Making a movie with Qadhafi
by Josh Kesselman
I thought I would share this experience from 2010. Back then, I was still working with the fantastic Principal Entertainment. The movie business was dead in the water (I do believe it’s coming back) and the only way to get an independent movie made those days was to find “outside the box” equity.
If there is one legacy I will leave behind in this business, it will be my crazy ability to find the most bizarre sources of equity. For those of you that don’t know what equity means, here is the definition: Equity – plural noun, rich people who don’t care about losing their shirts, who want to invest in a movie so they can meet movie stars.
We had this great script called Isolation. A contained psychological horror about a girl who wakes up in a hospital bedroom and cannot remember how and why she is there. A doctor with a mask on starts examining her which slowly becomes torture. Reveal – He is not a doctor! Great premise, a genre film and we can make it for a price. We also attached a director who had created a franchise that made people millions of dollars. How hard could that be to finance?
Well… We went from trying to make it for $5 million to $3 million and then after months and months of no traction, we all decided to make it for under a million dollars. Back then, that was revolutionary. To me, it felt like a really bad idea. We had a budget done and went shopping for equity.
I have a friend who worked as a consultant for private equity. I shared the script with him and he said “Eureka! I have a guy who is representing a very wealthy individual and he would love this – the only problem is, his money comes from Muammar Qadhafi’s son.” I remember, at the time, the only thing I really knew about Muammar Gaddafi was he dressed funny and always had amazon women standing around him. Oh yeah, he was a dictator too! So, we gave him the script and he flipped for it. He made us an offer to make the movie for under a million dollars. With no other offers or opportunities on the table, we decided to make a deal.
The good news is that the guy who repped the Qadhafi money is a nice Jewish guy from Miami, who took a trip to the Middle East and became very close to Al-Saadi Qadhafi (Muammar’s son). So, we were off to the races. We cast it, set a start date, and started to prep it to shoot in Los Angeles. We had a brilliant crew and a great cast. We hadn’t met Al-Saadi Qadhafi yet. Apparently, he has to get special permission from the State Department when he comes to the U.S. (This should have been the first sign!).
One night during our shoot, a dark sedan pulls up to our set. Two bodyguard types get out and open the door for a man wearing sunglasses. He was also wearing very expensive clothing and a watch that was worth more than our movie. Is this Al-Saadi Qadhafi? He walked up to us and introduced himself. “I am Kaled, Qadhafi’s chief of staff. He sends his regards and is sorry he couldn’t make it in person. How are things going? Spending our money well?”
For the first time on this movie, I was nervous. We were making a movie backed by a militant government of a country (Libya) that has been in and out of the news for 100 years. WTF did I get myself into? What if we lose all of their money? What if the CIA starts knocking on my door? What if… What if.
Kaled asked us to sit down and give him a report. “All is going well,” I say. So we start to have small chit chat. My partner on the movie, who is Jewish like me, decided to ask Kaled his thoughts on Israel. WTF?! Needless to say, the conversation went sideways. Finally, I pulled my partner away from the conversation.
Cut to post production – Arab Spring. Libya’s civil war is in full effect. Muammar Qadhafi is killed. Al-Saadi flees the country to Niger and our movie is frozen (the U.S. Government froze all of his assets and investments). My partner likes to joke and say “We bombed our investors!” Never thought those words would be spoken. What other business would that even be a topic of conversation?
I learned a lot on this one. It really forced me to look outside the straight business transaction of funding a movie. Anybody can fund a movie. I am very lucky this didn’t backfire on me in a major way. One of the challenges with today’s marketplace is that it really puts producers in a very desperate place of getting their movies financed. Desperation leads to bad decisions and bad decisions lead to compounding the problem of our marketplace.
For me, the personal journey meant recognizing that there is a world outside my business that isn’t just on the news. It is truly a world we all live in – whether you are Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Green or Blue.
P.S. Even though we had friendly debate about Israel, we were all still working together as colleagues.
Epilogue: We were able to finish the movie and you can find it on Time Warner “On Demand.” Al-Saadi Qadhafi still has an Executive Producer credit.