Peter Bart: Billionaires Find Their Hollywood Ambition Greenlights Political Scrutiny

Steven-Mnuchin-Arnon Milchan Rupert Murdoch

The billionaire set has always looked upon movies as diverting toys. They offer glitz and glamour, but also pose one ominous trap: public scrutiny. This was underscored by breaking news this week involving three high-profile billionaires: Steven Mnuchin, Arnon Milchan and Rupert Murdoch.

Mnuchin, the very social but publicity-shy Secretary of the Treasury, has co-financed and produced movies like Gravity and Dunkirk while hanging with Brett Ratner and his Warner Bros friends. But now that he’s steering delicate trade negotiations with China, these ties are raising conflict-of-interest questions that Congress is actively probing.

Milchan’s financial “take” from Bohemian Rhapsody should rival that of any other producer in Hollywood history and further lift his profile as a movie mogul. The problem: All that also focused attention on bribery allegations made by Israeli criminal investigators – charges that could next month unravel the present Israeli regime and curtail Milchan’s formidable political clout.

Then there’s the unique case of another billionaire hero of the political right: Murdoch. In selling Fox to Disney for $71 billion, he exponentially enriched himself and his family. But the deal also riveted public and political attention on Fox News, his surviving showpiece, thus triggering what looks to be a chain reaction of probes and advertiser revolts.

It would be naïve to suggest that these issues would pose lasting setbacks for these illustrious figures. On the other hand, all three are keenly aware of this uncomfortable reality: They’re being watched. And they don’t like being watched.

Mnuchin’s adventures in Hollywood have been especially instructive, and bumpy. A friend of Ryan Kavanaugh, he served as co-chairman of his ill-fated Relativity Media, loudly proclaiming several co-ventures in China, only shortly to dissolve them. Later, Mnuchin invested in two high-profile slate deals, Dune Entertainment and RatPac Dune, which co-funded much of last year’s Warner Bros slate. That deal imploded as a result of Brett Ratner’s harassment charges. A Ratner-Mnuchin friend and partner, James Packer, later figured importantly in Kevin Tsujihara’s resignation — Packer allegedly introduced the now-dismissed Warner Bros chairman to actress Charlotte Kirk.

When Mnuchin assumed his role in the Trump cabinet, he divested his interest in some of his film properties to his wife, producer-actress Louise Linton, according to filed documents, and is still owed money under the deal. Meanwhile, he continues to champion the cause of Hollywood films in the China talks. Robert Lighthizer, the top trade negotiator, testified last month that film revenues were “absolutely a priority” in the trade talks. And he highlighted Mnuchin’s role: “He knows a great deal about that industry, a lot more than I do,” he testified. Mnuchin again made news last week, pledging to block the release of President Donald Trump’s tax returns.

Milchan loves hatching plots for movie thrillers, and his involvement with next month’s Israeli election is packed with appropriate intrigue. According to Israeli intelligence, Milchan gave extravagant gifts to Benjamin Netanyahu in return for political influence and other favors. A billionaire many times over, the Palestine-born Milchan has long been a force in Israeli politics, claiming his background was in the chemical industry while others said he was also a major arms supplier.

Rules Don't Apply
“Rules Don’t Apply” 20th Century Fox

Milchan’s role in the election coincides with legal headaches in Hollywood. Investors in the movie Rules Don’t Apply, directed by Warren Beatty, are suing Milchan for $50 million, claiming that his involvement in the Israeli scandal proved so distracting that he neglected to fulfill his responsibilities in distributing and marketing the Beatty movie. (The film grossed $3.9 million, having cost $30 million to produce.) The suit was filed by Ron Burkle, Steve Bing and Ratner, all of whom were substantial investors.

As the long-term chief of New Regency, Milchan has helped fund dozens of movies, from Pretty Woman to The Revenant. Two years ago when I was lunching with Milchan in Malibu, he expressed his high hopes for the Beatty movie but was negotiating extensive notes on the screenplay. Our meal was interrupted by a call from Netanyahu. I was not privy to the conversation, but, hanging up, Milchan observed, with a wry smile, that talking script with Beatty was the only exercise he found more complex than discussing politics with Netanyahu.

To be sure, Murdoch’s dealmaking propensities involve vastly more money and complexity than those of Milchan or Mnuchin, yet also carry political implications. The annexation of Fox by Disney closed this week, with Murdoch spinning off a separate company whose most profitable asset is Fox News. The deal inevitably has focused media attention on that entity and its cozy relationship with the Trump regime.

In interviews, Murdoch acknowledges that movies were never his prime interest; they were, indeed, an often annoying distraction. It was, however, important for him to own a studio to supply product for his television empire. Always thick-skinned, Murdoch, in my many interviews with him, never seemed fretful about media coverage of his career, but has lately displayed concern about his legacy at Fox News. When his tabloids in London were caught in a cellphone hacking scandal, a committee of Parliament termed Murdoch “unfit” to run a news organization. That conclusion undermined Murdoch’s effort to become sole owner of Sky News, losing that stake to Comcast. As he now passes control of Fox News to his son Lachlan, there is growing speculation in the media whether Lachlan, too, is at risk of inheriting the “unfit” label, potentially costing his profitable network advertising support and distribution.

But then the same peril might loom over the destinies of his fellow billionaires, Mnuchin and Milchan, as they steer their way through turbulent financial and political waters.

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