First Published: 2012-03-15

 

Oasis Film Fund looks to Arab investors to get big stories to big screen

 

Saladin, big-budget period biopic, is among titles in first slate of films planned by Oasis Film Fund, which was announced in February by Twickenham Film Group.

 

Middle East Online

By Alex Ritman - Abu Dhabi

Statue depicting famed Arab leader Salaheddine

As sunset begins to cast an amber glow over the olive groves of the Holy Land, the sound of spear on shield quietens from the deafening clangs of before. With Richard the Lionheart's forces vastly depleted and retreating towards Ascalon on the Mediterranean coast, the armies of Saladin regroup victoriously, confident that Jerusalem will forever be secure and the Third Crusade, a three-year bloodbath, is drawing to a close.

The famed Arab leader, the tactical mastermind behind the triumph, surveys the proceedings on horseback from a dusty hillock. Clad in war-weathered armour, Saladin remains expressionless, his long, grey-speckled beard rustling gently in the evening breeze. Pausing for a second before heading down to congratulate his weary soldiers, he turns towards the camera and … hang on, is that, it is … it's George Clooney with exaggerated eyebrows!

It might sound a little far-fetched, but this scene could soon be beaming from a cinema screen if the plans of one UK-based film investment fund come together. Saladin, a big-budget period biopic, is among the titles in the first slate of films planned by the Oasis Film Fund, which was announced in February by the Twickenham Film Group. The fund - which has set an initial target of raising £200m (Dh1.15 billion) is looking specifically to Arab investors who want to get involved in the expanding British film industry, now the third largest cinema market in the world with box office sales of £1bn last year.

"Our fund is going to be a long-term rolling one that will fund high-quality British films and co-productions," explains James Black, executive producer at the Twickenham Film Group, who adds that the three best sources of funding are currently China, India and the Middle East.

"It could be that we'll completely fund a production, and even put in the P&A (prints and advertising) money, to control it and bring in more return for our investors, or we could bring in a co-producer. It's going to be used in various ways for various productions."

One of the first major productions on Oasis's horizon is Saladin, the screenplay of which is currently being developed.

"It's going to cost somewhere between £50m-£70m and we're planning to shoot about 80 per cent of the film in Jordan, with the rest and post-production done in the UK," says Black. "It's going to have a big cast, big-name director, huge costume cost, huge location expenses. It's a big film."

The story will centre on the third crusade between 1189 and 1192, particularly the war of attrition between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, and the mutual respect they developed for one another.

"They had this incredible chivalry," claims Black, adding that while history suggests they never actually met face-to-face, the screenplay will see it happen.

"We're looking at having a workable screenplay probably around the start of summer, and once a director is attached and the funding is coming in to roll it along, we'll reach out to Ralph Fiennes for Richard the Lionheart and George Clooney for Saladin."

Clooney might not be the first image that springs to mind when picturing a mighty 12th-century Arab leader. If the historic illustrations are to be believed, he's going to have to grow a beard vastly more impressive than the relatively fuzzy one he managed for Syriana.

Also, given that Black adds that through the Oasis Film Fund they hope to meet Arab talent and would "love to discover a new Omar Sharif", it seems like a hugely missed opportunity. There are local names - such as the Egyptian actor Amr Waked - who would appear better suited to the role and still have the experience of big-budget western productions.

"Our original plan was to search for an Arab star," admits Black. "But when we started to talk to Arab investors, they said that it must be a big western name. You also have to bear in mind that we have to appease the distributors as well. You come down to the Hollywood problem of 'who is the director, who are the leads?' "

Aside from Clooney, there are numerous other A-listers in the crosshairs for Oasis's other planned productions. The script for Rachel and Talal, which Black describes as "like Driving Miss Daisy", sees an elderly New York Jew living in London strike up an unlikely friendship with a devout Saudi student. While Black hopes to scour the Middle East to find the young star for Talal, he says Barbra Streisand is the main target for Rachel.

Interestingly, Black says that the talk of Streisand - who last year sang at a fund-raising gala dinner for the Israeli Defence Force - hasn't raised any concerns so far from potential Arab investors.

For The Rock Pile, a film set in modern-day Jerusalem that is ready to go into production this summer with full funding from Oasis, Black says they are looking towards "Leonardo DiCaprio, Sean Penn or possibly even Brad Pitt" in the lead role.

The plot sees a Time magazine writer in a cafe watch three boys throwing stones at each other. "One is an Arab boy born into a fundamentalist family, another is a Christian Arab and the other is a Jew," explains Black.

"And these boys hate each other because of what's been bred into them by their families." The writer - Bob - starts talking to the kids, eventually buying them a football. "And these boys start to develop a bond and they forget all their prejudices and become the most fabulous friends."

The story might be considered a rather crude portrait of life in the occupied territories for many, with issues such as the continued evictions of Palestinian families across East Jerusalem to make way for Israeli settlers perhaps too much for a simple football to overcome, however poetic it may sound. But Black says that they're working with Mark Foligno - who was an executive producer on The King's Speech - so it could well have audience appeal.

Among other films potentially in the pipeline are Land Beyond the Sea, another crusader era epic that stretches history further by having Saladin and Richard the Lionheart unite to take on the legendary Nazari assassins. Then there's Ivanhoe, an adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's story of the Saxon knight who returns to England after defeat in the Third Crusade and includes renowned characters such as Robin of Locksley.

"It's going to be a 2012 version of Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves," says Black, who adds that it'll be made in 3D and that they'll look towards Colin Farrell to play the film's main villain.

Away from the region, Black mentions smaller-budget productions, including a teenage dance film and a biopic about soul singer Dusty Springfield.

While the £200m target won't fund the 10 films in the initial slate, Black says the money will help get things moving. "What it will do is enable us to roll with the first productions, bearing in mind that it could very well be that we have co-production partners joining us on Saladin. But we want to exceed the £200m. Our plan is to build the largest Anglo-Arab production company."

The King's Speech, the 2010 British drama that swept international awards, is a prime example of the potential for investors. Producers initially struggled to raise the £8m budget, with both Film 4 and the BBC turning the screenplay down. The film eventually went on to earn £250m.

"The traditional investors are still investing in property, but are very mindful that property is not the safeguard investment it once was," explains Black. "So investors are now looking more to film, knowing that if you invest into a slate of, say, 10 films and three of those really hit the jackpot, the yield is going to be far greater than buying an office block in the city of London."

An office block in London or a beardy Clooney as a famed Arab leader? Given that Black claims the first tranche of money from a Gulf investor is in the contractual stages and talks are underway with another private equity investor from the region, it seems the decision has already been made.

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