It’s the kind of headline you double-check for The Onion in the URL: “Leonardo DiCaprio Surrenders Marlon Brando’s Oscar.” “‘Dumb And Dumber To’ Was Funded With Stolen Money.” But they are in fact real. So what’s going on? The answer is a story that reveals how little Hollywood cares about the money as long as the check clears.
It all starts with 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, first founded in 2009 by, among others, Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak. 1MDB is a fairly typical creation, a wholly-owned government corporation designed to go out in the world and get foreign countries to invest in Malaysia. You can find these in any country in the world, but the problem, as you might have guessed, was how the billions the firm had to spend were handed out. Right from the beginning, Malaysian politicians were suspicious of how the company performed. It constantly changed auditors, was opaque in its dealings, and brought journalists and anti-corruption advocates to its door, smelling fraud.
Which brings us to Red Granite Pictures. Founded by Riza Aziz, coincidentally the stepson of the prime minister, a year after 1MDB, Red Granite had modest beginnings. It released its first movie, Jennifer Westfeldt’s Friends With Kids in 2012 and followed that up with the Christian Bale thriller Out Of The Furnance. Red Granite, determined to make a splash, then surprised everyone by funding Martin Scorsese’s 2013 The Wolf Of Wall Street.
In Hollywood, nobody asks where the money comes from. Sure, maybe it was a bit unusual Red Granite was showering DiCaprio with gifts like $13 million worth of fine art for him to auction off to charity, and Marlon Brando’s Oscar for On the Waterfront as a collectible, when their last two movies had been modest successes at best, but hey, Scorsese! Oscar nominations! The check cashed! Who cares?
Somebody, perhaps, should have. The Justice Department alleges a shell company in Abu Dhabi, responsible for over a billion dollars of Malaysian taxpayer money, wired $238 million of it to Red Granite’s bank account. It also appears that Red Granite productions like Daddy’s Home and Dumb And Dumber To got money directly from this shell company.
That puts both the movies and anybody involved in them squarely in the crosshairs. Technically speaking, the paychecks of everyone on those movies, up to and including their stars, could be taken back by the Malaysian government if it can be proven they knew something was rotten with how the films were funded. Of course, that can be hard to prove, and if it can instead be shown that DiCaprio, who also produced The Wolf Of Wall Street, had no idea he was making a movie with stolen money, he can keep his paycheck. But he may yet have to go to court and show what he knew and when he knew it.
As for Red Granite, its corporate offices disclaim all wrongdoing, but it seems unlikely it’ll recover, even with the sequel to Daddy’s Home arriving this November. But really it’s only a matter of time before another Red Granite comes along. Everyone wants to be a star, after all, even if they have to become a criminal to do it.