By Shawn Tully
October 21, 2017

When the embattled Weinstein Co. issued a press release on October 16 announcing a life-saving capital infusion, its official spokesperson wasn’t chairman Bob Weinstein. It was a Tunisian dealmaker, who, though relatively little known, ranks as one of the most influential players in global entertainment.

In the statement, Weinstein director Tarak Ben Ammar spoke on “behalf of the board” to welcome a financial lifeline from Colony Capital, the venture capital arm of real estate fund Colony NorthStar, declaring that the deal would provide “critical comfort to our critical distribution, production and talent partners.” Note the emphasis on “critical.”

The bailout reportedly emerged from marathon negotiations over the previous weekend, led by Ben Ammar and Colony’s chairman, Tom Barrack, who’d bought the Weinstein’s first studio, Miramax, from Disney, and recently entered the spotlight as a close friend and adviser to President Trump. Put simply, Ben Ammar is perfectly cast as the new face of TWC as it seeks to salvage and re-brand its business following the image-blackening accusations of co-founder Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual harassment.

The Franco-Tunisian financier occasionally produces films. But Ben Ammar is most influential as arguably the industry’s leading strategic adviser, a trusted counsel to media titans from Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi to France’s Vincent Bolloré to the English-speaking world’s Rupert Murdoch. His selection to be spokesman suggests that the board, and the new investor, are looking to Ben Ammar to rebuild relations with the actors, directors, and distributors who’ve already dumped the old WFC, or are planning to bolt.

Epics in the desert

Ben Ammar’s role is especially intriguing to this reporter, because as I first met him as young entrepreneur providing crews and sound stages for sword-and-sandal Hollywood epics in the Tunisian desert. Ben Ammar had turned the dusty resort town of Sousse on the coast of Tunisia into a low-cost, one-stop place to make movies. As I said in the story that I wrote about him in 1985, “Business is so good the European press has called him the Arab Samuel Goldwyn.”

Tarak Ben Ammar right, with Silvio Berlusconi and Anna Craxi in Tunisia, 1984.
Umberto Cicconi—Archivio Cicconi/Getty Images

From a prominent Tunisian family––his aunt was married to the father of Tunisian independence, President Habib Bourguiba––Ben Ammar graduated from Georgetown University, and in 1975 launched a movie servicing business in Tunisia. What he lacked in facilities was more than made up by Tunisia’s vast empty deserts and scenic coastlines. His studio, Carthago Films, provided everything from costumes to catering for such productions as “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Star Wars,” and the European miniseries “AD.”

When I visited Sousse, Ben Ammar was both servicing and producing the comic swashbuckler “Pirates,” directed by Roman Polanski and starring Walter Matthau. For the production, Ben Ammar commissioned construction of a full-scale, seaworthy Spanish galleon, that as I remember, he later sold to Walt Disney to be used at one of its theme parks. That sale was the doubtless the most profitable thing about “Pirates,” a famous flop. Still, Carthago was highly successful, servicing by the time I’d met Ben Ammar over 45 films with non-union crews at far lower costs for scenic location shooting than in the U.S. or Europe, and even edging out a leading rival for vast, empty deserts, Israel.

Ben Ammar was the antithesis of a Hollywood bad boy. He was a lanky, immensely personable tee-totaler who excelled as at selling scenic but underdeveloped Tunisia as a world-class movie set to the film world’s Spielbergs and Lucases. On the set of “Pirates,” Matthau affectionately declared in W.C. Fields intonation, “He’s more of a preppy than an Arab,” to which Ben Ammar quippingly retorted, “I’m a preppy Arab.”

Around 1990, Ben Ammar shifted from servicing and production to dealmaking. In 1995, he counseled Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia on his investment in Mediaset, and became a board member of Berlusconi’s media conglomerate. In 2003, he helped arrange Murdoch’s purchase of Italian channel Telepiu from Vivendi of France, paving the way for Murdoch to launch Sky Italia. Last year, Ben Ammar brought Vivendi and Mediaset together in a deal that marked Vivendi’s entry into the Western European pay TV market outside of France. He’s also ventured beyond entertainment, arranging for Bolloré to became the largest shareholder in Italian investment and commercial bank Mediobanca.

It’s likely that given the Weinstein Company’s cratering reputation and finances, it needed to pledge its best assets in exchange for the infusion from Colony. It’s unlikely that Colony risked unsecured equity. Instead, it may have provided a loan against the extensive film library, featuring such award-winning titles as “The King’s Speech” and “The Iron Lady.” Those are indeed valuable holdings.

But it’s uncertain that TWC could possibly rise again as a production powerhouse under Bob Weinstein, whose reputation has also been tarnished with allegations of sexual harassment, as well as charges that he knew about, and tolerated, his brother’s predatory behavior. The task of attracting the teams essential to making and distributing hit movies may fall to Ben Ammar, who’s just the kind of goodwill ambassador TWC needs right now.

Ben Ammar shares many friendships in the Middle East with Barrack, who’s of Lebanese descent and started his career as an attorney to princes in Saudi Arabia. It will be fascinating to watch how this pair works to rebuild the wreckage from the corporate version of a disaster movie.

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