One day a journalist interviewed Henry Ford and asked him for the secret to his success. “Is it,” he asked Ford, “because you are a genius at marketing?” Ford replied that he was in fact not very good at marketing. So the journalist tried again. Was Henry Ford a genius at accounting? Again, the answer was no, and Ford said he was pretty poor at numbers too. The journalist tried several more times before finally saying, “I give up. What is the reason for your success?” To which Henry Ford replied, “It’s simple. I surround myself with people who are cleverer than I am.”
It is with this story foremost in mind, that I write this blog entry.
Today, I read a review of Medinah (click here). It is the first review of Medinah I have come across, and it is not a good start. It talks about the interesting cast – a cast that includes Eric Roberts, Natasha Henstridge and some of the crew of Battlestar Galactica. But after that, the tone changes;
“The problems came once the lights dimmed and the show started.”
Roughly four years ago, Ahmed Al Baker began plagiarising Stargate and Lost while pretending it was an original idea and that he, a 23-year-old Qatari, knew more about writing, directing and producing drama than the experts he had hired in to help him make it. It was clear to me that his self-conviction was actually insecurity masquerading unknowingly as arrogance. But it was equally clear to me that he would not listen; not until he had made Medinah, seen it fail, and finally been forced to accept the humiliating truth that he is not a great dramatist, just an average one and that Medinah was little more than his film-school, albeit a hugely expensive one.
All of which is very sad. The Middle East deserved better. Much better. But instead, it has Qatar’s massively embarrassing “USD $50 million film-school drama” (with sole funding from the Emir of Qatar), as it’s flagship show announcing The Middle East’s arrival within the international TV market.
Presumably, the questions the series sets up to answer are: Where are they? Why them? … And why is all the acting so stilted?
So what did go wrong? Well, first you have Ahmed Al Baker who lives in a delusional bubble in which he sees himself as the well-liked Arab Steven Spielberg of the Middle East. I know he is a massive Joss Whedon fan. This says everything you need to know about his aspirations.
Next, you have Talal Al Awamleh, a man who had a chance to turn Ahmed’s (albeit plagiarised) vision into a 5-season TV drama (budget starting at $50 million for season one ($300 million in western money) and rising no doubt to $100-150 per season by season 5 that would have made him VERY rich and HUGELY successful.*
But the reality is sadly different.
…the acting is terrible, the script is lazy, and the shots are flat and boring.
Shortly before I left the Middle East, I met several people who confidentially told me that Ahmed is generally despised. That he is seen as someone with far too much money and too little talent. That his ego means even if he does surround himself with people cleverer than him, he will not listen to them. I experienced this firsthand very shortly after starting on the show.
I had begun reading the first season scripts for Medinah and I found a massive plot-hole that undermined the premise of the entire show. Wanting the show to succeed, I had no choice but to bring the issue to Ahmed’s attention.
When I explained the problem to Ahmed, his eyes glazed over for a moment as the impact of what I’d just said hit him. Then, rather than acknowledge the flaw, he told me it would be explained in a later season. But that made no sense because the flaw could not be explained: it had to be fixed.
Ahmed, I realised, was lying to me. It was more important to him to look like he had all the answers than to acknowledge a mistake had been made and to look for solutions. Smart people realise there is nothing wrong with asking for help. So do confident people. I realised Ahmed was too young to be either. He was way out of his depth, and I knew this was not going to change.
It just isn’t really well constructed, and that is too bad, because the setting and the final shot of the pilot build a good deal of intrigue.
I did try to help him on a few occasions, but he always seemed to resent help. on another occasion, I explained to him that the rocket needed real science behind it and the audience needed to see it in action. I suggested shooting a Jurassic Park style ‘public broadcast video’ that would explain the rocket’s science that could play constantly in the background – at the bus depot, in people’s homes, and so on. I even designed the rocket and storyboarded it for him. A crude video was made for him, but he never showed any interest. He just did not seem to understand the importance of this.
If “Medinah” came to Comic Con looking for a studio to back them, they may have been armed with an intriguing concept and very large panel, but they just didn’t quite realize that the concept you are rocking and the size of your panel don’t count for much if you can’t make the audience come back.
I encountered Ahmed’s type many times before when I was a guest lecturer at a London film school. They are the type that aren’t bright enough or emotionally secure enough to learn, the type that needs to believe in their own legend even before achieving anything of legendary status, the type you cannot teach, the type that will eventually fall and go nowhere, achieve nothing, become nobody. Unless that is, they snap out of their immature mindset and suddenly realise there is nothing wrong with not being so smart. That is when they finally have the tools to try and get smart.
But Ahmed had one advantage over the rest of his type – huge sources of money from a people that knew even less about how to make good drama than he did. The result is Medinah, the biggest most expensive film school pilot ever made.
The result is Medinah, the biggest most expensive film school pilot ever made.
If Ahmed had stuck to his own region, he could have gotten away with it. But he has not. Ahmed wants to take on Hollywood. He wants them to know he’s as talented, if not more so, than they are. But he can’t because he isn’t.
No, what Hollywood will do is indulge him because they will want to use him to get access to the Emir’s money. They will tell him he is good while using him to strip his contacts of whatever money they can get their hands on. Indeed, with the acquisition last year of some American producers to make the show, the process has already started. I saw it from day one. So did the rest of the international crew. We all knew what the American producers were up to. Only Ahmed didn’t – no doubt too desperate and naive to not see what was really going on.
There was a point when Medinah did have a great crew. But Arab Telemedia refused to finance them, preferring to embezzle funds instead, and Ahmed refused to listen to them (or pay them). And that’s a huge shame. Because, if Ahmed had allowed the “smart people” to help, this could have been a great show. Certainly, the money was there. And the Middle East is a region rife with a fascinating history – both real and imagined. So what a missed opportunity, made all the worse for this review says nothing that neither I, not the rest of the international crew did not know two and a half years ago. But Talal and Ahmed would not listen.
Ahmed has is a SMALL show. A very small show. With a $50 million budget.
Talal Al Awamleh and Arab Telemedia clearly suffer from the same delusion as Ahmed. After all, if Talal had been aware just how bad Medinah is, he would have taken credit for the initial vision and derided the end result, blaming it all on Ahmed. But instead, he has been by attempting to ambush the show online and claim authorship of this turkey!
Talal would argue otherwise. He will continue to say it is a great show and he made it. He continues to blast people with his lofty statement that he has produced the Middle East’s only Emmy-winning show – but it is a show that won purely because of the westernised politics of its script and not because of the quality of the writing (childish) or the production values of the show (shockingly appalling).
But this is really Ahmed’s story, his creation, he folly, his downfall. And while he undoubtedly still believes otherwise, it is his downfall. I would wish him the best for the future – I would hope he eventually figures out that to be a good film or TV maker you need to know how to learn – but I have to remind myself that he lied when he said he would pay back the crew the $500,000+ they are still owed so they would not ambush the show, that he promised to invite certain crewmembers back for all their hard work and did not, that he has continued to use my IP (and the IP of others) without paying them or acknowledging their contributions, and that he blames contractors for the human rights violations in his country rather than acknowledge that Qataris have both the means and the responsibility to stop it. When you consider all that, what can you say? Except that he’s a little shit and he has deservedly failed.
But this said, I do hope that he one day grows up, discovers his humanity, delivers a show the Middle East can be proud of and pays the crew the money and respect they are owed. He is not lost yet. If nothing else, time is on his side. Let’s hope he learns to use it wisely.
*Time is not something that is on Talal’s side however, and the extent of his folly is extraordinary. At most, I estimate he has embezzled about $35 million. Meantime, the reputation of Arab Telemedia has been destroyed (their last two shows were sold for peanuts to two small scale channels), he is now something of a laughing stock within the industry, and he faces possible jail time should the Qatari’s choose to go ahead with legal action.
But if he had aspired to make a great series with the resources at hand, what he could have had is this: 20% of five seasons with a budget escalating per season from $50 million to potentially $200 million by season 5 (resulting in legitimate gross earnings of over $150 million for ATG alone!), plus huge international success. Further, while I was on the series I was in a position to introduce him to a man who owns the rights to a hugely successful western series that would translate perfectly for the Arab market (at very little expense). This series would have potentially netted him another £100 million over the same period. So, compare – his current situation – $35 million tops (embezzled) and a ruined career with possible jail time, to $200 million in the bank (legitimately) and credit as the most successful producer in the Middle East of all time.
To say Talal has screwed up must be the understatement of Middle Eastern TV of the decade.