Milchan in the middle…of everything

Mogul relishes dealmaking on a global scale

HOLLYWOOD — A Renaissance wheeler-dealer, Arnon Milchan is fast becoming a master of media crossover.

The films he has backed — “Pretty Woman,” “The Client” and “War of the Roses” — win critical acclaim and make money.

The polyglot, globe-trotting Israeli citizen also owns a controlling interest in German athletic-gear giant Puma, the worldwide TV rights to the Women’s Tennis Assn. tour, and BMG label Restless Records.

His partners also reflect the level and range of his connections — Australian media baron Kerry Packer, German TV kingpin Leo Kirch and Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox Filmed Entertainment invested $200 million in Milchan’s New Regency Productions in 1997.

And that’s just the showbiz stuff.

There is also the international agricultural conglom, originally started by Milchan pere, who laid the sprinkler system to irrigate Israel’s desert. Milchan fils, then in his early 20s, exponentially increased the fortune by marketing a micronutrient that quadrupled the country’s citrus production.

Now in partnership with Dupont, Milchan Bros. intends to do the same thing for Kazakhstan’s barley and wheat production.

On that scale, then, it seemed surprising when Regency TV, a joint venture between Milchan’s Regency Enterprises and Fox TV Studios, vaulted into the sitcom biz. For someone who clearly relishes doing business on a grand and global level, the small screen seems so, well, small.

“My passion is adrenaline,” explains the 51-year-old Milchan, relaxing at his beach house in Malibu on a strip of sand shared with David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Murdoch.

As Milchan’s dog, Rupert — “named after Rupert Pupkin,” a character from “The King of Comedy,” and “not Rupert Murdoch,” — drops a ball at his master’s feet, Milchan explains that the deal-making medium is irrelevant.

“I’m interested in pursuing things that break the mold,” continues the guy who greenlit “L.A. Confidential,” “Brazil,” “Natural Born Killers,” and “Falling Down” — not exactly anodyne fare.”Malcolm in the Middle,” the Fox comedy about a family as dysfunctional as “The Simpsons” (the only Fox comedy that premiered with ratings higher than those of “Malcolm”), definitely registered on Milchan’s “break-the-mold” barometer.

And, with eight Emmy noms, a Peabody Award and kudos from just about every critics association, the skein also met Milchan’s high standards of “harmony and excellence,” which, he affirms, “can exist in any medium.”

As Milchan juggles phone calls from the heads of his various outlets, his young English butler sets the table for an al fresco dinner party. Just a few close friends: another mogul and his wife and a top Euro politician.

The house is elegantly furnished with antiques and paintings that Milchan personally buys at auctions and galleries around the world. A photograph, an interior landscape taken by his daughter Elinor, is displayed as prominently as a 20th century oil.

Milchan makes the final decisions on all his company’s projects. He reads every draft of every script, usually late at night in the metal sleigh bed that Julian Schnabel created, a replica of the artist’s own.

Though he rarely visits the sets of his movies, allowing that “you can’t fix a thing on the set; it’s too late by then,” he is involved in the soundtracks.

Milchan spends about 10 days a month in Los Angeles, dividing the rest of his time between a home in Tel Aviv, an 18th century former hunting lodge on the edge of the Bois de Rambouillet outside Paris, a villa in Monte Carlo and a co-op in New York. He’s looking for a place in Australia.

Whenever he can, he gets to Bora Bora.

“I can’t wait to get there and just walk on the beach,” he says, staring out, ironically, at one of California’s most pristine expanses of white sand.

Though many of his friends go back to his childhood in Israel, Milchan also has his detractors, who say he’s stingy and hates to lose at anything. These same people harp on the fact that Milchan used his companies in the ’70s and ’80s to help Israel bolster its defenses.

Ironically, one area that has temporarily stymied the multicultural Milchan is international film co-production, where he’s currently focused on stepping up production on lower-budgeted features.

“My company has lost the ability to think small, and that’s a shame,” Milchan admits. “To keep yourself young and competitive, you need to stay in the street.”

Looking to hook up with Euro filmmakers whose $3 million-$4 million films are of little initial interest to the major Hollywood studios, New Regency formed a joint venture with Britain’s FilmFour and France’s TF1. The endeavor flopped.

“I went to TV partners to do movies,” he admits with hindsight. “They did not have a movie-making structure.”

Next time, he tells Variety, he will deal with privately owned production entities.

“The differences between European cultures are still so profound,” he explains. “There is very little in common between the French, British, Italian and German instincts about moviemaking.”

But Milchan, the ultimate multi-tasker, clearly cannot resist the challenge.