While scandal-ridden Bank of Credit & Commerce International draws swarms of investigators looking into allegations of laundered cocaine money, covert arms transactions, investment frauds and influence peddling around the globe, a curious tale of a Hollywood movie deal may shed the most revealing light yet on how BCCI could be used as the "personal piggy bank" of the rich and royal.
A billionaire Saudi Arabian sheik with a special relationship to BCCI, a young American actress with a pushy mother and a comic strip character with a chance to move from the funny papers to the big screen.
The publicity-shy sheik, linked to more than $130 million in problem loans from BCCI, uses a London branch office of the troubled bank to finance a bungled entry into the Hollywood movie business.
In 1986, agents of the secretive sheik--Abdul Aziz al Ibrahim, 43, a brother-in-law of Saudi King Fahd--created Mystery Man Productions, a New York-based film company, to funnel as much as $22.3 million in cash and, reportedly, BCCI loan proceeds into the feature film "Brenda Starr." According to associates of the sheik, he did so out of friendship for actress Brooke Shields, to help her win the film's title role.
The gesture produced a movie, but it also produced a financial calamity when the film became tangled in litigation over distribution and television rights. Five years after it was shot, "Brenda Starr" still has not made it to the screens of America's theaters.
And, so far, the multimillion-dollar investment of Shields' richest fan remains unrecovered.
BCCI officials in London said that at the time the movie was being made the Ibrahim family was among the bank's largest depositors. The family's importance to the bank was reflected, in part, by the fact that a BCCI executive--Hadi R. Barrage of the Green Park branch office on Piccadilly--personally handled their accounts and routinely traveled with the Ibrahims to business negotiations around the world.
The BCCI executive also acted as "our liaison with the investor," according to "Brenda Starr" filmmakers.
"All the money came in via Hadi," said Producer Myron (Mickey) Hyman, whose Tomorrow Entertainment company made the film. "(Barrage) was a very nice guy who always tried to be helpful."
In fact, the official was loaned to Ibrahim by BCCI to oversee accounts of the film production, according to an Ibrahim attorney. He said that BCCI administered investment and expense accounts of the film project. BCCI was very aggressive about finding ways to assist the project, the attorney said, because the bank saw it as "an opportunity to gain the goodwill of an important client."
Initial spending on the film was from cash accounts, but midway through the project, a close associate of the sheik said, Ibrahim began to have second thoughts about its costs. There were costly delays, for example, caused by a storm during the shooting schedule in Puerto Rico. The source said Barrage created loan accounts to finance completion and, later, to pay the substantial legal fees incurred when distribution and rights litigation erupted.
"Ibrahim didn't like spending his own cash," explained the well-informed source who insisted on anonymity. "The (movie) financing was about 50-50 cash and loans from BCCI."
Official spokesmen for the Ibrahims have issued conflicting statements about their BCCI links. One denied that the family ever borrowed from BCCI, an assertion disputed by British auditors. Another said any past loans would have been fully secured. And a third spokesman said loans did not finance "Brenda Starr." But an Ibrahim attorney who negotiated the movie deal said that loan transfers may have been used.
Khalid al Mansour, the Ibrahims' chief legal adviser on the movie project, said some of the cash disbursements for the film could have been structured as loans for tax purposes, but he insisted that any such loans were fully backed by cash deposits.
"There was no risk exposure for the bank," he said.
Auditors with the firm of Price Waterhouse, who discovered the disarray in BCCI's books last year, said that the Ibrahims did, indeed, have extensive BCCI loans: $131.7 million at the end of 1989. Furthermore, the auditors found, the Ibrahims had outstanding loans of $210.8 million at the end of 1988 and $125.2 million at the end of 1987, the year "Brenda Starr" litigation was filed. It could not be determined if any "Brenda Starr" transactions were on BCCI's books when the bank was closed in July.
Although the Ibrahim family also maintained substantial deposits, ostensibly pledged to cover those large loans, auditors said they found a troubling "absence of critical information." For example, they could find no formal liens against the pledged deposits. They also found that the Ibrahims paid BCCI only 5% interest on those loans, the same rate of interest they received from the bank on their deposits.
According to Price Waterhouse, whose critical reports prompted international banking regulators to seize BCCI, the Ibrahims were among a number of wealthy Middle Eastern families--part of a circle of favored clients--with hundreds of millions of dollars in poorly documented and, in some cases, under-secured loans.
British and American investigators contend that favoritism, and alleged corruption, undermined the bank's stability. Former U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee aide Jack Blum, who directed early congressional inquiries, characterized BCCI as "the personal piggy bank" of its favored clients.
Ibrahim representatives in Los Angeles insisted that members of the family "are victims" of the bank's collapse. However, it is clear from details of Abdul Aziz's maiden venture into Hollywood that the Ibrahims also enjoyed an especially close relationship with the bank--a relationship that the Saudi financier used in 1986 to help his favorite actress.
The movie project originated two years before the cameras rolled at primary location sites in Puerto Rico and Jacksonville, Fla. Hyman and his partners had acquired rights from the Tribune Co. to develop a film based on the long-running comic strip character, Brenda Starr--the always fashionable, perpetually 23-year-old, globe-trotting ace newspaper reporter of the Flash whose only boyfriends are millionaires.
The idea, said Hyman, whose company had produced the highly acclaimed "Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," was to make a low-budget film that could be a high-quality television movie. Timing seemed excellent. In the mid-1980s the video market was exploding and along with it the market for small-budget features. A "Dick Tracy" project was in the works. "Brenda Starr" was considered a promising property.
"I began getting calls from Teri Shields, Brooke's mother. She said Brooke always wanted to be Brenda Starr," recalled Hyman. "I guess Brenda was something of a role model to Brooke when she was a little girl. Well, Brooke's a lovely girl and I said of course we'd consider her."
The calls became more frequent and insistent. Every few weeks during 1985 Hyman said he heard from Teri Shields. Each time it was the same message: "Brooke has got to be Brenda."
Meanwhile, late in 1985 Abdul Aziz al Ibrahim--who had told friends that he was a big fan of the young actress--was introduced to Shields and her mother after singer-composer Paul Anka, then in Las Vegas, arranged a meeting. Ibrahim and his entourage had been regulars at Anka's show and the sheik had once left the keys to his Zimmer automobile with the Golden Nugget valet as a gift for the singer. From the Shields-Ibrahim meeting came a movie deal.
"One day I get another call from Teri saying, 'Brooke has got to be Brenda and now we've got an investor.' So, we have a meeting," Hyman said.
In Teri Shields' Manhattan townhouse Hyman and his partner met Ibrahim's representatives--BCCI banker Barrage and American attorney Mansour. Ibrahim's identity was to be kept secret even from the producers. To the filmmakers the unidentified Ibrahim was known only as "the prince" or "the principal."
Secrecy is a hallmark of the Ibrahim style, a product not only of natural concern for his personal security and privacy, but of Saudi Arabian politics. His closeness to the king makes him especially shy of attracting controversy or notoriety. "He doesn't want to be another Adnan Khashoggi," says an associate, referring to the flamboyant Saudi financier and arms dealer.
The entire family projects an ultra-conservative image. "Most people know that Khalid (one of five Ibrahim brothers) doesn't like the movie business. He doesn't like hotels either, because they serve alcohol," Mansour said. The Ibrahims also require some of their agents and employees to sign secrecy agreements before they are hired.
Nonetheless, Abdul Aziz Ibrahim plunged into the movie business. Hyman said there were three strings attached. The movie would be funded only:
--If Brooke Shields played Brenda Starr.
--If the film was a first-class production made for theaters, not television.
--If no advance distribution deal was negotiated.
Normally, an advance distribution agreement is desirable because it ties a film distributor, often a major studio, into an early agreement to pay for advertising and to make copies of the film for shipment to theaters. That in turn is usually helpful in nailing down financing for an independently produced film, although it can cost producers part of their profit if the film is a success.
Mansour counseled that the distribution could be arranged later, at terms more favorable to Ibrahim. Since the sheik was assuming all financial risks, Hyman had no objection to waiting on a distribution deal. Furthermore, he was delighted with the mandate for a first-class production. And, since Hyman already had been considering Brooke Shields for the part, the terms and the funding were promptly accepted.
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."