Music's Mystery Mogul: Len Blavatnik, Trump and Their Russian Friends
Getty Images; Rex

Music's Mystery Mogul: Len Blavatnik, Trump and Their Russian Friends

by Kim Masters
October 10, 2018, 6:50am PDT

The Ukraine-born billionaire owner of Warner Music is not only a backer of films who has looked at buying a Hollywood studio, he’s also reportedly on the fringe of the Mueller probe thanks to generous GOP giving and links to oligarchs with ties to Putin.

In May 2013, Martin Scorsese went to the Cannes Film Festival — not to be feted but to pitch a project: Silence, his not-exactly-commercial saga of two priests in 17th century Japan. The director had dinner aboard billionaire Len Blavatnik's 164-foot yacht, Odessa, named for his birthplace in Ukraine. Scorsese and Blavatnik then headed to a lavish party hosted by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, owner of the English Premier League's Chelsea F.C., who, like Blavatnik, had made his fortune following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Abramovich was hosting director Baz Luhrmann, whose The Great Gatsby was having its premiere at the festival. One observer was struck by the scene: "Len got to arrive with his prestigious guest and Abramovich was there with his, so it was oligarchs showing their connections." Now, sources say, Blavatnik is negotiating a major multiplatform deal with Luhrmann, and Warner Bros. plans to make a long-gestating Elvis Presley film with the Australian director, presumably with Blavatnik's backing.

The use of the O-word would annoy Blavatnik, 61. The press-shy billionaire has long maintained that he's not an oligarch but a naturalized American citizen who emigrated from the Soviet Union as a young man in 1978. Nonetheless, he has found himself on the radar of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, according to ABC News. Amid the drumbeat of the probe of Russian interference with the 2016 U.S. election, Blavatnik is on a quest to achieve his stated goal of building a "media platform for the 21st century."

Since 2011, Blavatnik has been the owner of Warner Music Group. But so far, like many outsiders who try to stake a claim in Hollywood, getting meaningful and gainful traction there has proved elusive. In the past couple of years, The Hollywood Reporter has learned, he's taken shots at acquiring major stakes in Sony Pictures and Paramount Pictures. He's also been in the somewhat antithetical position of investing in prestige films with players who have later become among the most toxic in Hollywood: Harvey Weinstein and Brett Ratner. Among the projects he's backed: Lee Daniels' The Butler, Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge and, yes, Scorsese's Silence. Blavatnik also has extensive entertainment interests in Britain, Israel and Russia.

Until last April, Blavatnik was a financier of Warner Bros.' film slate, investing in such films as Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One, It and Annabelle: Creation. Despite Blavatnik's close relationship with studio chairman Toby Emmerich (who, with family, stayed on Blavatnik's yacht during the Venice Film Festival this year), Warners did not renew that deal when it expired at the end of March. The studio declined to comment but sources say going forward with new owner AT&T, Warners will no longer seek out slate deals like the one that ended a few months ago.

Blavatnik's representatives at his privately held Access Industries did not respond to questions on this or any topic, instead providing a statement: "The poor quality of the reporter's superficial and biased reporting and use of unnamed sources do not warrant any thoughtful response."

When there are mountains of money potentially to be tapped, ever-hungry Hollywood doesn't usually ask too many questions about its provenance. Blavatnik's associates tell contacts in entertainment that he was educated in the U.S. — which is true if you don't count elementary school through college. Yes, he made vast sums in Russia (his fortune is estimated at $18.6 billion, according to Forbes). But Vladimir Putin? Blavatnik's reps have said he hasn't seen the Russian president in almost 20 years.

Ignoring the Blavatnik origin story may become a little tougher, however, as he is one of several U.S. citizens with deep foreign ties who have attracted Mueller's attention by donating millions to GOP causes in the past few years. Foreigners are not permitted to make such donations, but as American citizens, billionaires like Blavatnik can. Among the checks that Blavatnik has written through Access is a $1 million contribution to Donald Trump's inauguration committee, which raised a record-setting $106.7 million (more than double the previous record set by Barack Obama, though Trump's event involved a smaller staff and fewer events). What became of all that money remains a mystery.

Starting in the 2015-16 election season, Blavatnik's political contributions "soared and made a hard right turn," according to an analysis by business professor Ruth May in The Dallas Morning News. In that cycle, he contributed $6.35 million to Republican candidates and incumbent senators. The biggest beneficiary was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose Senate Leadership Fund received a $2.5 million donation followed by another $1 million in 2017. Blavatnik or Access gave generously to PACs associated with Sen. Lindsey Graham ($800,000) and to Sen. Marco Rubio ($1.5 million).

Married with four children, Blavatnik owns or has investments in an assortment of industries around the world: natural resources and chemicals, venture capital and real estate. He owns or has stakes in upscale hotels including the Sunset Tower in West Hollywood, the Faena Hotel Miami Beach and the Grand-Hotel du Cap-Ferrat on the Cote d'Azur.

At a glance, Blavatnik not only is a wildly successful businessman but a philanthropist who has made huge donations to uni­versities, including $117 million to Oxford (the university's School of Government building, completed in 2015, bears his name). Oxford's press release announcing the gift obligingly described Blavatnik as an "American industrialist and philanthropist." That gift drew protests from a group of more than 20 critics, including academics and activists, who argued that Oxford should "stop selling its reputation and prestige to Putin's associates." The university responded that it has "a thorough and robust scrutiny process in place with regard to philanthropic giving," and a spokesperson for Blavatnik's foundation said it is focused on supporting "institutions with a track record of significant advancements in science, business and government, regardless of geographic location." Blavatnik also has given to Harvard ($50 million) and Yale ($10 million), as well as to think tanks and other causes.

Born in Ukraine in 1957, Blavatnik spent most of his childhood in a provincial Russian town. In his teens he studied at the Moscow Institute of Transport Engineers. The family immigrated to the U.S. when he was 21, settling in Brooklyn. He earned a master's in computer science at Columbia University and worked in the IT department at Macy's and at the Arthur Andersen accounting firm. He became a citizen in 1984. A couple of years later, he started Access Industries, and three years after that, he got an MBA from Harvard.

After earning his degree, he teamed up with an old classmate from the Moscow Institute: Viktor Vekselberg. The New York Times reported in May that agents for Mueller had detained Vekselberg, 61, when he arrived in New York earlier this year. Vekselberg attended Trump's inauguration and the Times reported that Mueller's interest in him "suggests that the special counsel has intensified his focus on potential connections between Russian oligarchs and the Trump campaign and inaugural committee." Vekselberg was present at a 2015 dinner in Russia at which Trump's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was seated beside Putin. (Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with the Russian ambassador during the transition.)

In April, Vekselberg was among seven oligarchs sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department, which cited Russia's "malign activity around the globe." His name arose again in May when lawyer Michael Avenatti alleged that a U.S. company controlled by Vekselberg and his cousin had put $500,000 into the same account that Trump associate Michael Cohen used to pay hush money to Stormy Daniels. An attorney for the company said at the time that it is controlled by Americans and that it had retained Cohen "regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures."

Unlike Blavatnik, Vekselberg is considered to have maintained close ties to the Kremlin. For a time he and Blavatnik seemed to be working in tandem to establish themselves in influential Washington circles. As reported in a 2014 New Yorker profile, in 2004 Vekselberg bought nine jewel-encrusted Faberge eggs from the Forbes family for more than $100 million and gifted them to Russia, which was viewed as a way to curry favor with Putin. In 2006, the Kennan Institute — a division of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where Blavatnik was a donor and official fundraiser — gave Vekselberg the Woodrow Wilson Award for Corporate Citizenship. After some pushback, the award was rescinded, according to The New Yorker. But the following year, the institute gave Vekselberg a public-service award. The same year, Blavatnik's Access donated $50,000.

The sources of Blavatnik's wealth aren't entirely clear, but he and Vekselberg made a lot of money in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the "aluminum wars" (which pitted organized crime against Russian and foreign investors) and in oil. In the course of acquiring one takeover target in 2001, it was alleged in a lawsuit that militia members representing Blavatnik and his partners forced their way into the company's offices dressed in fatigues and carrying guns. Blavatnik's reps have denied this.

Blavatnik and Vekselberg have partnered with others now of interest to Mueller, including sanctioned oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who paid and loaned millions to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, and Mikhail Fridman, head of the Alfa Group investment consortium. As noted in a 2005 court ruling, Fridman has been the subject of various "allegations of corruption and illegal conduct." Fridman and his associate German Khan are the subject of one of the memoranda comprising the Steele dossier, which raised alarms about a possible Trump campaign conspiracy with the Russian government. But there are no allegations of impropriety with respect to these figures' partnerships with Blavatnik and Vekselberg.

A key asset that Blavatnik brought to his partnerships was his American citizenship. He had Western connections and conveyed a sense of legitimacy lacking in some of his Russian allies. "He's been able to walk this fine line between these two worlds," says Diana Pilipenko, an anti-corruption expert at the Center for American Progress. "If he has, in fact, had any concerns about his reputation as a 'Russian oligarch,' one can see that he has gone to great lengths to launder it through philanthropy."

In the mid-2000s, Blavatnik shifted away from the U.S. to spend more time in Britain, where he also has citizenship. He has a 13-bedroom London mansion in Kensington Palace Gardens, home of some of the most expensive properties in the world. (Roman Abramovich is a neighbor.) He has amassed a serious art collection. Having hired retired diplomat Sir Michael Pakenham to advise him on how to comport himself in England, he made major contributions to the Royal Academy, the Tate Modern and the National Gallery, as well as Oxford. Last year, he was knighted by the Queen.

Blavatnik owns multiple New York properties (though The New Yorker reported that one Manhattan co-op had turned him down, possibly because he had shown up at the interview with armed bodyguards). In 2015 he bought New York Jets owner Woody Johnson's co-op for a record-setting $77.5 million and this year paid a record $90 million for a New York City mansion, according to reports.

Following the purchase of the U.K. operations of Mel Gibson's Icon Group in 2009, Blavatnik seemed to start exploring deeper moves into the U.S. entertainment business. He considered a $75 million investment in Ari Emanuel's Endeavor but decided against it. The following year, he made a run at MGM, interviewing not only Toby Emmerich but several other executives who were potential candidates to run the company, which at the time was on the brink of bankruptcy. Ultimately, he withdrew.

Blavatnik's biggest move in entertainment was his 2011 purchase of Warner Music for $3.3 billion. The company by then was seen as too small to compete, and he was criticized for overpaying. He slashed the labels' executive salaries out of the gate — improving profitability but losing some talent in the process — and hasn't spent as much on acquisitions to catch up with the next biggest major record company, Sony Music Entertainment. But WMG is said to be making money as the fortunes of the music industry have turned around.

Blavatnik has repeatedly circled deals for a Hollywood studio — often those that seem to be troubled — and has continued to meet key players, though no major deal has materi­alized. One veteran executive says Blavatnik expressed a strong desire to increase his presence in the U.S. movie business during a 2014 meeting arranged by CAA's Bryan Lourd.

Blavatnik is a man who likes to entertain at lavish parties, and in the 2014 profile, The New Yorker reported that former Warner Music employees had said Blavatnik wanted "lots of beautiful women at his events, and not too many men." It noted that he often had been photographed "in one of his signature cream-colored suits, with his arm around the likes of the model Naomi Campbell."

As Blavatnik has worked his way into the movie business, some of his closest associates have long had malodorous reputations and ultimately were accused of serious sexual misconduct. "His two best friends in Hollywood were Harvey Weinstein and Brett Ratner," observes one executive who has done business with Blavatnik. "That's not a good look, is it?" (Weinstein awaits trial in New York; Ratner has been accused of misconduct by several women but has not been charged with a crime.)

Whatever his connections, Blavatnik seems to have a clear interest in making prestige movies. In 2010, when he struck his pact with The Weinstein Co., Blavatnik was focused on "projects that were upscale and good for his brand," says an executive who worked with him. (Good for his brand does not mean good for his wallet. In 2017, when The Weinstein Co. was on the brink of collapse in the wake of sexual-assault allegations, Harvey Weinstein suggested to the board that Blavatnik was a potential buyer. Instead he ended up making a $45 million loan and is now suing to get the money back.)

Perhaps it was through Blavatnik's visits to the Cannes Film Festival that he met other regulars, including Ratner and future Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (who now wields considerable influence in determining which oligarchs will be subject to sanctions). Both Ratner and Mnuchin frequented Blavatnik's yacht. In 2013, Ratner founded RatPac Entertainment with Australian billionaire James Packer. (A source says Blavatnik was an investor from the beginning.) Also in 2013, that company partnered with Mnuchin's Dune Entertainment film financing vehicle to form RatPac-Dune, which then financed Warners' slate of movies with a few exceptions (such as any films in the J.K. Rowling canon). RatPac-Dune started investing in Warners at a time that the studio hit a cold streak, and sources say it was well underwater when Packer sold his stake in RatPac to Blavatnik — apparently at a deep discount — in April 2017. (Terms were not disclosed.) "Warner Bros. is one of the great Hollywood studios," Blavatnik said in a statement at the time. "I am delighted to be partnering with Kevin Tsujihara and the studio alongside the unique talent of Brett Ratner. Together we will build on RatPac's strategic partnership with Warner Bros."

The delight was short-lived. In November, after the Los Angeles Times reported multiple allegations of misconduct against Ratner (who has denied any wrongdoing), Warners quickly cut ties. RatPac was absorbed into Blavatnik's Access.

Yet Access Industries continues to occupy RatPac's old offices — which once belonged to Frank Sinatra — on the Warners lot. "He's thought of as a Warner Bros. guy, and any big-ticket item there, they say his name as someone who might be part of the financing," says a top agent.

While many in the industry have severed ties with Ratner, Blavatnik appears to have remained close to him. Earlier this year a high-level source told THR that Blavatnik had informed Ratner that he would continue to pay him — it's unclear if there was a contractual obligation to do so — but asked that he keep a low profile. Ratner did not. The New York Post's Page Six reported in January that Ratner had made himself very visible at Blavatnik's hotel in Miami. At Cannes this year he stayed aboard Blavatnik's yacht.

In recent months, a leading agent says, Blavatnik has appeared to accelerate his efforts to make new deals. In May, he named former ESPN president John Skipper to run streaming sports media firm Perform Group. (Skipper left Disney in December and later acknowledged a cocaine problem that had opened him up to a blackmail attempt.)

Meanwhile Blavatnik is in talks with Luhrmann, who with his wife helped design Blavatnik's Miami hotel. The move surprises one top agent (not involved in the deal), who says that at this point Luhrmann "can't control a budget and can't multitask." The Australian director's 2016-17 Netflix series, The Get Down, turned into a wildly over-budget disappointment. He hasn't directed a film since Great Gatsby in 2013.

"Every financier-distributor with whom he has ever worked, including Fox, Warner Bros. and Netflix, have all sought to continue working with him," says Luhrmann's agent Robert Newman. "Regarding the question of multitasking, throughout his career Baz has developed television while writing-directing-producing motion pictures, directed operas while creating advertising campaigns, created plays while designing fashion, overseeing hotels and producing records."

But clearly Blavatnik's ambition still burns. He's taking meetings in Los Angeles this month, according to sources. Whether he can finally establish a truly meaningful presence in Hollywood remains to be seen. Sources say he's still pursuing other Hollywood properties, though one says that despite Blavatnik's billions, "He lowballs everybody."

But at this turbulent moment, one industry insider says, maybe Blavatnik can be a lifeline. "We need money like Len's in the business. Otherwise all we're going to be looking at is Netflix and Amazon."

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.