How Director Brett Ratner Evolved From Party Boy to $450 Million Warner Bros. Mogul

Brett Ratner
Brett Ratner

Two years after his Oscar debacle, the onetime wunderkind turned power player opens up, carefully, about his mistakes ("I've said dumb things") and his massive ambition: "I'm always at my best when it's big."

The Warners deal got underway in April, when Steven Mnuchin, chairman of Dune Capital, a private investment firm based in Los Angeles, heard that the studio was looking for an outside investor. After meetings with Warners, he was introduced to Australian billionaire Packer at a dinner for Beatty hosted by producer-financier Arnon Milchan. Mnuchin suggested Packer join him in making a major investment.

Packer had inherited a fortune from his father, media magnate Kerry Packer, then sold the properties he took over and used the money to build an even bigger empire through substantial investments in Macau and elsewhere. Before meeting Mnuchin, the 46-year-old Australian had teamed with his friend Ratner to form RatPac Entertainment.

Ratner says the two, who have a 50-50 ownership of RatPac, became friends when the director befriended a woman who would become Packer's wife around the time Ratner's 2002 drama Red Dragon had its Australian premiere.

Initially, RatPac was just looking to invest in one film at a time (it since has put money in Clint Eastwood's upcoming Jersey Boys, Cameron Crowe's untitled project set in Hawaii and Russell Crowe's directorial debut, The Water Diviner), but then the Warners proposal came along.

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When Ratner saw a list of future Warners films, he was thrilled. "I knew every director, every actor in those movies, from the Lego movie to the Chris Nolan movie [Interstellar]," he says. "I called [Packer] and said: 'James! These movies are phenomenal!' "

With John Burke of Akin Gump representing Mnuchin and the new entity, and Skip Brittenham and Bryan Wolf of Ziffren Brittenham representing Ratner and Packer, the slate deal was cemented in late September, with $150 million in equity and $300 million in debt financed by Bank of America Merrill Lynch. (Two unnamed high-net-worth individuals also are part of the investing group, though Ratner says he and Packer have "the majority" of the investment.)

Sources say RatPac-Dune will fund 25 percent of Warners' share of each picture the studio makes -- with a few exceptions, such as a Harry Potter spinoff and the Hobbit films. It largely will make up for funding that dried up when Legendary Entertainment left for Universal.

Unlike Legendary and another long-term Warners-based financier, Village Roadshow Pictures, RatPac-Dune will have no ability to cherry-pick projects; instead, this is a "blind" investment across Warners' entire slate.

For Packer, "The [Warners] slate was a good opportunity," he says. But his more intriguing move likely is to be in China, where he'll spend time with Ratner and De Niro starting on Oct. 24. "There is going to be a RatPac Television, a RatPac Asia," says Ratner. "There will be diversified financing for film, television, publishing. James' goal and mine is to build a global, branded media company."

Adds Packer: "Brett and I want to develop this business brick by brick. I think we can build a business in China that is very valuable. China is a big play. But I am a huge believer in Brett. Brett is an extraordinary talent, and this is all about my belief in him."

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Ratner's new role as mogul represents a remarkable, 180-degree turn for the man whose offscreen activities had threatened to dwarf his role as a filmmaker.

"I've been in the public so much, people didn't think of me as a filmmaker anymore," he laments over lunch Oct. 16 at a Hungarian-Jewish restaurant in Budapest. "I became a public person instead of a person who is just a serious director."

Partly that came from his association with celebrities like Michael Jackson, who for a while stayed at Ratner's house, the storied Hilhaven Lodge in Benedict Canyon, which once belonged to producer Allan Carr. "We weren't talking at the end of his life," he says with regret. "He wanted me to testify on his behalf [in Jackson's molestation case]. I didn't want to be part of the circus. [But] if he needed me, I would've done it in two seconds. He was the kindest, most gentle, genuine person. Our relationship was based on watching movies together. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, we watched it 100 times."

By contrast, he remains friendly with Williams, whom he dated for two years. "We were best friends, and we just ended up [dating]. You know how that happens. It wasn't something I was looking for." He says that ended because, "Tennis players, they're traveling around the world, they want their boyfriends or partners [with them]."

He says he also has spoken amicably with actress Olivia Munn despite a mini-scandal when he claimed he had "banged her a few times." (That comment was blurted out after she had disparaged an unnamed director's sexual antics in her memoir, Suck It, Wonder Woman!) He says that he and Munn have put their differences behind them: "We laughed about it. It was ridiculous." (A rep for Munn says simply, "That is not at all true.")

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Ratner adds, as if aware that his pattern has yet to be broken, "You know, I've said several dumb things."

His dumbest remark, he admits, was his comment about "fags," which cost him the Oscar gig. (He since has given $1 million to the Academy museum.) "It's indefensible," he says now. "I immediately apologized. I couldn't say to everybody, 'Wait a second, I'm not who you say I am. I'm the guy who did all the PSAs before I was even asked.' It was just a stupid thing."

Born in Miami Beach in 1969, Ratner grew up the only child of a Cuban-Jewish immigrant who gave birth to him when she was 16. He lived with her and her parents in a middle-class home, sharing a room with his great-grandmother Bertha until he was 13. The family was comfortable but not rich; Ratner's granddad was a doctor. "I had zero discipline as a child," he recalls. "I could do no wrong. I never had to go to school if I didn't want to. My mother said, 'If you want to be an idiot, then don't go.' "

Noticeably absent was a father; and it was only when Ratner was in his late teens that he discovered the truth about his dad. Walking through Miami with his then-girlfriend, actress Rebecca Gayheart (they started dating when Ratner was 17 and she was 15 and remained together for 13 years), he was stunned when she pointed to a homeless man whom she had recognized from photos. "Look at that guy over there," she said. "He looks like your dad."

Ratner's mother had fallen in love with Ronald Ratner -- the son of a multimillionaire who made a fortune through rat poison and then real estate investments -- but her family was mortified when she accidentally got pregnant. They split up around the time of their son's birth, and Ratner only rarely saw his father as a child. He knew his dad had succumbed to drug abuse but did not know he was homeless.

Running into him with Gayheart, "I said, 'Where are you living?' He said, 'Oh, I don't have a place to live.' And I got him a hotel."

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The fate of his father (who died in 2006 at age 62) sadly was ironic, given that Ratner already was involved with Chrysalis, an L.A.-based organization that helps the homeless, on whose board he currently serves. "What was poignant for me and what moved me so much was that these people, because they were ashamed, they never called their kids, they never contacted them, they never reached out. And I was one of those kids."

Ratner still was a kid when he managed to scheme his way into New York University's Tisch School of the Arts film school at age 16, having fallen in love with film while working as an extra on Scarface. After being cold-shouldered by an admissions officer who refused to screen his Super 8 movies, he talked his way into the dean's office and persuaded him to allow the budding filmmaker to enroll. Despite its improbability, Ratner says he got in even with weak grades. "The admissions officer said, 'You have the worst grades of anyone who has applied to this school,' meaning, 'How do you even dare to apply?' " he recalls. (The school would not discuss the manner of his admission but confirms he graduated in 1990.)

"I was so passionate," he continues. "And that was a defining moment in my life. 'Cause if I would've got a no, I still would have become a director, but I would have taken a different path."

Before graduating, he looked at a Forbes list of the most powerful people in entertainment and wrote each one a letter asking them to help fund his student movie. Only one replied: Steven Spielberg. Ratner remembers his shock when he received a summons from the university.

"The dean calls me: 'I need to see you right away.' I'm like, 'Oh shit.' I thought, 'I'm not worthy, they're gonna kick me out.' And I go in, and he goes, 'Do you know who called here looking for you? Steven Spielberg.' I go, 'Let me stop you right there. That's either my mother or my grandmother pretending to be Steven Spielberg.' "

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Although Spielberg did send him a check, it was a different connection that led Ratner to find his first directing work -- Russell Simmons, whom he had met thanks to a university colleague. When Simmons screened Ratner's 1990 student film, Whatever Happened to Mason Reese? -- about the former child actor -- rap group Public Enemy attended and asked Ratner to shoot their music videos.

He went on to direct hundreds of videos for the likes of Madonna, Jay Z and Mariah Carey before making his first feature, 1997's Money Talks, with Chris Tucker. That paved the way for other movies including The Family Man, X-Men: The Last Stand and the Rush Hour trilogy -- and now Hercules.

Looking back, he says: "I was spoiled by success when I was very young. I had a lot of responsibility before I was fully, emotionally adult and didn't understand what it meant."

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