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Just a few weeks ago, things were looking pretty bad for The Revenant, the epic period-piece with a budget estimated to have climbed to $130 million or higher, and they weren’t looking great for the movie’s lead financier, Arnon Milchan, either.
Milchan had placed his biggest bet ever on the film. Just four years ago, he restructured his company, New Regency Pictures, taking over as chairman from Bob Harper and Hutch Parker and bringing in former Paramount executive Brad Weston to head production. But Revenant looked as if it was hemorrhaging money and was destined to lose even more.
The film was being flayed in the press, thanks to going way over budget and necessitating such a grueling shoot that one producer left the production altogether, while the crew had to transfer to a new location in a different country just to find snow. There were even rumors that Leonardo DiCaprio was going around in a real bear skin, and that the movie would show him being raped by the bear. (Both wrong.)
“Revenant went into production in September and was supposed to wrap in March,” The Hollywood Reporter reported in July 2015. “But cameras still will be rolling into August as the budget has climbed well past $95 million, with insiders predicting it will reach or exceed $135 million. Crewmembers say they have seen huge turnover, including many who were fired and others who quit.
As costs soared, Regency appeared to have fallen into the role that United Artists played on 1980’s Heaven’s Gate, the disastrously expensive follow-up to Michael Cimino’s Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter, which almost destroyed that studio. Like UA, Regency had no choice but to keep shelling out cash, or else kill the picture altogether.
Milchan was Revenant’s biggest backer — though Brett Ratner and James Packer’s RatPac paid for a chunk of it, as did China’s Alpha Pictures and Abu Dhabi’s Empyre. It was Milchan who was stuck with the cost overruns.
Revenant so dominated industry chatter that nobody paid much attention to another Regency-backed endeavor, Paramount’s The Big Short, which was off the radar at a time because the studio was still talking of releasing the project, produced with Brad Pitt’s Plan B, in 2016. The idea of financing a comedy about the financial crash seemed absurd, though nowhere near as absurd as making a nine-figure art film like Revenant.
How quickly things change.
First, Paramount moved forward The Big Short’s release to Dec. 11, and it started drawing raves. Then Revenant — which initially opened in exclusive engagements on Dec. 25 — went wide on the weekend of Jan. 8, taking in a stunning $38 million and almost knocking Star Wars: The Force Awakens off its perch as the No. 1 film at the box office. And finally, both pictures received multiple Golden Globe nominations, with Revenant winning for best drama, director and drama actor (DiCaprio) on Jan. 10, claiming the Oscar frontrunner status that had previously belonged to Spotlight.
Now, with 12 Oscar nominations, Revenant leads the pack for the upcoming Academy Awards and is the frontrunner for best picture, in the opinion of several awards prognosticators (this one included). At the same time, Big Short has earned nominations for picture, director Adam McKay, supporting actor Christian Bale, editor Hank Corwin and writers McKay and Charles Randolph.
That’s not only an impressive turnaround, it’s also a huge vindication for Milchan, whose company stands a good chance of winning its third best picture Oscar in three years (following 12 Years a Slave and Birdman).
Who shares the credit will provide cocktail party conversation for weeks; it certainly makes Regency’s president and CEO, Weston, look good. But the buck stops with Milchan, whom director Alejandro G. Inarritu called “the hero of this film, [who] bravely didn’t flinch one second when we struggle[d] with tough decisions to make.”
The Israeli-born producer-financier is nothing if not complicated. A businessman whose vast interests cover sports (he’s an avid tennis player and a big investor in Puma AG), Milchan also has been involved in Israeli politics (he was with Shimon Peres on the night the politician thought he had been elected prime minister, only to discover the next day that he had lost the election).
Milchan inherited a floundering fertilizer business from his father when he was still a young man, then turned it into a chemical empire. He’s a global jet-setter who is now married to his second wife, Amanda Coetzer, a former professional tennis player from South Africa.
A recent book by journalists Meir Doron and Joseph Gelman — Confidential: The Life of Secret Agent Turned Hollywood Tycoon Arnon Milchan— claimed that Milchan was a former Israeli secret agent who had been involved in arms dealing, often to the benefit of the Israeli government.
Milchan acknowledged such in an interview with Israeli television’s Uvda, noting that, “In Hollywood, they don’t like working with an arms dealer, ideologically,” adding, “I should have been aware of that, of what I’ll go through, and said, ‘F— you. You know what? I did it for my country, and I’m proud of it.’ ”
His involvement with Hollywood began when he made friends with director-producer Sydney Pollack, and went on to produce such hits as Pretty Woman and L.A. Confidential. Other Regency pictures have included Fight Club, The King of Comedy, JFK and Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
When Regency took a pummeling and backed a slew of failures including The Fountain, My Super Ex-Girlfriend and Deck the Halls (all in 2006), many felt Milchan had taken his eye off the ball. Then he surprised insiders and even his colleagues at 20th Century Fox (where Regency is based) by shaking up the company in 2011.
It has slowly come back to life, though. Regency was a cautious backer of 12 Years a Slave, putting in just a small part of the movie’s total budget, before investing more heavily in Birdman.
Nothing, however, has come close to its make-or-break funding of The Revenant. If it wins the best picture Oscar, insiders believe Regency’s library value will soar. And so will Milchan’s reputation.
Observers of the billionaire producer are now watching to see if his next big-budget venture, Assassin’s Creed, can build on his recent good fortune. Adapted from the video game, and starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, the movie is due out next Christmas, giving Milchan a whole year to revel in his current success.
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