The Last Tycoon

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In mid-January, Milchan is in an ebullient mood. He has survived the worst storm of the century in Europe, holed up in his mansion in the French countryside for nine days without electricity, water, heat or telephone. “It was crazy. Here I was, a Jew in a storm. I slept 18 hours a day. It was great. Every time I woke up, I took a sleeping pill.”

Milchan is not cheerful simply because he has caught up on his sleep. He has just received the ratings numbers for his new sitcom, Malcolm in the Middle. “We’re going to save the Fox network,” he says gleefully. But television and movies are only part of the big picture for Milchan. He promises that another substantial acquisition is in the offing but with typical secretiveness declines to disclose any specifics. In the meantime, he has masterminded a merchandising deal between his sneaker company, Puma, and 13 pro football teams, including the St. Louis Rams and the Tennessee Titans. Much to Milchan’s delight, the Super Bowl rivals performed in front of an estimated TV audience of 130 million sporting Puma patches on their jerseys.

“It’s the synergy between films, music and sports,” Milchan tells me. “That’s where the future lies.” And his model is Murdoch’s News Corp., which in addition to its Fox Sports Network also owns the Dodgers. Rather than spend 20 years building a sports company, Milchan saw Puma as a shortcut into the sports world, using his movies and Murdoch’s TV programming to promote the brand name.

And, of course, athletes have to be doing something while they wear his shoes, so Milchan spent $120 million to acquire nine-year television rights for the Women’s Tennis Association Tour. This was potentially an even better fit with Murdoch’s worldwide television interests. For Milchan, the tennis deal had all the ingredients of a movie—stunning women, glamour, exotic locations. At the time of the deal in 1998, he suggested using movie costume designers to outfit his female players. And to prove that tennis had the requisite sizzle, he showed up at the French Open with supermodel Naomi Campbell and at Wimbledon with Kevin Spacey.

Milchan’s deal with Fox also assures him a level of financial security. With Murdoch’s $200 million investment and a subsequent $600 million line of credit from a team of banks led by Chase Manhattan, Milchan is well into mogul territory. Although New Regency has been in more of a start-up phase than a production mode at Fox and has yet to have a hit, he expects the company to eventually finance about nine pictures a year. Squelch, directed by film noir master John Dahl, will be released this summer; Joel Schumacher’s Tigerland and Big Momma’s House, starring Martin Lawrence, are in production.

With a 15-year distribution arrangement at Fox, Milchan is unlikely to make any moves to acquire another studio, as he did with MGM. “If you buy a studio, you’re going to be under intense scrutiny,” says one former studio head. “And Arnon’s got most of his assets tied up in foreign entities. They would take a close look at all that. Also, running a studio means collective decisions with a board and all that, and I don’t see Arnon as being one who likes to consult with a lot of people. I think he’s better off doing what he’s doing.”

“Arnon gets to do what we all dream about, but you can’t if you’re running a studio,” says former Warner Bros. cochairman Terry Semel. “You can’t run Warners or MGM from France. He is a superb producer—brilliant at putting people and things together—but he’d have to trade it all if he became a corporate officer.”

And for all of his wheeling and dealing, Milchan is not a corporate creature. He continues to spend only a few days a month in L.A.; the rest of the time, he is flying between Paris, Monte Carlo and Tel Aviv, often visiting stars on the sets of his movies. He loves reading scripts and jet-setting with the talent. Although he’s not always involved in the day-to-day operation of his company, he still retains the final say on all New Regency product.

In 1994, for his 50th birthday, his longtime paramour produced a video tribute based on his need to conquer and please, titled Natural Born Seducer. Hollywood stories, probably apocryphal, suggest he built a tennis court for one Industry executive and bought a house in the south of France for another. “Arnon has three great assets,” Sergio Leone was fond of telling people. “Charm, charm, and charm.” I get a chance to see this firsthand. Days after I mention my interest in Mideast politics, particularly in Morocco, Milchan calls to invite me to a birthday party for Moroccan King Hassan II’s son, who has since ascended to the throne. “Now I’m working for you,” he jokes.

The next day, he has chartered a jet for the flight. “I’m nervous,” he says. “This will be my first time to an Arab country. You know I have an Israeli passport.” We are met at the airport in Rabat by one of the court’s ladies-in-waiting. Before the party, Milchan and his son run off to the beach for a swim. Still in his shorts and T-shirt, Milchan drops in at the home of the king’s chief adviser, Andre Azoulay, a Moroccan Jew who had previously been a political prisoner. In the space of two hours, Milchan announces his intention to invest in Moroccan agriculture and in starting a new media company. Azoulay is so impressed that he calls and notifies the king midway through the meeting.

Later that night, at the prince’s party, an event as lavish and surreal as any Fellini movie, Milchan mingles easily with the polylingual glitterati, imported Eurotrash and powers that be. After leaving Morocco on a hired jet, he lands at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, helicopters to his home in Montfort l’Amaury, sleeps two hours, helicopters back to the airport, jumps on the Concorde to JFK and then another helicopter to a waiting boat in East Hampton for a weekend cruise with his children, then heads off to L.A. for the premiere of one of his films. “Arnon is too smart to waste life on pessimism,” says his old friend Shimon Peres. “But he is more than an opportunist; he’s an opportunity creator.”

Indeed. A few years back, during Benjamin Netanyahu’s hectic first visit to the States as Israel’s prime minister, Milchan somehow wangled a dinner date with him. Never mind that Netanyahu had ousted Peres, whom Milchan had spent election night consoling. Not one to let stones gather moss, Milchan was eager to offer congratulations. Charmed, the new prime minister took time out of his frantic schedule to accompany Milchan to a specially arranged screening for the producer’s latest film, A Time to Kill. Even for a social magician like Milchan, the evening paid a handsome dual dividend—cementing a relationship with Israel’s new leader while garnering a fresh dollop of buzz for his film. “No one but Arnon could get Netanyahu to go to his movie. No one. That’s his genius,” says Gordon. Even Gilliam agrees. “Arnon could be king of the world—if he only stopped doing petty, stupid things.”


This feature originally appeared in the April 2000 issue of Los Angeles magazine


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