Monday, 26 March 2012

A Hollywood producer in Moscow

On Friday I went to a talk by a Hollywood producer who has lived in Moscow for the past ten years. He was what people used to call "a singular gentleman", but (or perhaps because of this?) he had some interesting stories to tell about his experiences working with and for the super-rich in Russia.

A brief outline of his life: He grew up poor in Beverly Hills, jealous of the lifestyle of his more privileged friends, and started work straight out of high school. Over the next twenty years he started various businesses, always with the aim of finding something that would make him rich. Unfortunately, nothing he turned his hand to was successful for more than a couple of years, and he ended up coming to Moscow in the late 90s with the idea of being a link between Hollywood and the Russian film industry. The financial crisis in '98 put a bit of dampener on things, but eventually he got himself hired to bring an American movie star to the Moscow Film Festival. Since then he has made a living arranging for film stars and singers to attend the birthday parties/film festivals/business openings (delete as appropriate) of wealthy Russians, with the occasional sideline into helping out rich people from other countries. Basically, if you have a lot of money, live within the borders of the old Soviet Union, and want to meet a movie star, this is the guy you call.

He has brought more eighty "stars" to Russia and related countries over the last ten years. Most of them wanted to visit Moscow strip clubs and also Red Square, to experience the illicit thrill of standing at the heart of [former] enemy country and reminisce about how they watched tanks rolls across it when they were children. He has arranged parties for members of the Gaddafi family, the wife of the President on Azerbaijan, various Russian bankers and oligarchs (who appear to have really long birthday parties - all the parties described were multi-day events - does everyone really go for the entire time?), and, perhaps strangest of all, he arranged for Ramzan Kadyrov to meet Jean Claude Van Damme and Hilary Swank. He joked that this last one didn't make him very popular with the human rights people. Ho ho ho. Those pesky human rights people.

Anyway, these are a few snippets of advice from his talk:

1. If you life is threatened, ring up your Chechen mates
Whilst arranging one event, some Russian gangsters tried to shake him down. They told him that if he didn't give them half the money he was being paid he would never leave Russia alive. So he phoned up one of his Chechen friends, who lent him a couple of his people to take with him to the park where he was supposed to hand over the money. When they arrived and the Russians were told whose people he had with him, they apologised, said the whole thing had been a mistake and that of course they didn't want his money. The Chechens said they thought it must have been a mistake, but just to make sure everyone understood the situation, they told the Russians that if anything happened to this guy [the producer] they would hunt them down and kill them all.

2. If you want to get to know people (and if you don't, you should), open a restaurant
The only reason anyone opens restaurants is to meet people. It is the best way to make contacts quickly, and it means you can hang out and people will come to you, instead of you needing to traipse around the whole city. Of course, this does mean that your interests are not aligned with those of the people putting up the money for the restaurant, but hey, more fool them.

3. Speaking Russian is totally unnecessary
He claimed to negotiate business deals with people in Russian, without speaking a word of the language, and only finding out after the fact what he had agreed to. This cannot possibly be true. People here are smart and would take him apart in about five seconds.

4. To avoid having to pay bribes, make friends with the Head of the FSB
Actually, I thought this was inspired. He was asked whether he paid bribes, and he said he had never paid a bribe in Russia (which he had to say, really, being a US citizen). The way he avoided it was by making friends with the Head of the FSB, and having a photograph of him and various Chechen people on the wall of his office. Then, whenever anyone came to see him, he would find a way to bring these friendships into the conversation, and hey presto, no one dared ask him for any money.

The main problem with what he said was that you had to stop after every sentence and consider whether you believed him or not. If you're a salesman, especially if what you are selling is your network, it pays to exaggerate what you have done and who you have met. Probably half of what he said never happened. But even so, this man's world is so far removed from anything I have ever, or will ever, encounter, that it seems incredible that both his life and mine are taking place in the same city. Moscow is an interesting place.

1 comment:

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