Tunisian’s roots run deep

Ben Ammar takes his brand of big thinking into new directions

Tarak Ben Ammar took a risk on 'The Passion of the Christ,' distributing the Mel Gibson pic in France when money shied away.

Harvey Weinstein calls him “boss.” Rupert Murdoch, Silvio Berlusconi and Saudi Prince Al Waleed bin Talal call him friend.

He shot to fame distributing Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” in France when many Gallic distributors wouldn’t touch it.

Whether sitting on the Mediaset and the Weinstein Co. boards or advising Prince Al Waleed’s investments in Mediaset and News Corp., Tunisian-born Tarak Ben Ammar has built a reputation as a big deal broker.

But, after 35 years making films at Tunisia’s Carthago Film Studios and 20 at Paris-based Quinta Communications, Ben Ammar is moving from helping others build empires to constructing his own.

The Cannes Festival will see some high-profile moves from him.

Quinta will be introducing Jean-Jacques Annaud’s next pic, “Black Thirst,” one of Europe’s biggest film projects, and launching its Independent Film Division, headed up by former Variety international editor Ali Jaafar, a push to take Arab film production to the next level.

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StudioCanal-Tessalit production “Outside the Law,” from Rachid Bouchareb, a minority Quinta co-prod, screens in competition.

In 2010, as Hollywood scours for new sources of financing, much is still made of the promise of the Arab world: Think Imagenation Abu Dhabi’s revolving development finance for Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald.

Ben Ammar, however, has done it his way. And without oil money. While still expanding his native Tunisia base — for example, his Nessma TV, launched in 2009, is the first private, truly independent satellite channel in North Africa — Ben Ammar with Quinta is the only Arab to have established a film-TV empire in the heart of Europe.

In person, sitting on his boat, My Satine, moored on Cannes’ Palais-side Albert Edouard jetty, Ben Ammar is engaging. And very busy. He’s 60, but his media empire is still in the making, and over the past decade, many pieces have fallen into place.

Starting in 2002, Quinta has mopped up key Gallic post-production companies, buying French vfx specialist Duran Duboi and a 43% stake in Eclair Group, France’s 100-year-old post-production house and lab.

In 2002, Ben Ammar opened Empire Studios in Tunisia, with a stretch of ancient Rome as a permanent set. The de Ben Arous studios and the Gammarth post-production facility and lab followed.

Ben Ammar burst into Italo TV in 2003, becoming one of its five operators, buying two channels from Rupert Murdoch’s Telepiu.

Back in France, Quinta opened Quinta Distribution in 2004, releasing Gibson’s “Passion,” then in 2007 purchased top Italo distrib house Eagle Pics.

Further growth can go in multiple directions, Ben Ammar says. “Television is the cash-cow of films and revenues,” he says. His Italo TV interests — Sportitalia, an ESPN-style service, Sportitalia 24 and his Dfree DTT bouquet — clock in with around ?40 million ($53.9 million) operating profits a year, he calculates.

So he plans to integrate his TV assets with production, distribution, technological and studio interests.

Ben Ammar has high hopes for growth in North Africa, which, even excluding Egypt, has 90 million of the Arab world’s 330 million inhabitants. He is “still working” on establishing a pan-European distribution network.

Some of Quinta’s strategies go back 35 years. At Tunisia’s Carthago Film Studios, servicing “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” he says he “started showing other producers how to make their movies at lower costs than could be done elsewhere.”

In 2010, Quinta can exchange, in part, not just services but studios, post-production and distribution for equity in a film.

Ben Ammar’s story is hardly rags-to-riches. He was born in 1949 into a well-heeled “liberal, non-religious, tolerant family,” he says, part of the Tunisian elite.

His life is also surrounded with the aura of legend, and colorful anecdotes. And much even seems true.

Yes, he did meet Silvio Berlusconi on Tunisia’s Hammamet beach and instantly connected with him, observing that they were due to dine together at then-Italo prime minister Bettino Craxi’s home.

In film, the ultimate networking business, Ben Ammar’s career underscores the importance of connections and the proximity to power. A few years after the beach meeting, it was Berlusconi who founded Quinta with Ben Ammar.

When Ben Ammar helps out, people naturally appreciate that and warm to him.

Already a Weinstein Co. board member, in 2005 he invested $15 million in the company.

“Tarak has always been a true gentleman personally and professionally, which is why he has been successful for so many years,” says Harvey Weinstein. “He has been a compassionate and great partner to all of his filmmakers. I look forward to working together for another 20 years.”

Now teaming with Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp to launch the Paris Studios, France’s answer to Germany’s Babelsberg, Ben Ammar remains well-positioned for the future in other ways.

“I’m a man from the south who succeeded in the north and did not forget his roots,” he says.

Ben Ammar remains at heart a movie producer. Making “La Traviata,” he says, was one of his greatest achievements.

With Avenue Hoche offices, by Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, he is based out of one of the filmmaking hubs not only of Europe but, increasingly, the independent film business worldwide.

“America has disappeared. Japan has disappeared. But you can finance movies up to $30 million out of Europe,” he maintains.

The man from the south has come a long way. But he’s not done yet.

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