respect for elders. Clearly, not enough questions were asked.
“To me, this amazing story resonated as the perfection depiction of the intersection of East and West,” said Ivanhoe’s Penotti, who like many others has spent an inordinate amount of time in Asia. “A lot of what may have driven the ability for this type of excess to have developed between Asia and the U.S. went well beyond the film business, but involved other areas of the financial business that included banks, sovereign funds, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and other Southeast Asian companies.
“We will hire writers and are still working on our way in, but this is about preconceived notions of how foreign cultures and wealth generation works and how Asian and Western cultures just don’t understand each other,” he said. “That gray area allowed smart people on this side to not question some of the clearly obvious signs of odd things that happened. Sophisticated people in finance blanket accepted things that were unfamiliar to the West and Jho Low and others exploited the unfamiliarity. When you look deeper and how we accepted as validated the kind of wealth that was moved around is mind boggling and the potential for fraud was able to continue because of a lack of due diligence.”
That touched Hollywood with Red Granite Pictures, a principal architect of The Wolf of Wall Street, the film that grossed over $400 million and got five Oscar nominations including Best Picture. Co-founded by the former prime minister’s stepson Riza Aziz and Joey McFarland, Red Granite earlier this year had to pay back $60 million to the U.S. government earlier this year to settle allegations it was funded partly by money siphoned from 1MDB.
The book deal was brokered by Folio lit agent Steve Troha and CAA.