The ambitious $55m oil epic Black Gold is emblematic of the rising ambition of film-making in the Middle East. Geoffrey Macnab speaks to producer Tarak Ben Ammar about mounting an international epic on which he first started work more than 30 years ago

It is now more than 30 years since Quinta Communications founder Tarak Ben Ammar first optioned the rights to Hans Ruesch’s 1957 novel The Great Thirst, which is finally being brought to the screen with Jean-Jacques Annaud directing. The story follows the rivalry between two Emirs in Arabia in the 1930s just as oil is being discovered, and chronicles the rise of a young, dynamic leader (played by A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim) who unites the various tribes of the desert kingdoms.

Production on the $55m Black Gold began in Tunisia in October at Ben Ammar’s Empire Studios and on location, and lasted until the new year. Tunisia’s violent political upheaval in mid-January did not affect the film’s schedule though it was in production close to one of the towns caught up in riots.

After the Tunisian shoot, the film decamped to Qatar for four weeks of location shooting. Co-produced by Qatar’s Doha Film Institute, the English-language Black Gold is emblematic of the rising ambition of film-making in the Middle East, combining story and financing from the region with international stars such as Antonio Banderas and Freida Pinto — as well as a host of Arab actors and crew.

“I’ve always been a big fan of Lawrence Of Arabia,” says Ben Ammar about what drew him to Ruesch’s book. “I said to myself that there needs to be a movie about the Arabian Peninsula that takes it from Lawrence Of Arabia.”

In the late 1970s, the Tunisia-born Ben Ammar was an unknown young producer helping service international projects such as Star Wars, Raiders Of The Lost Ark and the Lew Grade-produced Jesus Of Nazareth which came to shoot in North Africa. Despite his relative inexperience, he nearly managed to get an adaptation of Ruesch’s novel into production with Algerian director Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina and a cast which included Robert Powell, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif, Richard Harris and Ornella Muti. Paramount was keen but would only finance a third of the project and wanted it shot in English.

“I went around the world trying to raise money from the Arabs, saying ‘This is a picture about you guys, come on.’ They’d laugh at me. They didn’t care about film. This was the days of the oil boom…nothing to do with culture. I probably saw every billionaire there was then and every bank that existed.”

The film did not happen but Ben Ammar — who founded Quinta Communications with Silvio Berlusconi in 1990 and has been involved with films ranging from The Life Of Brian to Chromophobia, The Passion Of The Christ to Hannibal Rising — renewed his option on the novel every five years in the hope he could relaunch the film.

A perfect match

Enter director Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Name Of The Rose, Enemy At The Gates), who had been hoping to make a period film in North Africa. “I was=introduced to Tarak 30 years ago,” Annaud says. “Aware of his connections in the Middle East, I approached him three years ago while developing a project set in Libya in the early 19th century.”

Ben Ammar was not ready to support that project but he told Annaud about the Ruesch novel. “That’s how it started. He loved it.” The next step was to recruit Menno Meyjes — screenwriter on The Color Purple, Empire Of The Sun and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade — to write a new screenplay.

In May 2010, Ben Ammar took the project to Cannes to test out the market. “I was saying to myself, ‘How am I going to interest distributors?’ They might tell me, ‘Who cares about a young Arab in the desert in 1930.’”

Ben Ammar met with all the leading independent buyers in Cannes. “They all offered something but to my disappointment it was never as much as I had put in my ask. It was always 60% under or 50% under. I thought, ‘my God, the financial crisis has really hit foreign sales… or is it my movie?’” But he was encouraged that the buyers had all wanted the film even if they were unwilling to pay the asking price.

The script had also been sent to Christian Grass, president of international production and acquisitions at Universal Pictures International (UPI). Grass and his team were immediately enthusiastic. Meanwhile, Richard Fox, executive vice-president, international at Warner Bros, and Iris Knobloch, president, Warner Bros Entertainment France, were as keen on the project as Grass. “That to me was a big surprise,” Ben Ammar acknowledges. In October last year, Quinta announced that Universal was taking Germany and Spain while Warner Bros was on board for France, UK, Latin America and the Middle East (Quinta Communications’ Eagle Pictures is to handle Italy).

“A second major — it has never happened to me,” Ben Ammar reflects on the backing of Universal and Warner Bros. “They’re not competing in the same territories. There is an interactivity between them. They’re both feeding me great ideas for marketing. They all want the picture to be a success.”

Another key piece of the financing jigsaw fell into place when Ben Ammar brought the Doha Film Institute (DFI) aboard. The DFI is providing 30% of the equity. In 1978, when Ben Ammar approached Arab investors, he was turned down everywhere. In 2011, he notes, the situation is very different. Independent TV stations have been mushrooming throughout the Arab world, which has woken up to new media opportunities.

‘Studios need international product at independent prices. That creates opportunities for producers like myself’

Tarak Ben Ammar

“I don’t like the idea that Arab money should be seen as stupid money,” Ben Ammar says. “We’ve seen Hollywood in the past take money from the Japanese, the French, the Italians. I could go on. [Qatar] listened to me and I didn’t want to take them for a ride just because they were a rich country. I hope Black Gold is the beginning of a different kind of film financing about a different world on different subject matters,” he says.

“I love shooting in countries which allow me to open my heart to other cultures. Tunisia is a French-speaking Muslim country with a Mediterranean way of life. Shooting there has been an incredibly warm and gratifying experience — including the last unexpected events,” Annaud says, making reference to the recent political upheaval.

Studio partnerships

In 2008, Ben Ammar outlined his vision for a pan-European distribution network. Three years on, in the light of Black Gold, the Quinta boss has been refining his strategy — and factoring in studio involvement. “I still believe there is room for multi-territory distribution but I have discovered it can be a partnership with majors,” he says. “The studios need international product at independent prices and that creates opportunities for producers like myself. I’m happy to supply the studios with that type of product.”

Black Gold is set for release in Europe and the Arab world in December. Certain key territories (including the US) are not yet sold and footage is likely to be presented to buyers in Cannes.

“I didn’t want to undersell,” Ben Ammar declares. “The picture is so big, so spectacular, so surprising that on the page is not like on the screen.”

He adds that having two majors as well as Qatar on board is a reassurance after all these years. “Maybe I am right. I am not the only crazy guy trying to make a dream after 33 years. You could be obsessive and in denial. It could have been a disaster to make this movie. The test was the majors.”

Black Gold

■ Budget: $55m
■ Production companies: Quinta Communications, Doha Film Institute
■ Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
■ Producer: Tarak Ben Ammar
■ Screenplay: Menno Meyjes
■ Cast: Tahar Rahim, Mark Strong, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, Riz Ahmed