Film School ATG

Today is feeling like one of those days when it’s impossible to turn a blind eye to just how ‘film school’ ATG is.

When we got to Doha, we were each issued with a SIM card with just 20 minutes of local credit! Mine ran out after three calls. When I asked the production manager, Majid, to sort it out he told me I could go across the road and do it (isn’t Production supposed to sort this stuff out?). I told him I had been in the middle of nowhere yesterday without any credit and I had needed to make calls, that this was not acceptable and he needed to get a better system. He told me there wasn’t a better system! I said clearly this was not true because he could not tell me that the whole of Qatar uses 20 minute credits on their phones.

Wages are late again. One UK crew member is owed eight weeks wages! Everyone is owed money. Threats of not coming back to work have not worked. ATP has basically given us the finger. The Art Dept has arranged a meeting today at 11am to decide on a system for dealing with this.

Abdul is still stuck in the basement of ATG1. They want him to become a full-time employee. They are lying to him. He has had both Khaldoon and ‘Abdul 2’ on his case about it. Promises of, “We will look after you”, “You’ll get paid on time if you sign”, “We might even let you go to Qatar”. So Talal has his brainwashed lackies trying to brainwash Abdul with promises and lies. The more I hear the more they sound like a cult.

More to follow…

Arrested Development

It’s been a month since I made an entry in this blog. The truth is that it is exhausting enough having to deal with this company never mind having to have to write about it afterwards.

Currently we are in Doha, Qatar. We arrived on Saturday and already the rot has begun to set in.

Yesterday, I had a meeting with Ahmed – the series creator – in which I asked him what it was he was hoping to get now we were here. Meantime, I was told today by Ray Perry, who had spoken to Terry, that Ibrahim had been heard saying that filming of the series was never going to happen in Doha. This did not bode well.

Several weeks earlier, I have been told by Abdul that Talal had told him that the series would never be shot in Doha. Apparently, Talal told Abdul that ATG would “go through the motions” (or words to that affect) and act like it really intended to shoot the series in Doha, but when the Qatari people found out how much it was going to cost to film in Doha they would panic and the shoot would revert back to Jordan. That might explain why ATG has been working feverishly on a first season budget which, I have heard, will top $125 million.

This seems to fall in line with Arab Telemedia’s Production Crew’s behaviour here in Qatar. So far they’ve bought over the absolute barest minimum of Arab Telemedia crew. They have taken all of the good people we had, kept them in Jordan, and attempted to stick them on other projects being produced by Arab Telemedia. Meantime, nothing is really happening here apart from meetings.

Take for example Abdul. Currently he is stuck at Arab Telemedia 1 in Jordan where he is being hassled to work on other projects. This is despite the fact that Chris and I have repeatedly told Arab Telemedia’s producers that we need him with us. But Arab Telemedia simply doesn’t care what we think.

The story of Abdul’s failure to end up working here in Qatar is highly representative of the unethical and insidious work practices of Arab Telemedia. When we first said that we needed Abdul to come with us, he was repeatedly offered work as a full-time employee at Arab Telemedia. However, he kept turning the offers down. When it became clear to Arab Telemedia that he was not going to agree to become a full-time employee, Arab Telemedia went cold on the idea of allowing us to bring him to Qatar.

The question is why?

My own personal suspicion, and this has been mentioned by several other people, is that Arab Telemedia would have been happy for him to come here if he was an employee of the company because they could pay him a pittance while charging the investors considerably more. However, since Abdul refused to be an employee they were not able to use him as a ‘cash cow’. As a consequence, they refused to allow him to come despite the fact he is an essential and integral part of the Art Department.

Another theory is that’s Ibrahim blocked Abdul coming because Abdul has had arguments in the past with Ibrahim because ATG always pays Abdul late (at one point, nearly six weeks late). So the arguments have always revolve around Ibrahim’s broken promises and Arab Telemedia’s constant failure to pay Abdul’s wages on time.

In an interview today, an ATG employee – Khaldoon – told Abdul that if he became a full-time employee he would no longer have to worry about being paid on time. This was a threat and an acknowledgement of their principle of not paying freelancers properly in an effort to wear them down and make them staff.

Currently Chris is threatening to quit “Medinah” if they do not get Abdul out here. Another reason Chris is threatening to quit is that Arab Telemedia has not paid his wages for the last 4 1/2 weeks. Arab Telemedia cannot claim this is “accidental” because Chris has been reminding them of their failure to pay his wages for the last month. I might also add that the rest of the art department is behind on receiving their wages too.

Before EID (a Arabic festival that took place two weekends ago), Issam was working in the Art Department buildings – a ten minute drive from the production offices as the show’s Line Producer. Line Producers normally wield a lot of power, but it was my observation that ATG had intentionally managed to make Issam powerless by not paying him (at this time, they haven’t paid him for three months!).

Anyway, when Talal got back from Doha, it wasn’t long before things suddenly changed. Issam disappeared. We soon discovered that he was now working in the main offices of Arab Telemedia. But not only had he changed location, his attitude had changed as well. Once a friend to the Art Department, he was now “one of them”. What had suddenly switched Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde…?

(On an aside, it is ridiculous that the UK crew and ATG see each other as enemies. We try hard not to but they very clearly see us as the enemy and nothing we do to placate them seems t change that. More on this in a later blog entry).

What we heard, which makes sense, was that as a result of Talal’s meeting with the investors in Doha in which – I presume – his lie about the cost of the fortress set was exposed, Issam was to be granted more powers. By the time we relocated to Doha, Issam would be signing for payments as well.

It does not take much imagination to realise what had happened. After Talal was told by the investors that Issam must be granted more power, you would thin that Talal has a problem. But he did not, because at this point Issam was owed around $30-40,000. All Talal had to do was to threaten to not pay Issam and to keep him close by. This is why Issam had suddenly switched sides – he had no choice.

You could argue that Issam is a victim in this situation. And you would be right. The result is that the show has become thoroughly compromised because the Line Producer is supposed to act on behalf of the investors. But Talal has nailed Issam to the wall with the money he is owed. So clearly Issam cannot act on the show’s behalf. How he feels about this, I do not know. 

Today, there was a meeting between the Production and the Art Department to discuss our plan of action over the next 12 weeks. Chris very nearly did not attend.

Last night, he had emailed Issam telling him he was no longer a part of the Medinah team. This was because he had not been paid for the last five weeks, and because Production continued to refuse to bring Abdul over to Qatar. But Chris’s resignation was also a consequence of another ongoing issue.

For the last few weeks we had regularly been emailing Production a “list of things to be done by Production” so that the Art Department could get on with their work. Some of those things were difficult. Others were easy. Others should have been easy. But to date Production has pretty much done none of them.

Last night, Issam sent an email in response to this list in which he accused the Art Department of being hellbent on making life difficult for Production. He then proceeded to go through each point saying why they were effectively each the fault of the Art Department. I shall include that list below so you can decide for yourself. The point of the list was not to make life difficult for Production. It was to see if Production would start to do their job properly again. But the real reason Issam sent that email was to arrest control from the Art Department and to give it back to Production through the meeting we had today. In short, our Art Dept list was to be replaced by today’s Production list that would be cobbled together by Anwar.

Earlier yesterday evening, Chris had a major confrontation with Production and Ahmed over his wages and ATG’s failure to bring Abdul to Qatar. By all accounts, it did not go well. As a result of the meeting and Issam’s email, Chris had had enough and he emailed Issam to say that he had quit.

Despite this, Chris arrived at the meeting having been persuaded to attend by Simon, the director. Ironically Simon later said that Chris should not have attended the meeting because it made his and everybody else’s threats look hollow. (I have been saying this for weeks!) That said, the meeting began somewhat amicably.

Towards the latter part of the afternoon, I brought up the subject of the Construction Manager. Issam had claimed in the previous night’s email, that I had not provided him with contact details for any construction managers (which was not true as I had provided him with them the previous day, the previous Thursday, and the previous Wednesday). I had also told him that we had lost two CMs – Perry and Hugo – and several other construction managers I had approached because of ATP’s refusal to make a commitment. I made the point that we were in a very difficult situation. I told everyone present that we had only one option for a construction manager left.

Ben, an Australian construction manager, had told me that he was available and interested. I had emailed his details to Issam twice the previous week and again yesterday. Issam finally contacted Ben by email and made an offer that threatened to jeopardise Ben’s involvement in the show. Why? Ben had asked if it was a five or six day week. Issam wrote back saying the pay was way below what Ben would expect and that it was also a six-day week. His approach was like a bull in a China shop – almost as if the intention was to alienate Ben.

The entire UK Art Department then preceded to tell Issam that if we were to force the issue of the six-day we would likely lose Ben. Issam was very unhappy about this. He said that his concern was that if he allowed Ben to do a five-day week this would snowball and it would not be long before the entire Art Department wanted a five-day week. We acknowledged that this was a problem. But the point that I stressed was that hiring a CM was a more immediate problem since there were no other options – ATP had exhausted the all.

A good half hour went by while Production, and to a lesser degree Ahmed, argued about how they should agree a five-day week. I kept saying it was because we no longer had a choice. I did not point out that we no longer had a choice because Issam had repeatedly screwed up hiring a construction manager capable of doing the job. (a previous CM had agreed to do it for ATP’s proposed rate but they’d messed him about so much he went and got another job).

Finally, Issam stormed out of the office accusing the Art Department of bullying him and being unreasonable. First Smithers and then I went out to talk to him. We explained that we were not bullying him; rather we were trying to resolve a very serious problem because without a construction manager capable of handling a show of this size there would be no sets, which meant there would be no show.

I had already said in the meeting that if we did not choose Ben and instead decided to see if we could find someone else it would be like playing Russian roulette. Issam refused to believe there could be no other construction managers left. I agreed. I said that was not the problem; the problem was that we had exhausted all of our leads and we had no idea how to find good construction managers who might be available. I said that we might be lucky and find one tomorrow or it could be a week or it could be a month. Our problem, I said, was that we did not have time to find this out because the construction manager was already supposed to be breaking down set plans weeks ago.

Things calmed down. But we were left with a very real problem. And it’s the same problem we’ve had since I got here 4 1/2 months ago and before that when Chris got here and Simon; Arab Telemedia do not listen.

They accuse everybody else of not listening but they fail to listen in the meantime. Issam remarked that we seem hellbent on only using UK crew. We told him that we have every intention of using local crew and training them up but we can only do that if we have the UK crew to train them. Issam said we had made no effort at all to work with local crew. I told him that that was not true and that he knew it because I’d spent the last two months trying to work with Fozan despite Fozan not being a construction manager.

Arguing with ATG employees — and Issam is now one of them — is like arguing with a child. I do wonder if I should read “How To Talk To Children So They’ll Listen”. It really is that bad. If they don’t like what they hear, they don’t hear it. If they don’t like what they see, they don’t see it. They are an impossible company.

In conclusion, we are no more further forward then we were when we were in Jordan. We have lost Abdul, the only person we had who was capable of doing some of the specialised work we need. We have lost Sari who was the only person in Production who seemed to have any idea what he was doing. We have effectively lost Issam who has now become a “tool” (willing or not, I don’t know) of Arab Telemedia.

Meantime, Arab Telemedia is playing the waiting game. Talal told Abdul it was only a matter of time before the shoot went back to Jordan. Two days ago, Ibrahim was overheard saying that this show was never going to get filmed. He may have meant in Qatar. I don’t know.

Ahmed told me yesterday that the budget now is the same as it has always been. This means the budget is still approximately $40 million. I also know that ATG has ordered Issam to do a budget (for filming in Qatar) that is over $100 million. When Ahmed sees that budget he will be furious. This is clearly part of Arab Telemedia’s game-plan. They want a budget that will force the show back to Jordan where Ahmed and the Studio cannot keep an eye on ATG.

The perversity of all this (and I’ve said this before) is that the show could have been shot for $40 million. It just required people who knew what they are doing, and Arab Telemedia clearly not. They haven’t even done something as simple as fix the script locations despite having had months to do it. Today, the production manager, Majid, was out buying shopping bags full of water and biscuits for our meeting. I don’t think I’ve seen a production manager do that since I was a student at film school.

And that pretty much sums this entire production up…

…a show led by a bunch of film students telling a bunch of seasoned professionals how to do the job. There is not a hope in Hell of this show ever getting made so long as Arab Telemedia continues to be attached to it. I suspect they will shoot something eventually, just so they can pretend they were serious about doing so, but they will do it their way and then blame the resultant debacle on the director.

ATG has to go. The question is, when will this happen? And will the show survive it? Or will all the money be gone by then…?

NOTE ADDED May 20th, 2016 (as I forgot to add it at the time of writing the above entry!) – The following email and list was sent to ATG on July 14th, 2015. After which observed ATG do practically nothing on this list within the timeframe specified (they did hire Rita and give Ray a car, but that was practically it). When we continued to update this list showing that ATP was doing next to nothing, they got aggressive and started accusing us of attempting to sabotage the show (while all the time not paying our wages too):-

Email From Chris to Arab Telemedia suggesting way forward

The Way Forward For Arab Telemedia Page 1

The Way Forward For Arab Telemedia Page 2

The Way Forward For Arab Telemedia Page 3

The Way Forward For Arab Telemedia Page 4

Madness Is A Place Called ATG

Each Friday I would like to summarise the week’s macabre events (there are no other kind of weeks here) in a few posts but often it feels like too many things have happened. Last week was no exception. Bizarre – and sometimes sickening – events included;

  1. Confirmation we were relocating to Qatar after Talal was caught by the Qatari investors with his hands in the till. But that they cannot get rid of ATG yet due to clauses in the contract.
  2. Farah being cruelly fired at zero notice on account of our relocating, and Chris being told to tell her. He refused because he thought ATP’s approach was appalling. So ATP was forced to do it — meaning they told poor Sari to do it instead.
  3. Me having to reformat episodes 1 to 5 because after about 18 months ATP still can’t figure out how to format scripts properly. And they’re too cheap to hire a Script Supervisor to help them do it (the knock-on affects to us are very very time-consuming).
  4. Wages being more than a week late.
  5. Per Diems being just three days late (they would have been a week but I finally lost it and told the useless accountant, Omar, who is responsible for our Per Diems, that if he didn’t get them before midnight, I’d make his life hell. (I think Chris was a bit shocked because I literally started screaming at the poor guy (Omar) on the street).
  6. ATP at first refusing to take Abdul to Qatar but then trying to employ him full-time on a shit salary (and I bet they would charge the investors at least two times more). On this note, we suspect ATP is guilty of huge ‘mark ups’ on crew wages. We have been told NOT to discuss our salaries with Ahmed. I wonder why? (if you’re reading this Ahmed, I have a spreadsheet with everyone’s wages on it that you are welcome to have).
  7. Issam continuing to be held hostage by ATP who haven’t paid him for about three months (and consequently forcing him to do all their nasty work).
  8. Issam telling us our budget will double despite the fact we have established Qatar costs 6 to 8 times more. (I’ve already worked on the Art Dept would be at least six times higher).
  9. Natasha, the charming Russian make-up artist, who is still being held hostage by ATP who don’t pay her Per Diems, haven’t paid her wages for over a month, and refuse to pay her plane ticket out of the country.
  10. The minivan driver who, though a lovely guy, is still here after killing a dog, and nearly killing us.

And the list goes on.

15 1515 = Is ISIS

Yesterday, I heard that Talal’s new Range Rover has the registration number 15 1515. It does not take much to realise that this spells out the words, “Is ISIS”.

Footnote added June 23rd: It’s true. I didn’t take pictures because it was parked directly outside his office and there’s security cameras everywhere (one employee even told me there’s a camera in the men’s toilet!). I really don’t think I can add anything to that other than to say that given the current crisis (June 23rd – crew unpaid again), seeing Talal’s shiny brand new USD$200,000-plus Range Rover parked outside with this numberplate has done nothing to improve Talal’s reputation amongst the international crew.

The Contract

Signing Contract Squeezed Out Of Us?

You know when ATG is up to something because they pay you on time. This week, my wages arrived on Wednesday and my per diems arrived on Thursday which, while a day late, occurred without their having to be reminded (my accounting software tells me they are an average of 12 days late when my Deal Memo says I must be paid within 7 working days).

So what were they up to? Well, last thing on Thursday we were presented with our contracts.

This provided some very funny (though rather sobering) moments as we read them. Clauses included conditions like;

  1. In the event that we quit we must repay *all* our wages.
  2. In the event that filming had to stop due to Force Majeur, we must carry on working without pay and once filming recommenced we were to return to the job regardless of whether we were on another job or not.

The first clause – about having to pay wages should you quit without their permission – was put in Chris Richmond’s contract months ago. Chris spotted it and had it removed, and then signed it. The next day, an ATG lacky brought the contract back saying they had made an error – the date was wrong or something – and asked, could he resign it? Chris re-signed without thinking about it. Only after did he realise they had swapped it back to the old contract and tricked him into signing it!!!

Despite this story and its many insane clauses, the contract became the source of cautious amusement amongst the Art Department. It was full of typos, bad punctuation, grammatical errors and numerous other mistakes that meant the contract could never be held up in a court of law.

The curious thing is ATG has several lawyers permanently working for it. So the question is why were we presented with a contract that looked like it had been written by a 13-year-old who had cobbled it together from numerous other contracts from other countries?

In addition, it was clear from the contract that ATG did not actually know what our jobs were! For example, my contract as Art Director included conditions that I was responsible for sourcing and taken charge of set dressing and special effects, both of which actually fall under different departments.

Finally, my contract stated that I was responsible for managing the budget despite the fact I have never seen a budget and have no idea how much money my department has to spend. Plus I have absolutely no access to the money anyway.

In short, it was the silliest contract that I, and everyone else in the Art Department, had ever seen. And I knew that in this one document, I had finally seen evidence that his company really could not be trusted.