Meet Sarah Johnson Redlich and William D. Johnson: Hollywood's Other Billionaire's Kids
Like the Ellison children before them, the heirs to the Franklin Templeton fortune are shaking up the film financing game with Worldview Entertainment (Reese Witherspoon's "The Devil's Knot") and Demarest Films (Anton Corbijn's "A Most Wanted Man").
This story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The film industry is endlessly fascinated with siblings Megan and David Ellison, who, armed with money from their father, Oracle founder Larry Ellison, marched into Hollywood several years ago to finance and produce awards-caliber movies, smart genre pics and studio blockbusters.
Now comes another financially well-endowed sister and brother: Sarah Johnson Redlich, 53, and William D. Johnson, 50, whose father is Charles B. Johnson, the unpretentious multibillionaire who built Franklin Templeton Investments into one of the world's leading financial services, and, along the way, became an owner of the San Francisco Giants. The elder Johnson is worth $5.7 billion, according to Forbes, while Franklin Templeton manages assets north of $700 billion.
The siblings, both of whom have decades of experience in finance, say their simultaneous involvement in Hollywood is a coincidence. And each is taking a different tack. Johnson Redlich is a partner and substantial investor in the prolific New York-based Worldview Entertainment, run by financial whiz-kid Christopher Woodrow. Her brother, known as "Bill" to his friends, has partnered with Sam Englebardt and Lambert Media Group on Demarest, a lean-and-mean operation that Englebardt and Johnson run out of a $13 million Bel-Air mansion that also serves as their bachelor pad.
Worldview -- further infused with capital by a handful of silent investors -- is certain to be a key player on the festival and awards circuit this year with a slew of high-profile movies including West Memphis Three feature The Devil's Knot, directed by Atom Egoyan and starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth; James Gray's historical drama Lowlife, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Renner; and David Gordon Green's Joe. (The latter two are in the running to play at Cannes, while Devil's Knot likely is a Toronto Film Festival contender.) Worldview, whose first film was Killer Joe, has a key partnership with CAA that allows Worldview access to top projects.
Demarest, capitalized by Johnson, likewise is poised to have a festival and awards presence, albeit with a smaller slate. Its 2013 release calendar includes Anton Corbijn's A Most Wanted Man, the film adaptation of John le Carre's novel starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams and Robin Wright, and Richard Luketic's corporate thriller Paranoia, headlined by Harrison Ford and Liam Hemsworth.
Johnson, the second youngest of seven children (one sister died in an accident), describes his younger self as something of a wild child. He's not totally cured, and he regularly throws parties at the Bel-Air mansion that draw the likes of Warren Beatty, Kathryn Bigelow and Russell Brand.
"In high school, I wanted to be just like Bill Graham and become a music promoter," he says. "But then I was trained as a stockbroker in order to work for my father. I did pretty well and eventually formed my own company, but I became very bored."
The movie biz, with its glitz and glamour, is a natural fit for Johnson; it's less so for his sister, an avid philanthropist and conservationist who began financing socially minded documentaries a decade ago (career-wise, she was a portfolio manager at Franklin Templeton before founding the couture children's clothing line Spike & Annie). She met Woodrow and Worldview COO Molly Conners several years ago when they worked together on the critically acclaimed documentary Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders.
In 2011, she became an equity partner in Worldview and now travels to New York once a month from her home in Los Angeles to work in the company's newly outfitted offices atop the historic Lefcourt Normandie building at Broadway and West 38th Street (Jane Fonda was a previous tenant and used the space to film her famous workout videos).
"A couple of years ago, Chris and Molly came to see me ... about investing in indie films. At first I told them I wasn't interested, as I only did documentaries. But their tenacity and persistence paid off," Johnson Redlich wrote via e-mail from aboard the National Geographic Explorer off the coast of West Africa.
Now that she's in the feature business, Johnson Redlich has a new cause: Making sure there are more women involved in all aspects of the process.
The Johnsons, raised in New Jersey, didn't grow up privileged. It took 25 years for Charles B. Johnson and his brother, Rupert, to make profitable the company their father, Rupert Sr., founded. "I mean, we drank powdered milk as kids. We were broke," says Bill Johnson.
In 1973, Franklin acquired the Winfield Co. and Charles B. Johnson relocated his family to Hillsborough, the exclusive enclave south of San Francisco. Even so, money was tight. "We were like the Clampetts. Winfield was bankrupt when my dad took it over and, as part of the deal, we ended up with a house in Hillsborough that wasn't finished. It stayed that way for five years. One part was missing a roof," Johnson recalls. "My mom [Ann] even decided to go back to school and become a psychiatrist to help support us."
Johnson says his father initially was dubious of the film business but has come around. "I've found something I love, and he knows I'm passionate about it," he says. "From the time I was a child, I was taught by my parents that persistence and determination win."
Johnson Redlich echoes those sentiments. "They hold us to a high standard. Anything we are involved in and chose to invest or put our name on should be honest, thoughtful and, above all, factual. If we accomplish this and we are satisfied with the results, then they are, too," she wrote of her parents.
Worldview, which so far has financed 10 films, recently announced it is co-financing its first two studio titles, Fox Searchlight's Birdman and Child 44 at Summit/Lionsgate. Initially, Worldview limited its equity investment to $2 million to $6 million per picture. Now, it will co-finance movies with budgets of up to $50 million. Still, Woodrow says he has no intention of moving the company to L.A. "We are primarily a finance company, and New York is the financial capital," he says. "It allows us to stay close to media investors, venture capitalists and investment bankers."
Demarest finances in the same range in terms of equity, but is likewise involved in bigger projects (Paranoia's budget was $40 million). Both Demarest and Worldview offset the price tag through foreign presales and tax incentives, among other measures.
To date, Worldview and Demarest are largely untested at the box office, but both companies they get high marks from producers and agents for being forthright and quick to act. "They [Worldview] make smart decisions and have the capital," says John Lesher, a producer on Birdman.
Demarest has invested in seven or eight films, including the upcoming female vampire pic Byzantium, whether through loans or straight equity.
Johnson says he's well aware of the parade of flush investors coming to Hollywood, drawn by the glamour. "I know there is a long tradition of getting sheared," he says. "That's not going to happen to me."