Think you know Woody Allen? Think again. The hard-driving double-dealer he’s been made out to be in the trial with ex-friend and producer Jean Doumanian (an echo of the sleazy two-timer persona of his custody case) is a little off. Everyone knows his movies haven’t done well, but what no one could have known before last week is how powerless and desperate he had become.
In the beginning, everybody was doing everyone else a favor. It was 1993, in the middle of the Mia Moment, and TriStar was asking Woody to do the unthinkable – not to make his annual movie, or at least to delay it six months. He turned to his friend Jean, who was looking to build momentum in her own producing career. She looked to her longtime love, Jacqui Safra, a famously private member of the billionaire Safra family. (“Can any of us really know Jacqui?” Marshall Brickman, a sometime collaborator of Allen’s, once remarked. “He’s protected by a wall of immense solvency.”)
What no one knew at the time, of course, was that Jean Doumanian was getting Woody Allen at a discount. In the TriStar days, which ended in 1993 with Manhattan Murder Mystery, Woody got a half-million dollars for each movie and 15 percent of the gross, starting with the first dollar. With Jean and Jacqui, Woody got a raise – kind of. He got $1.5 million for Bullets Over Broadway and $2.5 million for each picture after that.
The somewhat Faustian bargain was that instead of getting a gross back-end deal, Woody would get 50 percent of his movies’ profits – which, in the movie business, are notoriously hard to account for. What was clear was that Woody Allen was basically giving up his back end in favor of money up front. It’s the act of a man who is getting older, perhaps, but also the act of a man who acknowledges that he’ll perhaps never have another smash. He was changing careers from de facto co-producer to hired help.
Naturally, he doesn’t see it this way. On the stand, Allen mentioned other factors – like prestige, Oscar nominations, the ability to use himself as bait to bring in other filmmakers. It’s Woody as loss leader – Woody as the hood ornament on the Bentley. “I believe,” he said, “there’s a profitability that keeps companies gobbling me up whenever I’m free.”
But despite how Jean catered to his every creative whim, there’s little doubt now that the woman who once scored jobs because she was Woody’s friend had become his boss. In court last week, it became known that to avoid U.S. withholding tax, Jacqui transferred all copyrights of Woody’s films made with Jean to a company he owned called Blanvale Investments in the Virgin Islands. Woody Allen – the man who famously eschewed studio interference – had relinquished the copyrights to his films.
The problem for Allen had become not creative control but cash flow. Life got more expensive for him in the nineties. He was in and out of court for the custody case. He was marrying Soon-Yi Previn. They adopted children. He sold his $14 million penthouse (he had asked for $15 million) – and bought a $17 million townhouse. By August 2000, MGM had picked up the rights to all eleven of his 1982 to 1992 Orion Pictures catalogue (including Crimes and Misdemeanors, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Zelig) for an undisclosed sum; once again, he was selling his back end.
At about the time he bought the house, his business manager, Stephen Tenenbaum, pressed Sweetland Films, Doumanian’s company, for money. But the well, according to Jean, was dry. The day before preproduction was supposed to begin on The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Woody says, “Jean called me up and said that Jacqui couldn’t afford to be in the movie business.” It was TriStar redux: Jean asked Woody to put off the movie. Friends of Jean say Woody asked for $2 million while he waited, and an extra $2 million once he started. “He was thinking, You’ve got the money, I want the money, my accountants tell me I should get the money, give me the money,” says Dee Ito, a friend of Jean’s. “I don’t think he really thought it would lead to this.”
Maybe it had to end this way. The past nine years have been the performance of Woody’s life. He can still make the pictures he wants, but for some time now, they haven’t been his pictures at all.