At a chic restaurant in this lovely and very wealthy suburb of Tunis, two international bankers lunched quietly.
There was Frans Afman, the affable Dutchman who is senior vice president of Credit Lyonnais, consistently ranked as one of the world's 10 largest banks in terms of assets by Fortune magazine, and Moncef Chiekh Rouhou, a young Tunisian economist, trained at Berkeley and pegged as a future government minister. Chiekh Rouhou is vice president and general manager of the Saudi-owned B.E.S.T. bank, a financial institution run according to Islamic principles (which prohibit loaning money at interest).
Anyone recognizing these two money men would have automatically assumed that they were discussing new ways to bolster Tunisia's sagging economy. In fact, they were talking cinema.
Affectionately known in the international movie-making community as "the banker who reads Variety," Afman was easily one of the most sought-after guests at the recent Cannes festival. The reason: he heads the most unorthodox branch of the conservative Credit Lyonnais--the entertainment business division.
His most veteran client is Dino De Laurentiis, who talked him into a small loan in 1972, when Afman headed the international division of the Amsterdam-based Slavenburg's Bank, and then proceeded to "teach me almost everything I know about the film industry."
Afman's most amazing success story is Golan/Globus, the two cousins he nursed with a $50-million credit line from small-time Israeli producers to international movie moguls who now run Cannon Films.
Tarak Ben Ammar, the host of today's lunch, is the newest addition to Afman's prestigious stable of independent producers, that also includes Alexander Salkind ("Superman"), Mario Kassar ("First Blood," "Rambo: First Blood Part II") and Hemdale ("The Terminator"). Like B.E.S.T. bank, Credit Lyonnais is backing Ben Ammar's current project, "Pirates," a $30- to $40-million Roman Polanski movie that stars a swashbuckling Walter Matthau.
Other projects being financed through Credit Lyonnais: "Taipan" (De Laurentiis), "Santa Claus" (the Salkinds), and from Hemdale, "At Close Range" (with Sean Penn and Christopher Walken) and "Outpost" (with Arnold Schwarzenegger).
"I invented this job," recalled Afman. "I always loved movies, and I'd had a few producers as clients, but I didn't understand film financing until I met Dino De Laurentiis. Even that was sheer coincidence."
At Slavenburg's, a medium-sized Dutch commercial bank, Afman was responsible for drumming up business with the big multinational corporations. He contacted Charles Bluhdorn (the late chairman of Gulf & Western), an Austrian who after World War II had financed his first deal with the help of Slavenburg. G&W;'s Dutch operations, Paramount Pictures Corp. and the CIC Distribution Co., were already being serviced by other banks, but Bluhdorn had an idea. "I know this Mr. De Laurentiis," he said to Afman. "Maybe you can help me by helping him."
De Laurentiis had just left his native Italy for the United States, forced by the failure of his epic films and a crisis in the local industry to sell his Rome studios. He was trying to finance a new feature, "Three Days of the Condor," through pre-sales to independent film producers.
"Unlike U.S. banks, we weren't afraid to discount foreign contracts," Afman explained. "Dino made his deals with distributors in the biggest territories" (Japan, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Latin America, South Africa, Austria, Hong Kong, Australia, South Korea, Scandinavia).
By 1976, Afman personally knew most of the world's top independent distributors, among them Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, whose Israeli company, Noah, handled DDL (De Laurentiis) products. Golan was about to direct "Uranium Conspiracy," which he had pre-sold to the Italians for $400,000. Afman agreed to assume the risk.
Afman dealt with Slavenburg's multinational clients but continued to find time for DDL, Golan/Globus and a handful of other film companies. Then, in September of 1977, Banque Nationale de Paris, then one of the largest banks in the world, made him its general manager in The Netherlands. The French urged him to continue project financing--with one stipulation:
"They wanted no more of these 'uh . . . movies,' " laughed Afman, mimicking a Gallic accent laced with distaste for celluloid. "Which was OK with me. I was tired of the film industry loonies who always called after midnight. Or so I thought."
Twelve months later, having opened two new branches of BNP in Holland, negotiated contracts and brought in new clients, Afman dropped by the office of a former film client. He spotted a Variety. Suddenly hungry for news of Hollywood, he stole the newspaper, then began coming round twice a week to talk shop.
"I realized then that I was hooked, in the film business for life," he says. "To make things worse, Dino insisted I be his consultant. He refused to negotiate deals at Slavenburg's without me. So I returned to my old position."
During Afman's year at BNP, Golan and Globus had moved their operation to Hollywood, determined to become a major production company. In May, 1979, they bought the then-bankrupt Cannon and became Afman's "23-hour-a-day clients."
"Afman is a man who works with people, not just contracts and papers," Golan said in a phone interview. "When we had hard times, he stood behind us and didn't let us fall. I don't think we could have made it to where we are today without the bank. They were our backbone. People never understood where we got our money from.
"I don't know another banker who reads scripts, knows about casting, goes from set to set. We meet at least 20 times on each movie. He comes to every premiere, every rough cut. I see him at every film festival. I think that without him, independent production might not have developed. All independent producers owe him a lot."
Adds Ben Ammar: "Afman loves movies, so he loves going to the set and seeing how movies are made. That's important, because a banker who doesn't know about looping, mixing and special effects can't understand that film making is really volatile short-term management where a wrong decision can cost $60,000 a day."
Afman and his staff have script and cast approval--script approval only for projected costs and budget, cast approval for bankable, dependable stars--but without creative meddling, according to Afman. "Fortunately, we've never had to reject anyone. Our producers have always given us the kind of actors we think are bankable and serious--the type that wouldn't walk off the set.
"And selection of the director is very important to us, because the director is responsible for completing the film on time and within the budget. We have in the past used pressure--always friendly--to push our producers toward using certain directors."
The bank also never takes points (participation in profits). "If a movie makes more than $100 million, I'm overjoyed," he says. "But we will still just charge interest and our fees." The bank does, however, introduce clients to financial experts who can advise them on such subjects as whether, and how, to go public.
His name has appeared only once onscreen. Salkind credited Afman as his "financial consultant" on "Superman II," a film that the banker worked hard on.
"One of the job's quirks," Afman said, "is that I can pick and choose with whom I work. And I do. Interestingly, all of my clients are very different. What they have in common is that they love the business, which is why I like to support them. It's much more gratifying to give $2 million to an independent film maker than to General Motors or one of the majors."
Credit Lyonnais bought Slavenburg's in early 1981. (Credit Lyonnais, Slavenburg's major shareholder, took over after a major financial scandal that saw several department heads lose their jobs. According to Roger Watkins, chief of Variety's European bureau, "When Credit Lyonnais sent people in to go through the books, Afman came out clean as a whistle.")
Afman's new bosses told him to sever all contact with the film industry to avoid further risks. "The problem was that there were a few projects already before the cameras," Afman said. "So I kept a low profile."
(Said his wife, Anja: "That means working at home from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m.")
Continued Afman: "Film is an American art, so in principal films are financed by American banks (Chemical, First National of Boston, Bank of America). I think it's remarkable that a foreign bank can play such a major role."