THE NAJIBS NOW PARIAHS IN HOLLYWOOD: RIZA’S RED GRANITE IN TROUBLE AS TOP STAFF QUIT & LEO DICAPRIO SNUBS FILM OFFER AHEAD OF DOJ’S NEXT MOVE

Almost 12 months ago in Cannes, sales banner Red Granite International was parked in one of the film festival’s more glamorous spots, moored just off the Palais in the rented luxury yacht The Indulgence of Poole.

It had good reason to be there: courting potential buyers for Papillon, the high-profile Charlie Hunnam-starring remake of the Steve McQueen classic then being prepped by its production arm Red Granite Pictures, the producer of 2013 hit The Wolf of Wall Street.

But Cannes 2016 would be a turning point for Red Granite. On day two of the festival, reports emerged that the FBI was investigating luxury properties bought for co-founder and chairman Riza Aziz in New York and Beverly Hills, with claims “at least $50 million” had been allegedly diverted from the Malaysian investment fund 1MDB. The story became one of the talking points of the event.

Just two months later, the allegations moved onto a more official platform, with the U.S. Department of Justice issuing a record-breaking seizure complaint that put Aziz – who also happens to be the stepson of Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak – at the center of a major corruption scandal that purportedly saw billions siphoned from his own country and around the world. Not only were luxury properties involved, but Red Granite, too, with allegations that $238 million found its way from the 1MDB fund into Aziz’s bank account and then used to set up the company and fund Wolf of Wall Street, which was among the assets the DOJ was looking to seize.

Although there has been little public movement from Red Granite since Cannes – beyond the expected statement responses denying that any funds received were “irregular or illegitimate” and saying that it was cooperating with authorities – an announcement made April 26 offered the first hint as to its uncertain future.

Christian Mercuri, co-president of Red Granite International, revealed he would launch a new production, finance and sales company called Capstone Group, bringing with him his fellow co-head Danny Dimbort as a sales consultant. More interesting in terms of Red Granite was the news that Capstone had a three-year deal to sell Red Granite Pictures’ titles.

Although representatives wouldn’t confirm when asked by The Hollywood Reporter, the move effectively renders Red Granite International redundant, with another entity now employed to manage its parent company’s international sales. Mercuri himself, when speaking to THR about the launch, said that he “didn’t know” what the company would do with the Red Granite International name.

While the new banner could be perceived to be a clear attempt by a sales company to distance itself from the potentially toxic brand of Red Granite, which has become a regular presence in the media thanks to the DOJ and developing Malaysian allegations, Mercuri claimed that the decision was more regarding the production banner’s output.

“[Red Granite] spent so much time developing and focused on the quality of production that they don’t do as many films as they originally hoped,” he said, adding that “being in one house and putting pressure on that house to provide a certain amount of product wasn’t beneficial or the right setup.”

 

Mercuri and Dimbort were part of a trio of significant poaches from Avi Lerner’s Millennium/Nu Image banner when Red Granite made its rather bold introduction to the industry in 2011 (with a million-dollar launch party in Cannes where Kanye West sang onstage with Jamie Foxx, no less). The company also swooped in on Millennium Films’ production head Joe Gatta to look after its slate, and made some impressive assertions about its future, claiming it intended to produce four to five feature films a year.

“With Danny, Christian and Joe on board, we feel we are in a great position to grow the company, establish a significant footprint in the global film arena and ultimately build a strong brand,” said Red Granite co-founder Joey McFarland at the time.

But this significant foothold has so far failed to take shape. Alongside Wolf of Wall Street, which was an indisputable hit – especially internationally – with box office of more than $390 million, there has been Dumb and Dumber To in 2014, which resulted in a fiery legal dispute with the producers of the original, and Daddy’s Home, in which it was a 50-50 financier with Paramount, in 2015. Smaller titles include Friends with Kids (2011, landing two years before Wolf of Wall Street), Horns (2013) and Out of the Furnace (2013).

But since the Papillon remake was revealed in October 2015 (shooting wrapped in December 2016), no new projects have come out of Red Granite – a rather ominously quiet 18 months for a company looking to produce four to five titles annually.

Production president Gatta had jumped ship by the time of the Papillon announcement, leaving the company in March 2014 and the first high-profile exit. As for Aziz, the Red Granite chairman and co-founder – cited by name in the DOJ complaint – hasn’t been seen publicly in the U.S. since December 2015 at the Daddy’s Home launch in New York. Since the seizure filing, he appears to have relocated back to Malaysia, spotted in the background on several of his embattled stepfather’s official state visits.

With Aziz seemingly having no current involvement in Red Granite except on paper, the company now looks to have been left to McFarland to run. Indeed, it was the former celebrity booker, thought to have been originally introduced to Aziz via Jho Low, the flamboyant Malaysian alleged to have been the architect of the whole 1MDB corruption scandal, who offered the parting quotes for the exiting execs Mercuri and Dimbort.

“We are thrilled to continue working seamlessly with Christian and Danny selling our films internationally through their exciting new venture,” he said in a statement.

But what these films will be is very much unclear.

 

 

In Cannes last year, THR heard that the company had been touting The General, a “massive George Washington movie,” Aziz described back in 2015, with sources saying that they were pitching Leonardo DiCaprio as the lead star to buyers. But DiCaprio is still unattached, and given the fallout from the DOJ ruling and the Wolf of Wall Street scandal, where the actor was referenced as “Hollywood Actor 1” and his name subsequently dragged through the media mud over his friendship with Low and connection to the allegedly corrupt money, he may choose to avoid the company again. (DiCaprio’s Appian Way offices are on the very same floor as Red Granite’s on Sunset Boulevard.)

Red Granite had been down to co-produce the Daddy’s Home sequel, now shooting and starring Mel Gibson, Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell. But it is now unclear whether it is involved, and Paramount hasn’t answered THR’s questions regarding whether Red Granite would again be on board as co-financier. McFarland’s own Instagram page, usually awash in pictures of films he’s working on (including the first Daddy’s Home), has so far been silent regarding Daddy’s Home 2 or any new projects.

Speaking to THR, Mercuri said he was confident new Red Granite films were coming. “They are working on a few, but nothing that they will announce today,” he said. “But we’ll see in the very near future.”

Reps have repeatedly rejected requests made by THR to speak to McFarland about the future landscape for Red Granite and its upcoming slate, meaning that only educated speculation can be relied upon.

With Mercuri and Dimbort having left, are Red Granite’s party-going Cannes days over, just six years after one of the most audacious launches in recent memory? Is the perceived closure of Red Granite International merely, as Mercuri suggests, due to a focus solely on production, or is it part of the gradual shuttering of an under-fire company that had a brief, albeit noisy, foray on the scene? And will Papillon be Red Granite’s final cinematic hurrah, or are there indeed more films coming?

Watch this space.

– The Hollywood Reporter

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