'Birdman' Financier Worldview: Anatomy of a Cannes Implosion

Christopher Woodrow, CEO of film-financing player Worldview, made a splash last year as an amfAR sponsor with Oscar contender 'Birdman' on the way. Then came charges of embezzlement, an email where he falsely said a colleague had died — and litigation. Lots of it.
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From left: Woodrow is on the outs from Redlich, Conners and Cestone.

This story first appeared in the May 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Christopher Woodrow's Worldview Entertainment finally had arrived as the 2014 Cannes Film Festival got underway — or so it seemed. The film-financing company, backed by Franklin Templeton heiress Sarah Johnson Redlich and New Jersey attorney Maria Cestone, was in postproduction on eventual Oscar best-picture winner Birdman, while The Search, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, was playing in competition. Woodrow and top lieutenant Molly Conners threw parties with The Weinstein Company and had pulled strings to co-sponsor the exclusive amfAR dinner.

But Cannes would mark the beginning of a very public and bizarre unraveling of Worldview. Even as Woodrow, a former investment banker, attended amfAR, his ouster was being plotted back in New York. When he returned, he was suspended and escorted out of the building without his belongings. A company that had amassed $350 million in equity and debt financing eventually was left in tatters after investing in 25 films, with ongoing lawsuits pitting the company's four key players against one another.

Now Woodrow is back in Cannes with a new film financing company, Vendian, that claims to have raised $100 million in equity. Vendian quietly has been putting money in a handful of high-profile titles, including Oliver Stone's Snowden; Johnny Depp's Black Mass, Matthew McConaughey's The Free State of Jones and Hacksaw Ridge, directed by Mel Gibson. The new venture poses the question: Can a film backer who so publicly flamed out at Cannes reinvent himself just a year later?

Woodrow's partner at Vendian is Michael Bassick, formerly co-CEO of PalmStar Media Capital, a respected film-financing firm. "We have developed a solid business strategy that will see us build a diverse portfolio of projects with worldwide appeal," Woodrow said in a statement. He declined further comment. CAA, which previously represented Worldview, advised on the formation of Vendian.

The fate of Worldview, where only Cestone and Conners remain, is far more precarious.

In March, it moved from its glitzy Manhattan office to New Jersey. By most accounts, it's winding down, and Birdman payouts have been frozen in the litigation. According to court papers filed by Worldview, a "whistleblower" at the company had stepped forward May 2, 2014, to allege financial impropriety by Woodrow. An accounting firm later conducted an investigation, resulting in a 217-page report that would provide fodder for a suit against Woodrow alleging embezzlement and improper compensation.

But in a sworn affidavit, Woodrow painted the allegations as pretext. "They jettisoned me when they thought they didn't need me any longer, since the film deals had already been cut and essentially all that remained was to collect the money," he said. Still, Woodrow's view doesn't match the stories of others, including Hoyt David Morgan, the company's ex-CFO, who said in his own lawsuit that Woodrow and Conners gave him the shaft at the 2013 Cannes fest when he began questioning their business practices — specifically, deal terms for the 2013 film Blood Ties, which cost the company $3.5 million (of a $25 million budget) and grossed just $40,000. Until Birdman ($103 million worldwide), Worldview's bets mostly were bombs such as April's Child 44 and Zach Braff's Wish I Was Here while Eli Roth's The Green Inferno has been frustrated by legal difficulties that have thus far prevented a wide release.

Redlich, who brought her own lawsuit in March accusing Cestone, Woodrow and others of gross mismanagement and duping her into sinking $25 million into the company, balked at how money was thrown wildly at films ($3.25 million for Warren Beatty's next project), sometimes with allegedly faulty projections. Worldview allowed a loan default on the 2013 film Devil's Knot, for example, while paying itself allegedly unauthorized management and producer fees.

Then there was the co-production and distribution deal with The Weinstein Co., which left Redlich fuming. The litigation claims that Woodrow authorized $6 million as "partial funding" to Weinstein for the upcoming Tulip Fever without proper documentation and against the advice of his CFO, Margaret Chu.

As for Woodrow, in April a judge ordered the return of his personal items from his former office. He is expected to launch additional projects at this year's Cannes.