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Small Films, Big Drama

Woody Allen's dispute with his producer has put a harsh light on a once cozy relationship.

July 01, 2001|RACHEL ABRAMOWITZ | Rachel Abramowitz is a Times staff writer

Woody Allen was a month away from beginning principal photography on his upcoming release, "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," last year when he received a panicked phone call from his close friend and producing partner, Jean Doumanian. She told him there was a cash-flow problem.

It was an unusual predicament, given that in the seven years they had done business together, the dark-haired, dark-eyed 67-year-old appeared to have billions at her disposal. The money belonged to her boyfriend, Swiss-Lebanese financier Jaqui Safra, nephew of the late Edmond Safra, founder of the Republic National Bank of New York. When TriStar Pictures had gotten cold feet about handling Allen's films during the Soon-Yi scandal, Doumanian, backed by Safra, stepped in.

Now, according to two of Allen's associates, she announced that she needed to step out. In 1995, Safra had spent a reported half-billion dollars buying the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which in 1999 he was expanding online--at great cost.

She gave her longtime friend 48 hours to find new financing to save his production. Allen begged her to reconsider. He had an entire film crew working away on sets, casts and locations.

In the end, DreamWorks, which had cast Allen as a voice in the computer-animated hit "Antz," rode to the rescue, buying domestic rights to the next three Allen films. The German company VCL ponied up for the foreign territories.

For Allen, this was just the latest wrinkle in his dealings with a woman he'd once likened publicly to a Medici. Until this point, their professional relationship had been almost idyllic. She permitted Allen unparalleled creative freedom. He controlled everything from the casting to the final cut to the images that appeared on the video box. At least one former associate claims Doumanian didn't even read the scripts before green-lighting them. She practically never visited the sets and only saw the films when they were completed.

They were supposed to split all the profits after Doumanian and Safra recouped their investments, according to documents filed in the case.

Of course, the Medicis weren't like multinational corporations, subject to Federal Trade Commission rules and investor scrutiny. While Doumanian was immaculate in her dress and the way she decorated her offices and numerous houses, she and Safra were less than immaculate about some of the bookkeeping, never bothering, for instance, to send Allen the customary financial statements that studios usually send out quarterly, according to sources on both sides of the case.

After almost four years, Allen's business managers began to regularly ask Doumanian and Safra for an accounting, and eventually Allen himself asked.

"Jaqui would say, 'Jean will take care of it,' while Jean would say, 'Don't call Jaqui. He's very busy with the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I'll speak to him about it,"' says Letty Aronson, Allen's sister, who worked for Doumanian and Safra. "Woody's not good about pushing things with friends."

"I don't think they [Doumanian and Safra] were the most organized people when it came to paperwork," says Helen Robin, a production manager who's worked for Allen off and on for 15 years. "I've tried to close the books on the last films since 'Mighty Aphrodite' and haven't been able to because of missing paperwork. There have been a lot of things left hanging in the air."

Finally, earlier this year, Allen's manager, Steve Tenebaum, hired the auditing firm Sills & Adelmann to fly to Amsterdam, where Doumanian and Safra's production company is based, and elsewhere in Europe to examine the books.

Based on the auditors' report, Allen's business manager reckoned he was owed money--a figure close to $10 million--says a close associate of the director.

Allen, who continued to socialize with Doumanian and Safra, begged them to settle the dispute privately by taking the matter to an arbiter, but they refused.

"Up until the night before he filed the papers, he said, 'Don't make me do this,"' says Aronson.

In May, the writer-director finally sued not only their corporation, Sweetland Films, but Doumanian and Safra personally, in New York City. He claimed that Doumanian and Safra's accounting of the pictures was "false and misleading," and that the pair "breached, reneged on and failed to abide by their agreements to pay Moses [Allen's company] its agreed-upon shares of the gross profits."

Perhaps not surprisingly, Doumanian has taken the lawsuit very badly, friends say, feeling horribly betrayed.

"The worst thing Woody Allen did was to go beyond suing the corporation with which he had the contract and to sue his two old friends as individuals, embarrassing and subjecting them to media attack," fumes Bertram Fields, Doumanian's lawyer, who denies the charges on his client's behalf.

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