As outrage mounts over the Sultan of Brunei imposing sharia law in his island country, American producers going forward might need to think twice when choosing foreign business partners. The Sultan doesn’t have any known business ties to the entertainment industry, but before his edict, a lot of Hollywood’s elite liked to breakfast and power lunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel and its famous Polo Lounge, which he owns along with the Bel-Air Hotel. With film financing a global enterprise and film production often a multinational undertaking, the boycott of the hotel likely will lead to Hollywood taking more care to vet an overseas partner’s politics, background, even beliefs.
American film productions probably won’t be running off to shoot in Brunei anytime soon, but before the uproar, the Sultan was hoping to turn his country into a film location destination. The first feature film ever shot in the country, Yasmine, was released this year. Partially funded by the Brunei government, it tells the story of a young girl who dreams of becoming a martial arts champion. Last year, South Africa’s Mail & Guardian reported that “industry experts have pointed to Brunei’s nascent film scene as a potentially lucrative source of income, with its jungles providing a unique backdrop for action and wilderness films. The Bruneian government backed Yasmine to the tune of about $120,000, telling the Mail & Guardian that it hoped the film would “inspire and encourage more such projects.” That probably won’t be happening now.
Other countries also could be in for more careful scrutiny before Hollywood inks a business deal there.
Saudi Arabia, for example, has long had some of the same cruel laws as Brunei, but that hasn’t stopped the industry from partnering with a fabulously wealthy member of its ruling family. Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal is one of the biggest foreign investors in Hollywood. He holds a 6.6% voting interest in News Corp Fox through his Kingdom Holding Company, and News Corp, in turn, owns a 19% stake in his Rotana Group, which owns one of the region’s largest TV networks and the largest Arabic film library. Outside the Murdoch family, Prince Alwaleed is the second-largest shareholder in News Corp/21st Century Fox. A spokesman for 21st Century Fox declined comment. He also has held major stakes in the Walt Disney Company, Time Warner and the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, and is a major investor in Twitter.
Known for his philanthropic endeavors and moderate views, the Prince hasn’t ordered the stoning of anyone, as Brunei’s new laws decree for homosexuality and adultery, but his family enforces some of the most barbaric laws against women and gays anywhere in the world. According to the 2013 U.S. State Department’s Report on Human Rights (read it here), “consensual same-sex sexual conduct is punishable by death or flogging” under Islamic law in Saudi Arabia, where it is also “illegal for men ‘to behave like women’ or to wear women’s clothes, and vice versa.” In the country, rape is illegal — but it’s illegal for both the rapist and the victim.
And several recent films have shot on location in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, including Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and Syriana. In December, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sent a delegation, headed by former Academy President Sid Ganis, to Dubai to seal a partnership with the Dubai International Film Festival, which was celebrating its 10th anniversary. But like Brunei and Saudi Arabia, it too has archaic laws regarding gays and women. According to the State Department report, “Due to social conventions and potential persecution, LGBT organizations did not operate openly, nor were gay pride marches or gay rights advocacy events held.” It also notes that female rape victims in Dubai also “face the possibility of prosecution for consensual sex instead of receiving assistance from government authorities.” Adultery is also illegal in Dubai, and mothers who cannot prove the paternity of their children “faced potential legal charges of adultery,” the report states. In 2000, a woman there was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery. Only international outcry prevented the sentence from being carried out.
Hollywood makes movies, and politics makes strange bedfellows. It remains to be seen if strange bedfellows will continue to make movies.