Tarak Ben Ammar, the president of Eagle Pictures, strolls into The Hollywood Reporter Roma studio at the Venice Film Festival in casual dress, polo shirt and pants, all in the same matching grey, except for pitch-black loafers.
“I love to walk,” he says, tutting about the state of disrepair of Lido landmark The Excelsior, which he just passed by and which is in dire need of renovation. “The Excelsior can no longer be called a luxury hotel,” he argues, before taking a seat to talk about his storied life in the movie business.
The Tunisian-French media mogul knows a few things about rebuilding. Ben Ammar acquired Eagle Pictures in 2007 and has turned the Milan-based production and distribution group into a European powerhouse. Exclusive distribution deals with Paramount and Sony Pictures have made Eagle Italy’s largest independent distributor, and Ben Ammar has leveraged his Sony deal to co-produce with the studio, teaming up on projects including Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer 3, the latest in the hit action franchise starring Denzel Washington, which was shot entirely in Italy.
Alongside new acquisitions — of local production house 302 Original Content and unscripted TV company Blu Yazmine — Ben Ammar has also announced plans to build a $50 million-plus studio complex in Rome. And, he tells THR Roma, he wants to shake up Italy’s staid cinema education system with the launch of a new public film school in the Lazio region.
Ben Ammar is a unique figure on the European film scene. Born in Tunisia in 1949, he first made his name in the industry as a local service provider, his Carthago Films working on the Tunisian location shoots for Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. He soon moved into production himself, with such features as Franco Zeffirelli’s La Traviata (1982) and Roman Polanski’s Pirates (1986). In 1990, he set up the production group Quinta Communications with old friend — and future Italian Prime Minister — Silvio Berlusconi. (Berlusconi died earlier this year).
“What I miss most about Berlusconi is his affection,” says Ben Ammar. “He used to kiss me, and I kissed him. One day he made a real declaration of affection to me. There are two kinds of love, that of family and that of friends. We became brothers at age 40. He died at 86. I am 74. A 12-year age gap between men is nothing. One day he hugged me in front of one of my children and told him, ‘I love your daddy so much’ which moved him. It was true, I loved him too! We have come a long way together. I speak of Silvio as I do about my parents who passed away – with a smile. He was a great man with me. I helped him; I saw how much he suffered because of politics, and I think his illness eventually came from there as well.”
Ben Ammar’s talents as a dealmaker made him stand out in the wild 1990s, when business empires were made and lost in the brave new world of European pay TV. He advised Rupert Murdoch on his entry into the Italian TV market, helped convince Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal to invest $400 million in Murdoch’s News Corp. and, in 1999, arranged for Berlusconi, Alwaleed and Lehman Brothers to invest $1.3 billion in German film and TV group Kirch Media (run by Leo Kirch, another old Ben Ammar pal).
“I had the good fortune to meet Silvio Berlusconi, Rupert Murdoch, Leo Kirch,” he recalls. “What did I learn from these giants who created empires on their own? Knowing how to listen. Silvio and Murdoch never interrupted you. Even if someone says something stupid, you have to listen. When I was young, I would often interrupt because I was anxious, I wanted to show how capable I was. Slowly, I learned that the real strength is listening. I always tell young people who come to see me: ‘Sit down and learn to listen.’ Those who can listen can learn a lot. Then, when you have the time to talk, you know the right things to say.”
Ben Ammar’s influence as a behind-the-scenes power broker has never waned. In 2017, as The Weinstein Company teetered on the brink of collapse, amid the #MeToo movement and the sexual assault cases against Harvey Weinstein, Ben Ammar was brought in by the TWC board to negotiate with creditors to avoid declaring bankruptcy. (TWC eventually did go bust, and its assets were snatched up by Texas private equity company Lantern Capital Partners).
The Tunisian entrepreneur said he tried to rescue the group from bankruptcy to help the TWC filmmakers and creditors get paid, but that he had no problem shutting the company down.
“I absolutely wanted to kick Harvey out for 10 years, not because of the sex scandals, I had no knowledge of them, but because he was a very bad manager of other people’s money,” Ben Ammar says. “On the [TWC] board I represented Bernard Arnold, WPP, TF1, Softbank. I was just in L.A. running The Weinstein Company, making sure people got paid, making sure to pay Quentin Tarantino, making sure the films didn’t burn to the ground, preparing the bankruptcy, getting funding, restructuring it.”
But alongside all the deals and the back-room negotiations, Ben Ammar has always been a lover, and supporter, of cinema, particularly art house films. “Cinema is a balance between art and industry. I have had to do both,” he says. “Thanks to films like Equalizer 3, which is doing well, I will be able to produce more complex, auteur-driven films.”
Ben Ammar went to Venice to receive the festival’s producer award, dedicated to Martha De Laurentiis, the wife of legendary Italian producer, and Ben Ammar’s mentor, Dino De Laurentiis.
“This award is special,” he says, “Dino De Laurentiis was a great master who helped me enter the North American market.” He contrasts the honor with the Academy Award (a trophy he has yet to win), noting that “the Oscars are no longer what they were. They have been contaminated by the world of commerce, by the internet, the red carpet, by jewelry and designer labels. Even the Cannes Film Festival or the Venice Film Festival, precisely because they need so much money, are all influenced by sponsors.”
Continues Ben Ammar: “Of course, it is also true that when films like The Postman, Cinema Paradiso or Parasite win [at the Oscars], you see there is still hope… The Oscar, however, has never been a goal of mine. I always say to directors: ‘Forget the Oscar, not every film that has won an Oscar is good.’ The real Oscar is the audience, not the critics, not the awards. One of the greatest producers in history, Dino De Laurentiis, was only given one Academy Award, for lifetime achievement. It seems to me that there is something wrong with the system. The problem with cinema is that everyone wants to do it but it is not a profession for everyone.”
Asked for his favorites at this year’s Venice fest, Ben Ammar singles out Maestro by Bradley Cooper, about the great conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, played by Cooper, and his relationship with his wife, Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre, played by Carey Mulligan.
“It deeply moved me,” he says, “[But] my son did not like it. Maybe it means I am too old. I was in tears to the point that I thought, ‘am I losing it?’ This movie reminded me that I do the greatest job in the world: filmmaking!”
He has his own Bernstein story, a never-produced adaptation of the Giuseppe Verdi opera Aida.
“I was preparing Aida, which Franco Zeffirelli and Bernstein himself had re-written, to be filmed in Egypt, among the pyramids,” he recalls. “I still have the script. I met with [Bernstein], we even went on location. Unfortunately, he died, and nothing more was done with it. Seeing Bradley Cooper’s performance in the film, looking so much like him, I thought. ‘This is the magic of cinema.’ A magic that allows everyone to get inside the story, the talent, the pains of a genius.”
Rarely, the art and industry of cinema align, he notes, as with “the phenomenon” of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer.
“I didn’t even know who he was [Oppenheimer],” Ben Ammar admits. “My ignorance is that of 99.9 percent of the audience. Christopher Nolan, a genius, read this book [Kai Bird’s American Prometheus] and realized it was a huge hit, a complex story that is, however, based on the most powerful and fundamental dichotomy for human beings: evil and good. I heard from Universal that young people go to see Oppenheimer because they are curious to know more about the atomic bomb. It means that when there is a great project, the audience finds it.”
But, he argues, few films reach the Oppenheimer level, because producers, and distributors, particularly streaming platforms, have diluted the market.
“The problem is that 90 percent of the films are bad, and the streamers have not helped because everything has become a discount store. It used to be that producers like De Laurentiis, Cecchi Gori or [Fulvio] Lucisano would invest their own money and take the risk,” he says. “Today with the advent of platforms everything has changed. There is too much money, too many movies, too many bad movies. You don’t need 700 titles a year coming out in movie theaters worldwide. That is the real problem. The platforms have led to this because they have to have content all the time. They have lowered the quality of movies out there. Every once in a while there is a beautiful one, but masterpieces are the exceptions.”
Ben Ammar also sees cinema in an existential crisis over what he calls the “social crisis” due to the unfair distribution of wealth within the business. Pointing to the labor action in the U.S., with the actors and writers strikes, he worries about emotion turning into anger. “I see [the debates] as a dogmatic stance of socialism against capitalism. Union socialism vs. U.S. capitalism,” he says. “The actors and screenwriters are rightly demanding recognition for their work. They used to get it through the networks but with the move to streaming platforms, which do not provide ratings data, they have lost everything.”
Ben Ammar’s solution, which is part of the recently negotiated WGA agreement, is to force streamers to be transparent about their viewership figures and to pay people according to the success of their work.
Once he gets on his favorite topic — the state of the film industry — there’s no holding Ben Ammar back. He can talk for hours on the ins and outs of the business he holds dear, within which he has built a media empire. From his production roots, Ben Ammar expanded into distribution. His first big move came in 2004 when he spotted an opportunity. Every French distributor had turned down Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, scared off by Gibson’s antisemitic outbursts at the time, which some feared could spark violence. Ben Ammar, a Muslim who has produced several films about the life of Christ (The Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, and even, as an executive producer, Monty Python’s Life of Brian) argued the film was not antisemitic but anti-fundamentalist. He released it in France through Carthago Films, and it was a hit, grossing nearly $12 million in the territory.
His expansion into Italy was similarly opportunistic. “I bought Eagle Pictures in 2007 because it was available, and I said to myself: Let’s learn the distributor business,” he says. “Today we are the leading independent distributor in Italy.”
Ben Ammar’s next move is into the backlot business. He is planning an ambitious, $50 million-plus studio complex in Rome. Where the studio will be located and when exactly it will open remains a mystery — Ben Ammar says by the end of 2024 — but he is insistent it will be big, on par with Rome’s other, legendary backlot.
“When I made the joke that I’d wanted to call [the new studio] Cinecittà 2, it was simply out of affection, out of gratitude,” he says, remembering watching up to four movies a day at Cinecittà when he was living in Rome as a teenager. “One day a great actress, Shirley MacLaine, who was a friend of my parents, came to pick me up in Vittorio De Sica’s Rolls-Royce and take me to Cinecittà. Can you imagine the scene: her walking into this courtyard, all the windows open and these little boys looking out at this gorgeous woman? I got a taste of La Dolce Vita thanks to her.”
The biggest challenge to building “Cinecittà 2” will not be finding the space but finding the staff, Ben Ammar says, noting that Italy is struggling to find the talents, particularly film technicians and other below-the-line workers, to meet the current production boom. He hopes to help fill the skills gap with a new film school, which he he planning to build in the Lazio region around Rome.
“I did that in Tunisia [built a film school] and then I’d hire the students to work on films in production,” he says. “I hope to attract great American directors and actors to come to Rome and do masterclasses. The school will be a public one and [I hope] will be a great encouragement for young people who want to enter the fabulous world of cinema that is so difficult to enter today.”
In addition to the media connections, Ben Ammar has close ties with Italy’s political elite. He talks up his “special relationship” with Italy’s right-wing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
“She’s managed to get where she is by being a woman in a male-dominated country and male-dominated world,” he says. “She’s self-made, speaks English and French, she has a rare courage for a prime minister. I saw how capable she was when I brought Tom Cruise to her [for the Rome premiere of Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part 1]. He bonded with her, she bonded with him. She talked about cinema, he talked about culture and cinema. It went so well, we were an hour late to our movie premiere.”
Of Meloni’s critics, Ben Ammar says the new leader, who took over as Italian Prime Minister last year, should be given “a couple of years” in power before she’s judged.
Asked if he has any political ambitions himself, Ben Ammar waves off the suggestion. “If politicians want to talk to me about something I know a thing about, like Africa and immigration, I’m willing to talk,” he says. “I do not understand how it is possible that Libya and Algeria, with all that wealth that God has given them, are forcing young Tunisians, Algerians, Libyans, and Moroccans to choose death in the Mediterranean Sea as opposed to living in their home countries. It is a failure of Africa and the West not to have led these countries to democracy.”
But Ben Ammar plans on sticking to his day job. “With my work, the worst I can do is make a bad movie, lose money and disappoint the viewers,” he says. “It’s not the same as disappointing the electorate.”