Mogul defies traditional rules with contrarian approach

With the recession deepening, many financial players are hedging their bets or heading for the sidelines. But now along comes Arnon Milchan.

A career contrarian, Milchan has marshaled a $500 million-$700 million war chest, fired the staff of his film company and announced to Hollywood that he wants in on the action once again. In short, he intends to spend big bucks on movies.

The last time the mercurial Milchan was this excited about the movie business was back in 1990 when “Pretty Woman” became a surprise hit and he decided that, with the right game plan, filmmaking could indeed translate into big profits. Setting up Regency Films, Milchan unfurled a then-innovative scenario for co-financing and co-owning films that were then distributed through a low-fee, rent-a-studio distribution structure.

Some lively and eclectic films emanated from Regency in its early years, ranging from “JFK” to “Heat” to “Brazil” to “The King of Comedy” and “L.A. Confidential.” In recent times, however, Regency’s product has become notably blah — its principal contribution to our pop culture was the “Alvin and the Chipmunks” series. (Regency’s current release, “What’s Your Number?,” is a reasonably entertaining romantic comedy that I feel I’ve seen before.)

Talk with Milchan, a feisty sixth-generation Israeli, and you sense his impatience not only with his movies but also with ever-mounting tensions in the Middle East. Where Milchan once helped Israel procure and develop weapons, his role in recent years has become more of a peacemaker and bridge-builder. But this, too, has led to frustration. His quirky films once gave him amazing access to that region’s power players (Yasser Arafat told him “Pretty Woman” was his favorite video) but lately the walls have gone up again, prompting Milchan to turn back to Hollywood for some fun.

To be sure, Milchan’s definition of “fun” can become rather intense. He relishes the combat of dealmaking, which has led to ongoing relationships with filmmakers like the tantrum-throwing Oliver Stone, who once called Milchan a Middle Eastern rug dealer (wrong product). Milchan presently is taking on the famously cogitative Warren Beatty, who has been pondering his Howard Hughes project for two decades.

The film is appropriately titled “The Rules Don’t Apply” and, if deal differences work themselves out, Beatty would direct himself on a budget of $32 million, which would emanate not only from Regency but also possibly from Jim Robinson’s Morgan Creek.

Once a deal with Andrew Garfield to co-star failed to materialize, offers went to several other actors (cameos from the likes of Annette Bening and even Jack Nicholson might also become reality). Deal issues relating to potential budget overages must also be firmed up.

Meanwhile Milchan, eager to put together an eclectic slate, is nurturing other projects. He likes Darren Aronofsky’s broad-scale film, “Noah,” which may be distributed by Paramount, not Fox — Milchan’s home base — and he covets a Brad Pitt vehicle titled “The Gray Man” (which will be directed by James Gray). Milchan has brought in Brad Weston to run Regency (he was a highly caffeinated executive at Paramount) and Weston, in turn, hired Alexandra Milchan, daughter of Arnon (and herself a successful producer) to further prod the slate.

“I realize that my company has become a bit boring, and maybe I’ve become bored, too,” Milchan confides, but his definition of boredom strikes friends as idiosyncratic. At age 66, the tan and fit Milchan has two young children (ages 9 months and 4 years), is married to a former world-class tennis player (Amanda Coetzer) and continues to wheel and deal with his art collection, which is reportedly worth well north of $600 million.

Milchan is less than thrilled by a new unauthorized biography of him that is gaudily titled “Confidential: The Life of Secret Agent Turned Hollywood Tycoon Arnon Milchan.” Written by Meir Doron and Joseph Gelman, the book describes Milchan as leading a James Bond-like career in procuring exotic weapons for Israel’s war machine. Milchan prefers to downplay this portion of his life. He points out that he inherited a company that manufactured chemical fertilizer and, as a player in the chemicals business for a nation that was often at war, he had his share of military contracts.

A centrist by nature, Milchan has tried to encourage peaceful solutions for the Middle Eastern morass, and is both encouraged and worried by the so-called Arab Spring, Given those concerns, he has decided at the moment to focus his attentions on creating a Hollywood Spring. Some good and intelligent films, he believes, could go far to rebuild the industry’s sagging economics.

And to Milchan, as to Warren Beatty, the rules don’t apply.

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