Here are two names you don’t expect to see together: Moammar Gadhafi. Hollywood.
But guess what – they’re in bed, making movies.
Hollywood’s latest financial backer is the middle son of the Libyan dictator, Saadi Gadhafi, who is backing a movie production fund called Natural Selection to the tune of $100 milllion.
Mathew Beckerman, the CEO of Natural Selection, secured Gadhafi”s backing barely one year ago, and has lately won the Libyan’s agreement to accelerate his investment from an initial plan of 20 films over five years.
“He loves movies,” explained Beckerman in an interview in his suite on the seventh floor of the Carlton Hotel at the Cannes Film Festival, where he’d come to look for new projects. “He’s seen ‘Lost’ 30 times. He has stacks of DVDs of American films.”
The odd couple story of how Beckerman, 33, a New Jersey-born Jew, came to be backed by the billionaire son of one of the Middle East’s most notorious figures is an unlikely meeting of financial need with celebrity obsession.
But it’s become an actual friendship and, Beckerman insists, a viable business.
“He’s 35, gracious, nice – and really cool,” said Beckerman, who says the movies he makes with Saadi Gadhafi will be insistently non-political. (Gadhafi was not in Cannes and declined requests to be interviewed.)
The company has already co-invested in a $12 million-budget movie, “The Experiment,” and fully financed the $3 million “Isolation,” a thriller directed by Steven Kay (“The Shield”).
Beckerman’s plan is to make the mid-range budget movies that have largely disappeared as Hollywood’s major studios have focused on tentpoles, and independent studios have gone belly-up. The movies are positioned make money from foreign presales, tax rebates and domestic distribution.
In that environment, Beckerman has gotten pushback from some associates when they learn of the Gadhafi connection, but most accept it.
“It’s been challenging,” he said. “Initially when people hear it, they get concerned. But it’s money at a time when there’s very little equity out there.”
He added: “I told Saadi that for every person who won’t work with us, we’ll find one who will.”
Libya has become less of an international pariah since Moammar Gadhafi settled the Pan Am terrorist bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland in 2003, and the United Nations lifted sanctions against the country. (Libya apologized and paid compensation to victims’ families.)
The dictator and his famliy have vast amounts of personal wealth, fed by Libya’s natural oil reserves mainly sold to industrialized nations.
Saadi, the leader’s second-born son, had a career as a professional soccer player, and headed Libya’s soccer federation. He’s been known to have been pursuing a partnership in Hollywood for the past two years or so and his main occupation is working to build a free-trade zone in Libya.
According to a 2004 New York Times article, Gadhafi is president of World Navigator Entertainment, a movie production company seeking to invest in the Western film industry.
But Beckerman would do well to pay attention to past examples of the senior Gadhafi’s extreme unpredictabilityand disinterest in international laws. Some not in the far past: when another son, Hannibal, was arrested in Switzerland for attacking a hotel employee, Moammar embarked on a campaign of retribution.
The kerfuffle began a year ago, when Hannibal, Gadhafi’s youngest son, and his pregnant wife were arrested in a Geneva luxury hotel for beating two servants with a belt and a coat hanger (he’d been busted in both France and Italy for beating a woman, fighting a cop and driving drunk down the Champs Elysee at 90 mph — the wrong way).
Libya retaliated to the arrest in Switzerland by recalling some diplomats, suspending visas for Swiss citizens, withdrawing funds from Swiss banks, shuttering the Tripoli office of Nestle and threatening to cut off oil deliveries to Switzerland. Two Swiss businessmen were barred from leaving the country until Libya received an apology for Hannibal’s arrest.
Meanwhile, Saadi has never been to the United States, but Beckerman insists he will be coming to Hollywood.
“He wants to come,” said Beckerman. “He will absolutely come. He can’t wait.”
When Matty Met Saadi
When Beckerman set out to start a movie investment fund, he didn’t really plan to go much further than his cousins.
The 33-year-old former music promoter raised about $1 million from friends and family to get Natural Selection started in 2008. And he succeeded in securing $20 million in further commitments to launch a proper film production fund later that year.
That was in August 2008. By September 2008, as the global financial meltdown shook the world, “every person I had backed out,” he recalled. “It was a bloodbath.”
“I finally went to my grandfather. When he said ‘I can’t help you, I’ve just bailed out your cousins,’ I knew it was over,” he said.
But Beckerman was too far down the road in spending capital to give up. He flew to where money was – the United Arab Emirates – and met, he said, every “fake sheikh and scam artist” in the region.
In the process of meeting one big talker after another, someone offered to introduce him to Saadi Gadhafi. Beckerman was in Beirut waiting for a visa to go to Syria to meet more potential investors when his cellphone rang.
“Can you meet Saadi Gadhafi in Mauritius?” asked the caller.
“I said ‘yes,’ then hung up and had to Google Mauritius,” Beckerman recalled.
He flew to the spit of land off the eastern coast of Africa, and, dressed in a business suit, met Gadhafi, who was in flip-flops and a t-shirt.
“He started asking very specific questions about my business plan,” said Beckerman. “He had read it, understood it, asked about foreign sales.”
They talked for three hours. And Beckerman spent the next three months following Gadhafi around various Middle Eastern and African capitals, getting each of them more comfortable with the idea of a business partnership.
Beckerman is not particularly bothered by preconceived notions of Gadhafi family. He grew up as the only Jewish kid in an Irish-Italian part of New Jersey, teased because of his religion.
“I don’t judge people based on their background, religion, or skin color,” said Beckerman. “I’ve always been that way.”
And yes, Gadhafi knows that his partner is Jewish. On the day they met, he took Beckerman out to the beach for a private chat and asked him if he was. Beckerman confirmed.
“Great,” Gadhafi responded, Beckerman recalled. “The fact that you and will do business together will change perceptions.”