Writer and editor

Treading Carefully

Added on by Anealla Safdar.

Doha-based Alnoor Holdings was launched in 2009 with big plans in mind. One proposal greeted with conflicting views was the company’s decision to make a $150m feature film about the Prophet Mohammed. The film, which will not depict the Prophet in accordance with Islamic strictures, is in development and talks are being held with Barrie Osborne, producer of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Matrix”.

The company also announced the launch of a $200m international film fund to provide investment for film projects, with plans to focus on Hollywood.

In theory, ambition is good, but implementation proved more challenging. According to Ahmed al-Hashemi, chairman of Alnoor Holdings, well-known script writers in Hollywood were unable to come up with a ‘wow’ storyline for Prophet Mohammed’s biopic. So the company decided to do the script writing internally. Variety Arabia talked to Al-Hashemi and asked him about their latest TV and film productions, why they are focusing on religious films and how they are funding big productions.

It’s been two years since you announced the biopic you planned to make about the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him. we haven’t heard much since then. what’s happened?

“We announced we’d be making three movies on the Prophet, with a budget of half a billion dollars. We went through a plan and realised that this project will take a bit of time, not just because it’s a high- budget movie and we want to do it perfectly, but also because it’s a very sensitive subject to everyone. The content and the script need to be carefully written.”

There must have been a lot of work with religious leaders to make sure the film does not offend the Muslim audience. 

“The first exercise was to get final approval from scholars in the Islamic world, such as what we can and cannot show. We did several workshops with them. They are the cream of the crop, the top level scholars. Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi is the leading scholar, and the others are on a similar level. This consultation process took six months. Once we had their approval, we started the script process.”

You are aiming for a Hollywood-style production. The producer has been named as Mark Osborne, who worked on “Lord of the Rings”. One of your first script writers had worked on “Gladiator”. What happened with the group of writers you initially employed? Did their work hold up the process?

“We wanted well-known script writers in Hollywood. We had several of them, and it was a learning experience for both us and them. It was the first time they were writing a movie where the leading character cannot be shown. It was strange for them. We went through several ideas and concepts and that took a lot of time. Unfortunately, we didn’t end up with a ‘wow’ storyline. We undertook this in a professional way, the way anyone would do it. We got good names and professional people, but we didn’t reach the kind of treatment we had envisaged.”

So how did you take things forward?

“Our conclusion was that we would get a director who has script writing capabilities. We decided to do the script writing internally. We have three freelancers working from Qatar and the UK full time. There are between five and seven others working part time, advising and consulting from Qatar and internationally. They talk on Skype, they meet, and take specialist advice on religion and history. We don’t have a director yet, but he or she will be among the top ten names in Hollywood, when we get round to that part of the process.”

What timeline are you looking at now?

“The scripts are being written now for all three movies. Each one will be two hours long and should be complete by early next year. Filming for all of them will be done at the same time. The first of the movies will be out in 2013. Our other film on the Great Caliph Muhammad al-Fatih will be on screen before the Prophet Mohammed biopic. That’s a $50m movie, with the same kind of Hollywood-style treatment. The script is almost in the final stages and soon after that we will decide who will direct. It’s exciting, they will be good names. It’s similar to ‘Kingdom of Heaven’.”

Do you only make religious films?

“No, but we begin with those because we think there is a need among both Muslims and non- Muslims to understand more about the 1.5 billion people who follow Islam. Of course you will always find people against us; we will face this with the Prophet movie. We are expecting this.”

During Ramadan, your first-ever television series was aired. how was it received and what are your future plans in this area?

“’Al-Hassan and Al-Hussein’ was broadcast in Arabic on more than 15 channels. We are making an announcement next month regarding the next Ramadan series. Shooting will begin in three months. This will be an annual project and all of them will be big productions. ‘Al-Hassan and Al- Hussein’ is being translated into Turkish and we will introduce other languages, such as Urdu, later.”

Do you have any regional films in the works?

“Yes, we have two. One is a drama set in Egypt about the recent revolution. The other is a historical drama about Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. We slowed things down on these projects because of the political situation. Egypt is one of the best filming locations, so we will wait and see what happens politically in the region and start execution by next year. We should have two films in the cinema at some point next year.”

All of these films sound like expensive projects, yet the world is still struggling with financial constraints. You also own a majority share of an animation company based in damascus. Having launched in 2009, are you in profit yet?

“They say that in the media business you need three years minimum to make a profit. We are giving ourselves at least five years of pure investment first. The investors are the owners of the group – myself and four other business people. All of our work, apart from international movies, is funded internally.”

Published in Variety Arabia November 2011