Just a few months ago, Libyan soccer player-turned-movie mogul Saadi Gadhafi was touting his new $ 100 million Hollywood production fund, with plans to make inexpensive thrillers and other mid-priced movies that would appeal to audiences across the globe. Today, he’s under arrest, along with two of his brothers, in the midst of the rebel coup in Tripoli that has all but ended the 42-year reign of Saadi’s father, Moammar Gadhafi.
Not long ago, the younger Gadhafi was financing movies through his company Natural Selection, basking in the prestige of such actors as Mickey Rourke and Eva Amurri, as well as Oscar-winners Forest Whitaker and Adrien Brody. His family had hired music stars as big as Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, and Usher to perform at private concerts. But since the bloody Gadhafi crackdown on the Libyan insurgency began earlier this year, Natural Selection’s production slate is in limbo, as power players have distanced themselves from the firm, and as Saadi Gadhafi’s own future remains in doubt. Having returned to Libya earlier this year to oversee his father’s special forces, he’s accused of ordering the shooting of unarmed demonstrators and is wanted by Interpol. (He has denied ordering the shootings.)
Two years ago, Saadi Gadhafi (pictured, left) partnered with New Jersey-born Matty Beckerman in Natural Selection and helped the production fund raise $ 100 million. At the time, investment capital for movie production, which had been abundant during much of the last decade, had dried up amid the 2008 financial collapse. Beckerman found himself traveling as far as the Middle East to find investment partners. Having found Gadhafi, he told the Wrap he was aware of the odd-couple aspect of a Jew and a Muslim working together, but he said Gadhafi thought that was a plus. “The fact that you and I will do business together will change perceptions,” Beckerman quoted his partner as saying.
But that wasn’t what reportedly sent Hollywood scrambling to distance itself from Gadhafi and Natural Selection this spring; it was his father’s violent suppression of the Libyan uprising. Beyoncé, who had performed at a private New Year’s Eve party hosted by Saadi’s brother Hannibal in St. Barts, said she would be giving away her fee; similar statements came from Mariah Carey, Usher and Nelly Furtado, who had also performed at Gadhafi family events. Beckerman’s name was purged from the credits of ‘Live at Preservation Hall: Louisiana Fairytale,’ a music documentary that screened at the South by Southwest Festival, and the movie’s publicists retracted a press release touting Natural Selection’s involvement with the film. William Morris Endeavor, cited in trade reports as working with Natural Selection on ‘The Ice Man,’ a planned crime drama about real-life hitman Richard Kuklinski that Mickey Rourke had been approached to star in, distanced itself from the project. (A rival Kuklinski biopic called ‘The Iceman,’ — no space — is in the works, with Michael Shannon attached to star, along with Benicio Del Toro and James Franco.)
Before things went sour, Natural Selection did manage to complete a couple of movies. In 2009, it produced ‘The Experiment,’ a psychological drama starring Whitaker and Brody. The movie was released direct to video. It also has in the can ‘Isolation,’ a thriller starring Eva Amurri, but it has been unable to find distribution partners to get the movie released. Both were made with tiny budgets by Hollywood standards: $ 12 million for ‘Experiment’ and $ 3 million for ‘Isolation.’ They’re the kind of movies that are routinely financed by pre-selling foreign distribution rights, based in turn on the casting of stars with international name recognition. Natural Selection had hoped to make 20 or so such films over the next five years, according to Variety.
Trouble has plagued Hollywood’s encounters with Libya for decades. In 1957, while filiming ‘Legend of the Lost’ in Libya with Sophia Loren, John Wayne injured himself in a fall, causing three weeks of production delays. In 1977, funders backed out of ‘The Message,’ a biopic of Mohammed starring Anthony Quinn as the prophet’s uncle (in accordance with Muslim tradition, neither the prophet himself nor members of his immediate family could be shown on screen or heard speaking), after production had already begun, leaving the cast and crew to swelter in a desert hotel until Moammar Gadhafi himself stepped in as the primary investor. (He also allowed location shooting in Libya and the use of the Libyan army as extras in a battle scene.)
This April, Oscar-nominated documentarian Tim Hetherington (‘Restrepo’) was killed in Libya while covering a battle between Gadhafi forces and insurgents; four other journalists were injured as well. That same month, in a refugee camp on the Tunisian border, Angelina Jolie came for a visit, making a donation to the camp and highlighting the plight of 400,000 Libyans who’d fled the violence in their country.
By the way, when they make the inevitable movie about the Libyan leader’s fall from power, Tony Shalhoub will no doubt be approached to star. This will probably be another project not funded by Natural Selection.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.
Photo credits: AFP/Getty Images (Gadhafi poster, Saadi Gadhafi, Moammar Gadhafi); Getty Images (Shalhoub).