Like many of his compatriots, 26-year-old Saudi producer Mohammed Al Turki could have played it safe and stayed in the oil and gas business — after all, Al Turki, who since 2010 has had a hand in shepherding seven U.S. pics, including “Arbitrage,” comes from a country where cinemas are banned by conservative clerics.
“We don’t have movie theaters,” the Hollywood-based Al Turki says. “But trust me when I say that Saudis have a vast knowledge of film; they will give you movie history from Hitchcock to Fellini to David Lynch.”
His passion for moviemaking was stoked when a director friend, London-born, New York-educated Zeina Durra gave him the script for her “The Imperialists Are Still Alive!” and asked him if he wanted to produce it.
Durra’s Manhattan-set pic, unspooled in Sundance in 2010, and was picked up by IFC for Sundance Selects. Its success at fests opened a lot of doors for him, Al Turki says.
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Not long after “Imperialists” bowed, Al Turki, helmer Nicholas Jarecki and producer Kevin Turen were discussing “Arbitrage” in the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Polo Lounge. Al Pacino was attached to the pic at that time, but the role eventually went to Richard Gere, and Al Turki ended up executive-producing the pic. “Arbitrage” scored some $22 million worldwide at the box office and has been a hit on VOD, grossing another $11 million, according to Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate, which teamed to distribute the pic.
Al Turki has developed a close working relationship with Justin Nappi and Turen’s Treehouse pictures, the shingle behind “Arbitrage.” They’ve collaborated to produce two other projects, Ramin Bahrani’s Zac Efron-starrer “At Any Price,” which Sony Classics will release in the U.S., and helmer Scott Coffey’s upcoming Emma Roberts and John Cusack-starrer “Adult World.”
Coming from a wealthy family, Al Turki is active in international charities, including the Elton John AIDS Foundation, AmfAR and Cinema for Peace. “It’s about goodwill,” he says. “But of course I meet a lot celebrities through these charities, and in a way, networking is key.”
At the Abu Dhabi film fest in October, the producer, dressed in a traditional long, white Saudi thawb, introduced “Arbitrage,” and talked of his dream to bring Hollywood to the Middle East. “In the Gulf region, where we tend to be conservative, film can be taboo. We are changing that,” he said.
Pressed about plans for making an Arab movie, Al Turki maintains he needs to keep learning about the business in Hollywood, but says he would love to make his mark some day with a film about Islam.
He cites Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust pic “Schindler’s List” as his model. “I cried during that film, even though I’m from this region,” he says. “I have to build myself, and build my name worldwide. And then I will create something like that.”