British film and TV producer John Heyman has spent decades working on films such as The Go-Between and The Hero and bringing financing for dozens of others. Heyman sees potential in cultivating film talent — including creative and technical expertise — within the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, but says it will require more serious gestures from investors, who are already pouring millions into big-name studios.
But his perspective on the future of moviemaking, however, sees it becoming something that won't be called "film" for much longer. During the Festival of Thinkers conference in Abu Dhabi, Heyman spoke with Arabic Knowledge at Wharton about emerging world cinema, seizing the medium to educate others and how technology is impacting the industry. To help the heritage of the MENA region become understood globally, Heyman adds, local film and television production for a global audience must be developed.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Tell us how you got into film and what was some of your first exposure to the field?
John Heyman: I got into film by pure mistake. I was reading law at Oxford and I got tickets to a radio show and it turned out to be a quiz game sponsored by 'Beecham's Pills and Powders' called, Double Your Money, and I won £93 on the show. Afterwards, I was having a drink with a host and with all of the people there, and they all went to do a second show and I sat there in reverie with my (money) and a guy sat next to me and he said, 'What do you do for a living?' — English pubs you know, everybody talks to everybody — I said I'm a swimming pool attendant and I asked him what he did. He said, 'Well I'm joining the commercial television network, which is going on the air next year, and I'm buying shows.' So I took him across the street to see the second show of Double Your Money. He bought it and I went back to Oxford, commissioned as a question writer.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Where do you see the film industry at this moment and what is your reading of where Hollywood and world cinema stand?
Heyman: I think Hollywood is at the moment in — has been for 10 years probably — in a state of denial. First of all, although Hollywood films are still by far and away the highest grossing percentage, when I started in the business, 65% of global income came from Hollywood films, now it's less than 35%. And there are film industries springing up all over the world. I mean China is a serious force, India is a serious force, Europe to a lesser extent is a serious force, and so Hollywood is meeting not only technologically but also creatively with infinitely more competition.
It was a wonderful idea when the film industry started to have a central place in the sun where we built studios and so on, but if film is, and it won't be called film much longer, but if the motion picture is to the 20th and 21st century what the Keynesian novel was to the 19th, which is to say both a reflection on the age in which we live, a political statement, and above all an entertainment story which gets through to you, then the sources of it will be as multifaceted as the sources of literature are.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What do you mean by saying we won't be able to call it 'film' anymore?
Heyman: The last Harry Potter they spent US$48 million on print costs, five years from now it will be digital, there won't be such a thing as print. The piece of Kodak film that ran at 90-foot-a-minute through the projector is not going to exist. So audio-visual, whatever you want, movies you can call it, but you certainly can't call it a film, because that's like calling a book a 13th-century manuscript.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What do you think about the technological developments within what we are still currently calling 'film'?
Heyman: I think what has happened is there is an interesting divergence of opinion. But basically, we live now in an instant gratification society, we're not prepared to wait for anything. We take a spoon of powder, we add water, and we have coffee; almost, but good enough. The result is that in an instant gratification society we want to see whatever you want to see, at whatever time, on whatever size screen you have. I mean it never entered the head of people my age that you would watch an epic on a Nokia telephone or a love story on a Blackberry. It was physically impossible. You'd watched the television set with the top and the bottom (of the image) missing.
Because of those technological problems, the problems when we went from radio to television, it became a close-up media. All of those are issues of the past. Today, actually, since the invention of the most important of the instant gratification tools — the remote control — you don't have to get up and change the set anymore, you do it remotely, so if you don't grab the audience in that three or four seconds that they're with you, between pressing the next channel, you've lost them.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Besides entertaining, you've touched upon the idea of film serving as a medium to gain knowledge about other places and people. What do you mean by that and why is that important?
Heyman: The global population knows more about America than any other country because of film and television. American movies and television are pervasive. I mean China is about to become economically the most powerful nation in the world, it repeatedly abdicates from being a 'leader,' but you know very little about China from film. …We should know as much about China as we know about America, we should know about the roots of the Arab world, yet we know nothing.
All the subsidized financing to try and encourage local film industries have been very successful in France, England, Italy. Now every state in America has a subsidy to encourage filmmaking in each state. And by and large, those subsidies have to be analyzed, because all you're really doing is giving back to encourage employment, what you deducted in taxes from the employees on the film. …The amount of money that's spent by, forget the touristic promotions (and all), that is spent by a film company in Arizona, let's say, is a very valuable asset for Arizona. But we as students, unless we're studying Russian or Chinese, know nothing about our fellow inhabitants… We talk about the melting pot of the United States, but the truth of the matter is, we know don't even know the background of our fellow inhabitants, let alone our future, who we face across the table at war.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What is the role the filmmaker in these emerging film markets and industries? Is enough being done to promote artists these areas?
Heyman: The first role, people will disagree with me, because when you sit on a panel where film is perceived as an art, you then forget that the first function of film is to entertain. We were the first penny-medium, you know, the moving picture. …The repeated transitions that have made the film business survive as an industry — it's not an industry, it's a series of individual entrepreneurial enterprises — and what differentiates it is that the talent of the people who make decisions to go ahead.
Now you can't teach talent; you can hone it, but you can't create it. A person is born talented or not talented. And you can finance it. But here in Abu Dhabi, for example, where they have spent, it's difficult to estimate exactly how much, but close to US$2.5 billion on film — between Dubai, Abu Dhabi (they) have film festivals, two, one each, a competition — of that US$2.5 billion, at least one and three-quarters has gone to Hollywood; a quarter of a billion dollars was spent financing successfully with (Ashok) Amitraj in making Bollywood movies; and US$250,000 in a SANAD initiative that Abu Dhabi gives to encourage young filmmakers. (That's) US$250,000 versus a certain US$2 billion spent in Hollywood.
One of the confusions in the Arab world is that real estate and studios have relevance. They don't. The studio is a thing of the past. You shoot on location now, you very rarely shoot (in a studio). So to build studios to blend the creative community, the way they did in Hollywood 100 years ago, or more than 100 years ago, it doesn't make any sense. To encourage a film industry in this country and to help the rest of the world understand the heritage of the MENA region, from Morocco and Oman, you need film and television, and they don't have it.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What is your impression of films from this region or of filmmakers you have met here, how would you describe the cinematic scene?
Heyman: I think the first and most important thing you have to do is encourage the passion and hope. I don't think enough is done to encourage local talent and to breed local talent. They don't know whether they have talent or not, they're not teaching people to write. They're not duplicating crews. And television here is very interesting. Everything is done to a 30-program cycle, because the 30 programs fit into the Ramadan time-slot. Now what you have created there is, 'Oh isn't Turkish soap opera wonderful?' Turkish soap opera, which earns the biggest ratings in Ramadan, does what Arabs or the local inhabitants do not have the courage to do because they're frightened of some form of fundamentalist pressure. But the Turks do it. It's OK to watch them, but they're not us.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Do you find the region is ready to carry out its own storytelling?
Heyman: It requires a lot of growth in self-respect. There is a 1,200-year, 1,300-year tradition of art in Islam. …One of the students stood up [during a panel] and asked about why there were paintings that weren't signed by anybody, and the showing of the human face is considered by many (as) idolatry, so you have cultural hurdles to overcome. But if you are prepared to invest close to US$2 billion in film, you're certainly prepared to invest enough to make that film Emirati. So the Emiratization of the attitude, the self-respect, is very important.