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Movie Deal Portrays BCCI as a 'Personal Piggy Bank' : Scandal: Involvement in 'Brenda Starr' film sheds light on firm's relationships with the rich and royal.

September 01, 1991|WILLIAM C. REMPEL and JEFFREY L. RABIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Mystery Man Productions was formed in May, 1986, and filming began in July. It was the beginning of what Hyman describes as "strange and wondrous times." Back then no one seemed concerned that the mysterious Middle Eastern investor was a filmmaking novice. No one except, perhaps, the writers. James Buchanan, one of three screenwriters to work on the script, told the Associated Press that the unidentified investor's representatives "were not people who had ever made a movie. They said things like, 'On page 22, you will introduce a dream sequence,' that kind of thing."

The production itself was, as ordered, first-class from the start. Robert Ellis Miller, who made "Reuben, Reuben," was hired to direct. In addition to Shields the cast included Timothy Dalton, Charles Durning, Diana Scarwid, Tony Peck and Henry Gibson. Prominent designer Bob Mackie created Brenda Starr's clothes.

Even luck seemed to be with the production. During shooting it was announced that Dalton would be the new "James Bond," succeeding longtime 007 agents Sean Connery and Roger Moore. If released on schedule, "Brenda Starr" would have been Dalton's first film since his new burst of celebrity.

"Everyone was very happy," Hyman recalled.

But not Ibrahim, associates said. He continued to meet his financial commitments to the film, but there were delays. "He started getting cold feet," one associate said.

As is common in the movie business, requests to approve budget overruns started coming in. Ibrahim was not comfortable with such uncertainty, aides said.

"If you buy a building, you agree on a price and that's it; here people say, 'I know we have an agreement, but please give us more money,' " attorney Mansour noted.

As "Brenda Starr" was coming together late in 1986 there was still no hint of scandal associated with BCCI. But there were hints of trouble with the movie project. Ibrahim wanted his investment back sooner rather than later. Associates say that Ibrahim's conservative family was unaware he had put money into such an unconventional investment as a film, and he was anxious to get it back.

Efforts to renegotiate a tentative distribution deal that was uncommonly favorable to the investor met resistance from New World Pictures, an independent Hollywood distributor that had agreed to release the film.

"They (the Ibrahim people) just didn't understand the movie business," Hyman said. "They looked at it like real estate or something."

Ibrahim's representatives would not budge. At a meeting attended by Hyman, Ibrahim's BCCI banker and a battery of lawyers for all sides, attorney Mansour declared that the sheik was "prepared to keep the film on a shelf and watch it in the desert on Saturday nights" if he could not have the kind of distribution deal he wanted.

In the midst of those rancorous discussions came the rather startling discovery that Ibrahim's agents had failed to secure the television rights to Brenda Starr from the Tribune Co.--making it impossible for Mystery Man Productions to sell them as part of its distribution package. TV rights are important to a film distributor as a financial hedge--as a guarantee of some minimum return in case the movie flops at the box office.

Distribution negotiations collapsed. By late 1987 "Brenda Starr" was headed for court instead of the screen. And from that moment, Ibrahim's first movie venture was an almost certain financial disappointment.

There were also differences over just how much was invested. Director Miller said he spent about $15 million to make the movie. Mansour and producer Hyman said the budget was about $14 million. But Ibrahim associates said an internal audit attributed $22.3 million to the film.

A rule of thumb in Hollywood is that a film's box office return must be roughly three times its production budget to break even. For example, a $15-million film would have to generate at least $45 million in tickets before going into profit.

The Disney Studio's "Rocketeer"--like "Brenda Starr" a light comedy, period piece featuring Timothy Dalton--was released this summer to a box office return of about $45 million. But there are doubts in Hollywood that "Brenda Starr" can do that well. Without the major studio marketing support "Rocketeer" enjoyed, Brenda Starr's profit chances "are slim to none," said one producer.

As for Ibrahim's interest in future film ventures, Mansour said:

"His first one was probably his last one."

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