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For the past four years, hedge-fund billionaires Bill Ackman and Carl Icahn have engaged in an epic battle over the fate of controversial company Herbalife. On one side is Ackman, who took a $1 billion short position on the publicly traded company in 2012, calling it a Ponzi scheme. On the opposite side is Icahn, who stunned Ackman and Wall Street weeks later by investing heavily in the nutritional-supplement company, sparking a Wall Street war for the ages.
The high-stakes drama, which has played out on the business pages, boasts plenty of colorful side characters, including Herbalife CEO Michael Johnson, who served as Disney’s president of international before becoming America’s highest-paid CEO in 2011 with an $89.4 million payday.
But now, the inside story of Ackman’s crusade is hitting the big screen, thanks to Betting on Zero, a new documentary from Ted Braun that is certain to generate fresh debate on the Los Angeles-based company. Gunpowder & Sky is releasing the film Friday in five locations.
Braun, the filmmaker behind the critically acclaimed doc Darfur Now, paints a sympathetic picture of Ackman — not an easy feat when the protagonist is an overconfident one-percenter. But Ackman, who spoke to THR, insists that he had no editorial input in the film.
“The entire team here begged me not to participate in the film,” says Ackman of his Pershing Square Capital Management legal and PR advisers. “I said, ‘You know what? I like Ted.’ I hadn’t met him before, but he seemed earnest and honest. I said, ‘Look, all I care about is, tell the truth.’ “
To Ackman, the truth is unsavory. He estimates that some 20 million people worldwide have been duped into spending thousands of dollars — often their life savings — on products, with promises of riches. With a $1 billion gamble on the line, Ackman was frequently ridiculed by Icahn on the business channels. But in March 2014, Ackman received some vindication when the U.S. Federal Trade Commission announced that it was investigating Herbalife. In July 2016, the FTC ordered Herbalife to pay $200 million in a settlement that was shared by the victims. Later that year, Johnson said he would step down as CEO but continue as executive chairman.
The film, which debuted at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, has been expanded since then to include some of those developments from last year, as well as Icahn’s being tapped by President Donald Trump as a special adviser on financial regulation.
“The story that Ted tells is about this incredibly predatory company preying on literally the least fortunate people in America: undocumented immigrants,” adds Ackman. “These are people who can’t complain because they’re afraid to go to the police. They’re afraid to complain to their local politicians, especially now. We’ve heard many stories of Herbalife distributors threatening to turn people into immigration authorities if they didn’t buy next week’s allotment of products.”
That storyline — rather than the billionaire-slugfest narrative itself — is capturing the interest of Hollywood. On March 9, Ed Norton hosted a private screening of Betting on Zero that drew such industry heavy hitters as Andrew Millstein, president of Walt Disney Animation Studios, and Oscar-winning Crash producer Cathy Schulman.
“They’re hustling people, and I never really thought of it much until I saw this film,” Norton told the audience as he introduced the documentary.
Still, the Ackman-Icahn saga continues, with Ackman continuing to hold his $1 billion short position as Icahn remains the single biggest investor in Herbalife. Braun says, at first glance, the Herbalife story may appear to be a clash of outsized egos. But he cautions against that easy trope.
He says, “I think the film shows that, when motivated to do good, a billionaire like Ackman can provoke the government to act and can provoke the public to ask questions about companies that would otherwise not get asked.”
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