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Ryan Kavanaugh Is Back, Ready to Dish on His Failures, Brett Ratner and a Secret Lil Tay Project

Ryan Kavanaugh has a new podcast about failure. By his own admission, he’s got “plenty of failure stories to tell.” The once high-flying thirtysomething mogul quickly turned into a Hollywood pariah when his Relativity Media sputtered into bankruptcy in 2015. Though he co-financed more than 200 films including “The Social Network,” “Mama Mia!” and “The Fighter,” he is best remembered for his foibles (DUIs, the algorithm that could divine box-office hits until it couldn’t, and enough lawsuits to keep the lights on permanently at a large Century City firm). Now 49, he’s quietly staging a comeback, producing influencer-led films like the upcoming Bryce Hall-50 Cent satire “Skill House.” And he boasts a majority stake in the video platform Triller, a TikTok rival that was poised to go public in 2021, never did, but may still.

With the podcast “Failure,” which bows today from Manifest Media, Kavanaugh sits down with a range of guests — from Hollywood rabbis to influencers with mega-followings to, yup, Nigel Lythgoe — to explore the dynamic of why public failures can lead to redemptive triumphs over 24 episodes. It’s a formula Kavanaugh hopes applies to his own case given his very public implosion. The Los Angeles native and father of two sat down with Variety via Zoom to discuss his career, with all of its highs and lows, as well as a secret Lil Tay project he was backing before her own bizarre spiral.

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What prompted you to do a podcast?

Kavanaugh: I’ve had my ups and downs. The older I get, the more comfortable I get in my own skin. The more I talk to people around me and my true friends — many of them are arguably the most successful at what they do. But the one thing that’s always common is they failed a lot. And I realize nobody’s talking about that. The glossy world that we have to live in with these two-minute sound bites about how great everything is, the failures get lost. I’ve been offered big money from some of the larger podcasts to talk about making movies and building a studio or the sports agency or the TV business or any of the above. And it really wasn’t what I was interested in talking about.

So, is this a way of embracing your very public failures?

Kavanaugh: It’s not my successes that define who I am. It’s my failures. And the successes are the little brief things that happened between failures. I didn’t know if the podcast was just going to be me talking and telling stories. I have plenty of failure stories to tell. But what ended up happening as I reached out to [potential guests], no one had asked them to talk about their failures before. They kind of felt like they weren’t allowed to talk about failure. With the episodes that are already banked, I’m not talking that much. It’s people who are at the top of their field and the best at what they do, and it’s so interesting to hear the stories of how harshly and deeply they failed to get where they are. And they really haven’t been allowed to talk about it.

Who are some of the guests we can expect?

Kavanaugh: Nigel Lythgoe, who obviously is going through his own stuff right now. But, he’s co-creator of ‘American Idol,’ creator of ‘So You Think You Can Dance,’ and his story is pretty incredible. Obviously, he’s right now going through another challenge in his life, but I think he’ll come out of it strong. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Bryce Hall, who is arguably the world’s most famous influencer right now — 22 years old and has 50 million followers. And we have Chris Johnson, who’s the coach to the best of the best in the NBA, like he teaches LeBron how to get better. Then Rabbi Leder, probably the most important rabbi in our right now in L.A., maybe in California, and influences the highest of the Jewish community and has such an important voice and best-selling books and so on. The first question I ask is, ‘Tell me about your first failure.’ And some of these podcasts last two or three hours because to actually open up and get into what their real first failure was sometimes takes a long time.

Does the podcast mean you’ve paused your return to producing movies?

Kavanaugh: No pause. I finished the first movie with 50 Cent and Bryce, [the horror satire ‘Skill House’]. It’s almost fully posted. We’re starting the second one, which I can’t announce yet, but it’s a big one. The second and third are starting simultaneously. I’m loving it because it’s back to the old days where I’m making the movies, in L.A., where I can be home, have dinner with the family every night.

You’re a majority shareholder in Triller. What are your other current investments?

Kavanaugh: What’s interesting is I blended a lot of them into Triller. So, the [Mike] Tyson-[Roy] Jones fight was mine. I produced it and I put it inside Triller, even though it was independent of Triller. And that is now the highest-grossing digital pay-per-view of all time and the sixth highest-grossing pay-per-view of all time. And that was my first foray really into doing a boxing event. From there we did Jake Paul.

Triller was supposed to go public in 2021. What happened? 

Kavanaugh: So, it was done. We were actually doing a reverse merger with a company called SeaChange via an S-4. And we announced it, we had the S-4 filed with the SEC. And then the market collapsed. Every social media/entertainment stock dropped. So, for about a year, that whole market was just dead. So we had to kind of regroup. And that’s when I got less involved. About a year ago, it started pursuing a path of what’s called a direct listing S-1. And it was only about a month ago, the board asked me to get back involved and help spearhead because it was having some problems, just getting the last pieces through. So, I came in and helped them, and I’m very optimistic they will get an approval very soon. This would be NYSE.

I can’t think of another person who has been involved in more litigation than you — both as a plaintiff and a defendant. And you’ve been sued for fraud multiple times. Why are you such a magnet for lawsuits?

Kavanaugh: I don’t know about being a plaintiff because, generally, I don’t sue. But I don’t back down, and I’m pretty vocal. I stand for what I believe in. I was writing op-eds, in 2014 and taking out front-page ads on Hamas in the Hollywood Reporter and Variety, and I didn’t make a lot of friends. But I can’t help but speak my mind. The litigation in the last three years — it sounds like a lot, but it’s just I sued a YouTube blogger I’d never heard of until this. With Triller, the only part that I was really actively involved in and still am is the Fight Club and bare-knuckle boxing, which is now the fastest growing combat sport. And it was being pirated. So the company Triller, not me, went after people who they could see pirated and made money off of the [fights]. And one of those companies was this professional troll with like 7 million followers. All he does is attack people. He’s done now 59 podcasts on me and started a whole subreddit. He was telling the world that I’m suing him, when actually Triller has gone after him for piracy. I was getting death threats, my ex-wife was getting death threats, my kids were getting death threats from his followers. So I sued him for defamation. I won the anti-SLAPP. In the last three years, that’s the only lawsuit that I really had of any substance. When you’re in business, you’re always gonna have nuisance suits. And it happens to be very public. Triller just prevailed on two of its cases against him for piracy. I have no involvement in it.

In the middle of the Relativity bankruptcy, Kevin Spacey was named chairman. Then he dropped out. What really happened?

Kavanaugh: Netflix retaliated. During the bankruptcy, Kevin did a video for the judge that we showed in court where he had signed and accepted the job and was talking about how excited he was to be chairman. Long and short is that Netflix wanted out of their agreement with [Relativity]. They kept suing over and over and over. They were trying to do everything they could to get out of the agreement. The judge knocked it down hard. But I was told Netflix wrote Kevin a much bigger check than what his check was gonna be for ‘House of Cards’ and that he was prohibited from taking the Relativity job. I guess in the long run, it was a good thing.

There were a lot of Relativity creditors who were not paid and are still angry at you. What do you say to them?

Kavanaugh: I definitely made a lot of mistakes back then. We were very aggressive, very fast, and for a decade it worked. I definitely should have slowed down a bit. We took on hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars of debt, and I didn’t have to do that. I think I got so caught up. I didn’t think about the consequences of what happens when you hit a roadblock. What happens when it doesn’t go your way. Our movies didn’t work for a couple of years. People thought I was an asshole. My wedding, I had Leo [DiCaprio] and Bradley [Cooper] and Gerry [Butler] and [Ryan] Seacrest as my groomsmen. And the press turned so fast on me. And the creditors turned so fast to me. I take responsibility for it. But 100% of our debt, except for one party, got paid. Ron Burkle made hundreds of millions of dollars. It was Anchorage, Kevin Ulrich’s company, who put us into Chapter 11. But I didn’t have to take all that debt. I didn’t have to try and grow as fast as I did. I didn’t have to try to go public. I also look back and think I don’t know if I would have fought it so hard in court to get Relativity back. I got back six movies that sat waiting to be put out while they got stale and a lot of negative press during that two-year period. I could have took a check in a production deal and let the creditors take it over like they did with MGM. But I couldn’t do it. It was like, ‘No, this is my baby.’

You were working on a project with Lil Tay before her death hoax and had her life rights. Have you been in touch with her since all that weirdness?

Kavanaugh: I have not. She was such a fascinating character at such a young age. And she had this heart issue at the time, and they were trying to raise some money for her heart surgery. Then we kind of lost touch. She was having her heart procedures and we were going to touch base after that, and then next thing I know I heard about that death hoax.

Does the death hoax make you wonder if the heart issues were actually real?

Kavanaugh: I honestly haven’t thought about it much. I wonder now that you just said it. They wanted me to help them raise some money around this heart thing, which, thank God I didn’t go to other people and just used my own money. Her story was a very compelling one, young kid, very talented, social media star, got a lot of popularity for the wrong reasons but was trying to come back for the right reasons. Compelling particularly in the context of what we’re talking about with failure. She was just raised really wrong. She didn’t have the right influences in her life.

You sparred with Natalie Portman over Gaza. Are you still active with the Israeli cause? 

Kavanaugh: More so than ever. But I didn’t make friends being so outspoken then.

In 2016, you went on a tweet storm one night pre-#MeToo calling Brett Ratner a rapist, a year before he was accused of sexual misconduct. You quickly took down the tweets. What happened behind the scenes?

Kavanaugh: Honestly, Marty Singer reached out to me on his behalf and just said: You don’t want to get into a legal battle. I can destroy you. And if you just take the tweets down, then I won’t do anything about it. And I actually had a really hard moral dilemma about it because I knew it to be true. But I just didn’t need more litigation.

Who are you still close to in the industry?

Kavanaugh: Michael Bublé. Jon Feltheimer. He’s always been just an incredibly loyal, great friend. Gerry Butler, I’m still tight with. Leo, I stayed close with. Ron Burkle. He’s my son’s godfather. He was just up here for dinner last week. I’d say through all this, I learned who my friends were because they were my friends, and I learned who my friends were because of what I could do for them. And anybody who wasn’t my friend because of who I am, will never be back.

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