Can a New Class of Billionaire Make a Mark on Hollywood?

In the classic New Yorker cartoon of a few years ago, a billionaire sat behind his desk, boasting, “I own one plane, two yachts, three houses and four politicians.” Today’s version would add, “and I’m also producing five movies.”

The list of billionaires globally has now soared past 1,000, according to the Wall Street Journal, and their impact on both politics and pop culture is fast expanding. At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, there seemed to be more partying plutocrats than there were hungry sales agents.

“The new class of billionaires will change the landscape of Hollywood,” one billionaire-producer told me last week, typically asking not to be quoted. “I think that’s a good thing because, like the moguls of old, they truly care, and want to be involved.”

But do they know what they’re doing? some filmmakers would ask. The billionaire class in show business lately has been bolstered by the likes of Megan Ellison, Gigi Pritzker, Teddy Schwarzman and Jeff Skoll, whose slates are as expansive as their fortunes.

The acquisitiveness of the billionaire class extends to politics as well, with the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson allocating billions to their right wing slates and the candidates they support. Indeed a 2014 book titled “Billionaires” warns about the dire impact of the big-spending 1%. Written by Darrell M. West of the Brookings Institution, the book points out that plutocrats worldwide not only “own” candidates but “buy” political office — witness Bidzina Ivanishvili in Georgia, Serge Dassault in France or, most famously, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. Then there’s Rupert Murdoch, who yearns to own, not the office, but the news.

The resources of the super rich are expanding exponentially. Hedge-fund managers last year took home record paychecks — $1.3 billion for Kenneth C. Griffin, $1.2 billion for James H. Simons and $1.1 billion for Raymond Dalio. Compensation levels for such moguls continue to soar, despite the fact that 2014 marked the sixth consecutive year in which hedge funds fell short of stock market performance — a batting average seemingly fit for the vagueries of movie production.

The new billionaire class clearly enjoys spending its riches. A record $179 million was bid  earlier this month for a Picasso — an amount that embarrassed even art dealers. “The ‘hedgies’ are throwing money around as never before, in business as well as the arts,” noted one corporate CEO, pointing to Bill Ackman’s $3.3 billion move on Valeant Phamarceuticals. Daniel Loeb, meanwhile, was more bearish about a media investment, recently selling off his $l billion stake in China’s Alibaba.

Not that long ago, rich investors from outside the industry were treated with disdain by Hollywood. When Ted Field, heir to the Marshall Field fortune, arrived in town in 1982, he was surrounded by vultures peddling bogus deals. (Field hung on — he’s made more than 50 films as well as building a major music business.) Today’s new arrivals quickly surround themselves with top attorneys and agents to insulate themselves from con artists.

Will the billionaire class have a positive impact on the film business? A one-percenter I talked to said he was confident they would smartly fill the gap in midbudget films left open by the major studios’ obsession with tentpoles. “We’re going to end up owning two or three studios,” he predicted.

In disputing this view, an industry veteran pointed out that distribution is still the key to box office power, and that the irrevocable trend in the field is toward consolidation, not democratization. “A billion bucks is still a drop in the bucket in the worldwide entertainment business,” he maintained. “The billionaires may flaunt their money, but they’ll remain the outsiders looking in.”

Popular on Variety

More Voices

  • Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron.

    Charlize Theron Could Win Second Oscar for Playing Megyn Kelly in 'Bombshell'

    Charlize Theron walked on stage before a screening of “Bombshell” at West Hollywood’s Pacific Design Center on Sunday night and announced to the crowd, “I’m about to s— myself.” The Oscar winner had good reason to be nervous. The screening of the Jay Roach-directed drama about the fall of Fox News boss Roger Ailes was [...]

  • Tom Hanks Mr Rogers A BEAUTIFUL

    Tom Hanks' Portrayal of Mister Rogers May Put Him Back in Oscar's 'Neighborhood'

    Sony recently hosted a SAG-AFTRA screening of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the Marielle Heller-directed drama starring Matthew Rhys as a magazine writer who befriends Fred Rogers, played by Tom Hanks. While the screening didn’t include a guild Q&A with cast or the film’s creative team, the audience was greeted with a video message from [...]

  • Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Martin Scorsese,

    Martin Scorsese and 'The Irishman' Enter Oscar Race With World Premiere at NYFF

    Even with its three-hour run time and a short 28 days in theaters before it’s available on Netflix, Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” is likely to be a major contender at the Oscars. The 57th New York Film Festival opened on Friday night with the world premiere of the epic real-life mob drama. Scorsese and his [...]

  • Brad Pitt Once Upon a Time

    How Much Does Hitting the Awards Season Circuit Really Matter to Stars Like Brad Pitt?

    “Do you want an Oscar?” That’s the first question one top awards consultant asks any potential contender when they first start talking. Everyone is wondering how Brad Pitt would answer that question these days. He recently raised eyebrows and made headlines when he proclaimed that he would not be campaigning this awards season. “Oh, man. I’m [...]

  • Renee Zellweger'Judy' film premiere, Arrivals, Samuel

    'Judy's' L.A. Premiere: Renée Zellweger Takes Another Ruby Step Toward the Oscars

    Renée Zellweger continues to follow the yellow brick road to the Oscars. The Los Angeles premiere of Judy on Thursday night in Beverly Hills kept the Academy Award winner on track for a possible second win come February. “We’re just so happy we’re able to share it with you tonight,” Zellweger said to the crowd [...]

  • Barry Bill Hader

    Emmys 2019: Clear Favorites and Top Challengers for This Year's Winners (Column)

    If this felt like the longest, most expensive Emmy campaign in history, you might be right. For one thing, the 2019 Primetime Emmys will be held Sept. 22, which is the latest the ceremony has taken place since 2013. That also happened to be the last year of TV’s quaint, pre-streaming era, before outlets like [...]

  • Fleabag Succession Emmys

    Could 'Fleabag' and 'Succession' Be Spoilers on Emmy Night? (Column)

    At the onset, this year’s Emmy Awards felt a bit anticlimactic, as the final seasons of “Game of Thrones” and “Veep” appeared to have this year’s drama and comedy categories locked up before campaigning even began. But that’s how upsets happen: Just when we’re pretty confident about how things might go, a couple of wild [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content