Forget, for a moment, the new cars (Ferrari, Rolls, Porsche), the new art collection (Warhol, Ruscha, Kelly) and the almost-new hilltop Los Angeles mansion (bought from Jennifer Lopez, fully furnished, for $12.5 million in cash). Sam Nazarian, a 29-year-old mogul-in-the-making, is proud of these little trophies, and he plans to buy many more of them, but his favorite acquisitions are the ones he can't show off just yet. They include nine restaurants and clubs in L.A. designed by Philippe Starck; at least 10 additional nightspots and hotels in New York, Miami, Las Vegas, Berlin and London; and several feature films, beginning this fall with Down in the Valley starring Edward Norton, which Nazarian got rolling with a check for $9 million.
It's a well-known fact that the most glamorous investments often prove to be sucker's bets. And by simultaneously pouring money into three notoriously high-risk businesses—nightclubs, hotels and movies—Nazarian might seem destined to lose not just his shirt, but also his entire wardrobe of Stefano Ricci blazers and True Religion jeans. He's got a plan, however. “By being very methodical and trying to mitigate all risks, you can find a way to have these strategies make sense,” he says. The business model for Nazarian's company, SBE (which stands for SamyBoy Entertainment, after Nazarian's childhood nickname), takes the idea of synergistic branding to the extreme: Picture celebs like Norton and Leonardo DiCaprio starring in SBE movies, sleeping in SBE hotels and partying in SBE nightclubs—and the moneyed masses dutifully following along. DiCaprio, for one, has already put in plenty of face-time at Nazarian's two current L.A. clubs, Shelter and Prey, both of which became favorites with the Hilton-Lohan set shortly after they opened.
Nazarian's own sudden appearance on the Los Angeles scene has many people wondering where he came from. In fact, he's been right there all along. His father, an Iranian construction kingpin, lost a huge fortune during the 1979 revolution but quickly built an even bigger one in L.A. as an early investor in the tech giant Qualcomm. Sam, the youngest of four, was an obsessive entrepreneur even at Beverly Hills High School, where he used to resell fake I.D.'s that he'd bought from the owners of a Hollywood pool hall. “It was always the hustle,” he says. “I never wanted to get money from my dad.”
After attending New York University and getting wait-listed at Wharton, he launched a successful Nextel franchise at 21, then began overseeing his father's sideline real-estate operation. Nazarian père would surely be proud of his son on this spring afternoon, as he sits in SBE's high-gloss headquarters on Beverly Boulevard, in the building that formerly housed Madonna's record label, Maverick. Madonna's old office was too small for Nazarian, so he set himself up across the hall, where he can make the windows overlooking the courtyard turn opaque with the touch of a button. On the walls are seven large TV screens tuned to CNBC, ESPN and live video feeds from Prey and Shelter. A few doors away, a film editor is making the final changes on Down in the Valley, which screened at Cannes to strong reviews.