In April 2019, Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel and Ron Meyer, then vice chairman of NBCUniversal, made their way to Canadian billionaire Daryl Katz’s compound at the Bighorn Golf Club in Palm Desert, about 15 miles east of Palm Springs.
The two top Hollywood players were on a mission to help their friend, high-rolling producer Joel Silver, whose deal with his latest financial backer had, unsurprisingly, fallen into acrimony. The shaggy-haired Katz — who had built a drugstore chain into an empire that includes the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers as well as the arena in which they play — was squeezing Silver, the producer of the Lethal Weapon and Matrix movies, who was supposed to have guided Katz to success in Hollywood.
Katz, now 59, had been wary of the once wildly successful producer’s profligate spending and heavy debts even before getting into a partnership with him in 2015. Three years into the deal, Katz (pronounced “Kates”) had decided it was too much expensive pain with no real gain and had slashed Silver’s annual compensation. By January 2019, Silver was so eager to start anew with someone else’s money that he had flown by private jet to Saudi Arabia and sat at dinner with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (A companion on that trip describes the scene as something out of a Bond film.) It was mere weeks after an outraged world had learned of the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
By April of that year, hostilities between Katz and Silver were running so hot that when Emanuel, now 59, and Meyer, now 76, arrived at Katz’s house, the meeting instantly erupted into angry words. Within minutes, Emanuel and Meyer stormed out. Katz’s beef with Silver, 68, would drag on for many months — until this February, when former private investigator and felon Anthony Pellicano abruptly appeared on the scene. At Meyer’s request, Pellicano says, he represented Silver and negotiated a surprisingly fast settlement, one that resulted in Katz retaining Silver Pictures and its projects, without Silver himself.
By then, both Meyer and Emanuel had paid for their involvement as Katz had dragged them into his bitter arbitration with Silver. Meyer — who stepped down from NBCU amid scandal in August — had his deposition taken in January. As for Emanuel, Katz had sent him a legal threat letter for allegedly interfering in his business when he meddled in the Silver dispute and then won an arbitrator’s order requiring the Endeavor boss not only to sit for a deposition but to turn over business records dating to 2014. No executive would want to deal with the possible exposure of potentially sensitive information. Emanuel, who declined to comment on Katz’s letter or the arbitration, got off the hook thanks to the sudden settlement of the Katz-Silver war.
Underlying the twisty saga of the Katz-Silver war is a riddle: Why would Meyer and Emanuel — two men then seemingly at the peak of their professions who appeared to have no meaningful business with Silver — inject themselves into a messy brawl on behalf of a producer who hadn’t even had a middling hit since 2014? Despite multiple requests, Silver did not respond for comment.
Pellicano cites a simple reason why Meyer and Emanuel found their way into this battle: friendship. Indeed, the devotion among the players in this drama offers an unusual if somewhat blurry view into the ties that bind in Hollywood and the assortment of favors that may be exchanged among powerful, high-level friends — especially ones who, like Meyer and Silver, have some bad habits. Their story is one of two highly successful industry players who had everything and found that it wasn’t enough.
In one fundamental way, Meyer and Silver are mirror opposites. Meyer, despite a cloud of scandal, remains one of the best-liked executives in the business, while Silver has seen some of his closest relationships in the industry go very sour. As Silver went through years fending off debt accrued from relentless, rapacious spending on houses, art, cars and food, Meyer was coping with staggering gambling debt and fighting off consequences of the sexual entanglement that ultimately led him to resign from NBCU in August. Meyer said at the time that he was being extorted — allegedly, it later emerged, by two men following a years-earlier affair with aspiring actress Charlotte Kirk.
Over the years, Meyer and Silver became wound up in each other’s lives. Silver landed a much-needed, short-lived deal at Universal’s film studio when Meyer was a top executive at the company, for example, and his daughter was an executive at Silver’s company.
What many longtime industry observers find far more baffling than that relationship is Emanuel’s longtime loyalty to Silver. A source close to Emanuel says he is grateful that Silver was a TV client of the upstart Endeavor agency when it launched in 1995. Others point out that Silver is unmatched at weaving himself into the lives of certain Hollywood players. Sources say Silver consoled Emanuel during a difficult divorce, for example.
It was another relationship that ultimately provided the key to extricating both Emanuel and Meyer from the Katz-Silver war. Meyer has been fiercely loyal to Pellicano, and the feeling is mutual — Pellicano says he’d do anything for him. Meyer stood by the former private investigator through his more than 15 years in prison on wiretapping and other federal charges. (Following his own code of honor, Pellicano stayed silent throughout on who had hired him and why.) What first drew the two men together is unclear, but Pellicano says he regards Meyer as a brother.
How exactly Pellicano managed to settle Silver’s battle with Katz so quickly remains a mystery. “I haven’t told anybody how I settled it, nor will I,” Pellicano tells THR. The 75-year-old now has gone into the crisis-management business, he says. He is forbidden to work as a private investigator and says he doesn’t want to. Still being monitored by authorities, he acknowledges that he has heard the FBI has made inquiries about his involvement in the Silver-Katz dispute but seems unfazed. “Folks in the media call me a fixer, so that’s a term you could use,” he says. “I’m legally allowed to do that.”
In his heyday during the late 1980s and 1990s, Silver made a fortune for himself and Warner Bros. as his movies grossed hundreds of millions of dollars. He was renowned for lavishing attention on those on whom he set his sights — stars as well as industry players. “He’s charming, he’s funny, he’s delightful,” director Richard Donner, the filmmaker behind all four of Silver’s Lethal Weapon films, told THR in 2015. “But keep your eye on him. Joel will use you and get everything he can.” (Donner said he had to threaten to sue Silver to collect his share of profits from HBO’s Tales From the Crypt anthology series; Silver has denied any dispute.)
By 2012, Silver had hit a cold streak, and his 25-year deal with Warners ended. He had borrowed so heavily against his profit participations that he was in debt to the studio. The burden was so great — and the need for money so pressing — that Silver took cash from the studio in lieu of future revenue from his movies — a decision that a former Warners insider says was equivalent to selling out retirement income. The studio agreed to pay Silver about $30 million, and he gave up future earnings of his hit films — properties that would generate revenue for years to come, especially in a time of reboots and rapidly changing technology.
Silver urgently needed a new studio home. Just weeks after his rupture with Warners, Universal Pictures announced a five-year pact to distribute two to three Silver-produced films a year. Meyer did not run the movie division — that was Adam Fogelson — but at the time he was president and COO of Universal Studios. (Through reps, Meyer declined to comment on the deal.)
Such announcements often have less to them than meets the eye. Universal did not agree to finance the films or even commit to make a specific number of movies. Still, the deal was extremely valuable to Silver. Having a major studio say it was potentially prepared to devote spots on its release schedule and spend tens of millions of dollars to market a film would make any outside financier looking for projects to exploit overseas take notice. (The Universal deal was for domestic distribution only.)
In the end, only one film was made under Silver’s pact with Universal: the Liam Neeson thriller Non-Stop, financed by StudioCanal. The movie went into production in fall 2012, just as Meyer’s sexual involvement with Kirk had gotten underway. Married at the time, Meyer has said the affair was entirely consensual; she has alleged in court papers that she felt “extreme pressure and intimidation” from him and other high-profile Hollywood men with whom she was involved — and there were several. (In 2019, Kevin Tsujihara stepped down as chairman of Warner Bros. in a scandal arising from his own entanglement with Kirk.)
A court document filed by Kirk’s attorney alleges Meyer lured her to a hotel to discuss the opportunity to play a flight attendant in Silver’s film and then “forced himself” on her. (A spokesperson for Meyer says this is “false and frivolous.”)
According to an account reported by Los Angeles magazine, Kirk then was flown first class to New York and taken by limo to the set of Non-Stop, where she shot a brief scene — playing not the flight attendant but merely a passenger. Even that hit the cutting-room floor. (A source close to Meyer says he was not the person who introduced Kirk to Silver.)
Non-Stop opened in February of that year, ultimately grossing $223 million. It was the last Silver-produced film to perform well at the box office. (The most recent film on which he has a credit is a 2018 SuperFly remake, which grossed $20.5 million.)
In an unusual move, Universal advanced Silver $4 million against his eventual profit participation shortly before the movie opened. Giving advances is not uncommon, particularly when a studio has a close relationship with a filmmaker or star. (Silver had relied on advances during his years at Warners.) But generally studios only provide advances once a movie has opened in theaters, giving the studio a sense of whether it will recoup the money. In the end, Universal only recouped $3 million, and to this day, Silver owes the balance — an interest-bearing debt with the meter running. A spokesman for Meyer says in a statement, “While at Universal, Ron was not authorized to give Joel Silver, or any other filmmakers, advances. The system at Universal was not structured that way, and Ron was not involved in any such payments.” NBCU declined to comment.
A few months after Silver pocketed that advance, he paid a $1.7 million gambling debt for Meyer at the Wynn Casino in Las Vegas. A spokesperson for Meyer says “the money to pay the casino debt was borrowed from a third party” and that it was unrelated to the Non-Stop advance. Pellicano says: “Someone furnished the money. It went through Joel’s account.” Why? He declines to elaborate. Other sources with knowledge of the situation say that Meyer was trying to conceal his gambling debt from his then-wife, Kelly Chapman. The two split in 2018.
Non-Stop was Universal’s first and last film with Silver, and his deal there was the last he would have with a major studio. Once again, he urgently needed another backer. Enter Todd Morgan of Bel Air Investment Advisors. Morgan and his wife, Rosanna Arquette, were often guests at Meyer’s movie nights at his home in Malibu, where Barbra Streisand was a regular — as was Silver. With Meyer also pleading his case, sources say, Silver implored Morgan, sometimes tearfully, for help.
Like Katz, Morgan had a place at Bighorn, and he knew that the Canadian billionaire was keen to invest in the entertainment business. (A source says former Warners co-chairman Bob Daly told Morgan that he was making a “big mistake” by connecting Katz and Silver. Sources say Daly had come to despise Silver because he believed the producer tried to wring money out of his former Warners co-chairman, Terry Semel. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011, Semel now resides in the Motion Picture Home; Daly declined to comment.)
Silver courted Katz with his usual style, inviting him to a dinner prepared by the staff of the Venice trattoria Vini Da Arturo, whom Silver had flown from Italy to Los Angeles, and taking him to his friend Robert Downey Jr.’s April 2015 birthday party at Barker Hangar in Santa Monica. Still, a knowledgeable source says Katz had concerns about Silver.
By 2014, Silver had borrowed as much as $29 million against his homes in Brentwood and Malibu through “hard-money” lenders known to charge high interest rates. (Yet he still opted to buy his wife a bespoke purple Rolls-Royce.)
Silver acknowledged to THR in 2015 that he had taken out some high-interest “bridge loans” using brokers — some with questionable pasts — who were unknown to most upper-echelon Hollywood players. “I didn’t even know who they were,” Silver said. So when Katz struck a five-year deal with the producer in July 2015, he set a condition that his new partner agree to settle some of his debts. (Silver did end up selling some of his property.)
Initially, Katz agreed to pay Silver $7 million a year in addition to a share of the profit from movies that went into production under their deal. But three years in, a dissatisfied Katz slashed Silver’s pay to $1 million a year, alleging subsequently in a legal filing that “Silver did not perform to his projections, partly because he was so consumed by his mounting debt.” Katz also asserted that Silver had made a “knowingly false” claim that he was solvent.
By fall 2018, according to legal papers filed by Katz, Silver had started casting about for another backer behind his back — allegedly with help from Emanuel. Silver also pursued a partnership with Alexa Jago, an auburn-haired British former actress (with scant credits), who is another old friend of Meyer’s.
Having lived in Los Angeles for many years, Jago describes herself as a producer who raises money to finance films. She tells THR that she met Meyer during the mid-1990s, when he came to see her in a one-woman show called New Girl in Town. Jago also has known Silver for years and had a credit in one episode of a short-lived Silver-produced series called The Strip, which aired on the UPN network in 1999.
Jago says she has many contacts in Britain and among the major studios in L.A., though several Hollywood executives contacted by THR say they have never heard of her. Two who recognized the name say they had spoken to her briefly — at Meyer’s request — but the conversations went nowhere. Jago is on the board of BAFTA LA, but an established industry professional who has served on that board says Jago seemed to be a person “floating on the edges of the business.” Jago tells THR she is known for her charitable work in Britain. “I know a lot of people. I can raise money from those people,” she says.
According to Jago, she was invited — as founder and executive chairman of an entity called Genesis Media Capital, which is unknown to many top executives in Hollywood — to meet with Saudi investors in London early in 2019. That meeting was canceled at the last minute, but Jago says she was told that the Saudis were sending a jet for her. “I called Mummy,” Jago says. “She said, ‘Don’t you dare’ [go alone].”
So she called business associates, looking without success for someone willing to accompany her. But she says Silver happened to be in London. “I wouldn’t say we’re friends,” she notes. Yet she says she asked him to join her and, to her surprise, he agreed. “I thought he wouldn’t go,” she says, citing human rights concerns that had been much in the news. But while Jago portrays Silver as merely having tagged along on the trip, materials promoting Genesis Media Capital include Silver as a partner in the fund, with the caption “franchise major producer” under a headshot.
Jago says she and Silver were flown by private jet to “somewhere in the desert,” landing in a seemingly unused airport, and were then taken to a hotel that didn’t seem to have many guests. From there, they were put aboard a helicopter. “It was pitch black,” she says. “We flew, saw a ring of light and landed, got into a car and drove. There were roadblocks with big vans, sniffer dogs, and all of a sudden we saw a little bonfire.” When they got out of the car, she says, “a very tall man comes toward me, takes my hand and bows to me.” (MBS is 6 feet tall.)
Wearing a brown tunic, cloak and sandals, by Jago’s account, the Saudi prince took her and Silver “into Aladdin’s cave,” where a low table was piled with food. Jago says she was the only woman present. Surrounded by his ministers, the Saudi prince talked at length about his vision for his country and his supposed interest in advancing women’s rights. (The Saudi regime has imprisoned women’s rights advocates.) He brought up the Khashoggi murder but denied involvement.
According to Jago, the Saudi prince told Silver, who is Jewish, “We’re cousins.” While Jago says she and Silver did not do much of the talking, it appears that afterward, neither felt the other had handled the encounter properly. In an email sent to Meyer after the encounter, Jago responded to some unspecified Silver criticism of her. “He is saying I didn’t behave with the Crown Prince!! Me?!” she wrote. “The truth is JS was a bit of an embarrassment. He said ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ all the way through dinner.” (Pellicano, representing himself as Silver’s spokesperson, says Silver acknowledges he may have used such language.)
Jago says MBS expressed particular interest in backing a fund with a woman at the helm. (She still thinks he is “a visionary” who is “trying to make big changes.”) At the end of the evening, he gave her a thumbs-up and promised up to $1 billion. “It couldn’t happen because no one was going to take the money at that time,” she explains. Silver also was still ensnared in his deal with Katz. But with the possibility of Saudi money in the offing, sources say Emanuel tried unsuccessfully to set Silver up with a deal at Sony Pictures.
An Endeavor spokesman acknowledges that but denies Emanuel played any role in connecting Silver and Saudi investors. Endeavor had $400 million in Saudi financing at the time but, immediately following the Khashoggi murder, said it would return the money. The company made good on that pledge in March 2019.
Emanuel subsequently said in legal filings that starting in March 2019, he had tried to work as a “peacekeeper” in the dispute between Katz and Silver for three months, despite what he described as Katz’s extreme hostility toward Silver.
Emanuel’s tone wasn’t always dovish: Multiple sources say he suggested at one point that the Professional Bull Riders — an organization that Endeavor acquired in 2015 — would not play Katz’s Rogers Place arena in Edmonton if Katz would not come to terms with Silver. Katz denies through a rep that Emanuel made such a comment.
Emanuel’s colleagues at Endeavor might be expected to question why their leader and, along with him, their business was pulled into this legal mess. (They already have learned that Emanuel sold equity positions worth $165 million out of the company in 2017 while asking others to defer their big payday, which failed to materialize after an IPO was pulled at the last minute in fall 2019.)
But one high-level associate seems to take the entanglement in stride. “Ari has weird ethical-loyalty things that are very hard for me to understand sometimes,” he says. Another says that though Emanuel got involved in “an ugly, messy distraction,” he is nonetheless “a force of nature” whose value to the company is beyond question.
In the aftermath of the battle, Endeavor says Emanuel no longer is involved in trying to help Silver secure fresh financing. Pellicano says Silver is still hoping to land Saudi backing, even as the Biden administration has released a formerly classified report saying MBS approved and likely ordered Khashoggi’s brutal murder. (Biden declined to penalize the crown prince.)
Pellicano doesn’t seem concerned by the FBI’s apparent curiosity about his role in settling the dispute. While the bureau declined to comment, Pellicano says authorities are likely interested in whether he used any particular type of leverage to induce Katz to settle. (In 2017, Brazilian model and Jane the Virgin actress Greice Santo publicly accused Katz of offering her money for sex during a 2015 photo shoot for Viva Glam Magazine in Hawaii. She had reported the alleged incident to police, but the case was closed with no charges filed. As he became involved in the Katz conflict with Silver, Pellicano was reported to be seeking a police report involving Katz; Pellicano denies that.)
Katz’s company has renamed Silver Pictures; it is now Dark Castle Entertainment. Katz intends to maintain a presence in Hollywood and is now said to be friendly with Leonardo DiCaprio, who has a good nose for super-rich friends who want to be in the movie business.
When Meyer’s issues with Kirk became public in August, an insider says that NBCU hired litigator Daniel Petrocelli to conduct an inquiry into an effort to determine how Meyer paid Kirk. After Variety reported Feb. 2 that Silver had paid Meyer’s gambling debt in 2014, Universal said that information came as yet another surprise and that Petrocelli would investigate. NBCU and Petrocelli declined to comment on the scope of the investigation; at least one player who would seem an important person to interview tells THR that no one has been in touch.
Columbia University law school professor John Coffee says a company dealing with scandal has an obligation to look into what happened to determine whether any corporate funds were misused. If so, he says, “I would tell them they have to claw back [the money] or come up with a good explanation for why they have not.” NBCU declined to comment.
While Silver’s fate seems to be of scant interest to his contemporaries in the industry, Meyer still has friends who fret about his future. His downfall came as a shock to many who still feel loyalty or gratitude to him even after having learned more than they ever wanted to know about the depths of trouble that he made for himself. “He was the best of the best for all of us,” says one longtime former associate. “The idea that he did this to himself when he didn’t need to is the heartbreaking part. That’s the cautionary tale.”
This story first appeared in the March 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.