Ten Billionaires Who Were Stung by Hollywood

March 10, 2020
You hear a lot about billionaires who have “conquered” Hollywood – Joseph Kennedy, Howard Hughes, Rupert Murdoch, Jeff Skoll, Steve Jobs. Not as well remembered are those billionaires who enjoyed less success in la-la land.

Stephen Vagg runs his eye over ten in particular who got scorched by the movies – even when they made good ones.

1) Melvin Simon

You might recognise the logo of Mel Simon Productions on films in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. Simon was a self-made man who earned a fortune developing malls, and decided to blow it on movies. He actually proved pretty good at it, having some massive hits – When a Stranger Calls, Love at First Bite, Porky’s were all blockbusters – and even financing some classics, like The Stunt Man.

Too many of his movies lost money though, like Zorro the Gay Blade, Chu Chu and the Philly Flash, Cloud Dancer and the boxing kangaroo comedy Matilda.

Simon’s legacy as a movie financier is actually very good – he just lacked a library of past titles to provide him with a diversified cash flow to ride out the bad times (every independent suffers from this problem) and eventually bailed from the industry in the early 1980s to become even more filthy rich in the property game. Still, the movies remain.

(For whatever reason, property magnates don’t always thrive in showbusiness – Australia’s super successful Frank Lowy of Westfield fame took a bath when he owned Channel Ten in the late 1980s).

2) Kerry Packer

Everyone knows Kezza made a fortune from TV (ah, remember those days?), but few realise he had a stab at movie making (apart from whatever funds Channel Nine kicked in to various projects over the years, that is).

Packer teamed with Phillip Adams to make several films in the early 1980s for Adams-Packer Film Productions. This resulted in one classic – Lonely Hearts – a well-ish received version of We of the Never Never – and some flops that finished the company: Kitty and the Bagman, Fighting Back and Grendel Grendel Grendel… Kerry went back to TV. Which is a shame because I feel he had the courage, cash and gambler’s instinct to make a good film mogul.

3) Elie Samaha

Born in Lebanon, Samaha emigrated to the US and lived the immigrant dream – made a fortune in dry cleaning, bought the Roxbury nightclub, married a movie star (-ish… Tia Carrere), started investing in movies, had the odd success (The Whole Nine Yards), but most of his stuff either went straight to DVD (Dolph Lundgren vehicles, lots of mid-period Seagal, lots of Tia Carrere movies) or became legendary fiascos: Battlefield Earth, the Get Carter remake, A Sound of Thunder, Alex and Emma. He did help finance some decent David Mamet thrillers.

4) James Packer

Who knows what sort of legacy James Packer is going to leave when he shuffles off this mortal coil, but I maintain the films he helped finance via his Ratpac-Dune Entertainment Company, which he ran with Brett Ratner from 2013 to 2017, will stand out among the more positive achievements. The slate of films includes Gravity, The Revenant, Birdman, Creed, The Lego Movie, American Sniper, Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla.

Even if Packer (apparently) mostly invested to party with Ratner – this was during his Mariah Carey years, and google “Charlotte Kirk” while you’re at it – that is a very strong run.

Eventually, flops turned him off Hollywood as they tend to do with billionaires: Jupiter Ascending, Pan, In the Heart of the Sea, Collateral Beauty etc. But for me these films are still a better contribution to society than a bunch of casinos and Packer Jnr should be proud of what he helped make.

5) Lew Grade

I’m kind of cheating by including Grade in this list because while he was rich, he never became a billionaire. But I wanted to talk about him because if anyone was well positioned to crack Hollywood it was Sir Lew, who had pioneered making TV shows with an international focus – The Saint with Roger Moore, The Muppets, the Zeffirelli Jesus,  etc – and knew how to presale, and back hunches, and had excellent relationships with distributors and sales agents and all that stuff.

Grade went into feature filmmaking in a big way in the mid ‘70s via his company ITC Entertainment and had some early huge successes – The Return of the Pink Panther, Capricorn One, The Muppet Movie. He had some later huge successes, too – On Golden Pond, Sophie’s Choice – but in hindsight made too many generic mid-Atlantic adventure films (The Cassandra Crossing, Green Ice, Escape to Athena, Love and Bullets), and was ultimately sunk by some big flops – Raise the Titanic, The Legend of the Lord Ranger – and an ill-advised attempt to set up a distribution network in the US (Associated Film Distribution). His company went bust, Grade’s career never recovered.

6) The investors in The Cotton Club

Producer Robert Evans knew a lot of high flyers, several of whom he sweet talked into investing in his legendary gangster misfire The Cotton Club. These included the famous Saudi Arabian arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi and casino owners Fred and Ed Doumani. These richies lost their money when Club went bust but at least they lived… Another, less wealthy investor, Roy Radin, wound up murdered.

7)  Pierre du Pont

Remember that creepy rich guy Steve Carrell played in Foxcatcher? He was a member of the hugely wealthy Du Pont family, whose members also included Pierre Du Pont… who bankrolled the films of Samuel L. Bronston in the 1950s and 1960s. Du Pont, clearly not the brightest tool in the shed, granted Bronston unlimited credit for his spectacles, shot in Franco’s Spain. There were some hits – King of Kings, El Cid but the inevitable flops brought them down – Circus World, Fall of the Roman Empire, 55 Days at Peking. Bronston went bust, Du Pont sued, and the family kept Pierre away from anything important from them on.

8) Reverend Moon

The leader of the Unification Movement aka The Moonies made a fortune through his various interests in South Korea, some of which he blew investing in Inchon, a notorious 1982 flop about the Battle of Inchon in the Korean War… a movie that proved that every actor has his price and Laurence Olivier’s isn’t too high.

9) William Randolph Hearst

Hearst inherited a fortune, which he spent revolutionising American newspapers in the Rupert Murdoch mode… but he never had Murdoch’s success in movies, in part because he spent far too much time subsidising the career of his mistress, Marion Davies. Davies actually had a lot of talent, but in comedy, while Hearst wanted her in drama. He lost millions propping up her flops such as Cain and Mabel. Still, their relationship led to Citizen Kane.

10) Meshulam Riklis

An Israeli-American finance whiz who popularised leveraged buy outs and high yield bonds, but is most remembered in Hollywood for subsidising the career of his one time wife, Pia Zadora, financing what became a legendary trilogy of camp: Butterfly, The Lonely Lady and Fake Out… all of which have plenty of slightly pervy scenes of Pia that are vaguely uncomfortable to watch. The marriage didn’t last, alas, but at least Pia has the Golden Globe for Best New Talent which Riklis famously (basically) bought her. All the films became cult classics, which at least is something.


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