Arnon Milchan: Will The Chemical Emperor Mix With Warner Bros.?

Just about the strangest part of this week’s $900 million transatlantic distribution/production deal is that the man at the center, Arnon Milchan, is virtually unknown to the Hollywood community.

Rich, sharp and an obsessive dealmaker, the 46-year-old Israeli has built up one of that country’s largest chemical companies, played international soccer for Israel and produced his fair share of hit-and-miss movies, all the time shunning media attention.

A confirmed Europhile with homes in Monaco and Paris in addition to Israel, Milchan’s best friend in Los Angeles is another Euro high-flier, Hungarian Andy Vajna.

Milchan’s taste for cutting deals goes back to studies in business administration and economics in London and Geneva, although at the time he wanted to be a chemist.

After school, Milchan returned home in the mid-’60s and, armed with a $61,000 inheritance, transformed his father’s small fertilizer business into Milchan Bros., one of the country’s largest chemical concerns.

Milchan doesn’t actually have any brothers, but back in the 1960s he reasoned that business contacts would take a 22-year-old more seriously if they thought his decisions were being backed by sibling partners. This year the company estimates revenues of $300 million.

Those who know him describe Milchan as gentlemanly and furiously competitive. He readily admits that negotiating down prices on just about anything gives him a major buzz.

“Making deals with Milchan is like playing tennis with him,” says one top distribution executive. “You’ve got to watch for the cuts and the slices.” Milchan plays a lot of tennis and usually wins.

Not that making big bucks is all there is to Milchan. Back in the early 1980s, he produced a stage version of “Amadeus” that Roman Polanski persuaded him to take to Warsaw and to pass on ticket revenue to the Solidarity trade union. Milchan agreed and now numbers Polish president Lech Walesa among his friends.

The success of his chemical business brought Milchan a personal fortune and the financial security to launch into the movie biz in the 1970s. “I was always determined not to depend financially on making movies; I just wanted to enjoy them.”

Nevertheless, Milchan bridles at the suggestion that he is a “rich kid” amusing himself in the film business. “You do a three and a bit hour movie with Sergio Leone [“Once Upon A Time In America”]… that’s not an easy call. You make a black comedy about divorce [“The War Of The Roses”]… that’s not the easiest thing to do either. I had the film for three years before Danny De Vito, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner signed up. Nobody would touch it.”

Milchan also has a track record for fighting in his own corner. Having unsuccessfully defended Leone’s picture from cuts, he strongly opposed Universal’s plans to shorten his production of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.” More recently, he argued hard with members of his own staff against the original ending to “Pretty Woman,” which would have had Richard Gere walking out on Julia Roberts.

“He gave her a mink coat and left. My position was that I would not make this movie unless we had a happy ending. I mean, Jesus, we’d just killed a couple in [” War Of The Roses”].

Although some of his pics have gone bellyup at the boxoffice, including the Nick-Nolte starrer “Q& A,” Martin Scorsese’s “The King Of Comedy” and Ridley Scott’s “Legend,” Milchan insists the movie business has been good to him and to his wallet.

“Overall, my pictures have been profitable. Take ‘Once Upon A Time In America’; we were maybe a couple of million dollars behind on the first year, now we are way ahead. I own a classic.”

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