Success comes to those who take risks, and Rami Jaber lives this proverb in everything he does. The rally driver turned Hollywood actor / producer has moved from strength to strength without breaking a sweat, or at least that’s what it looks like on the exterior.
Born in Palestine, Jaber spent the better part of 17 years in the UAE. “My family moved to the UAE when I was two months old,” he tells Digital Studio Middle East on the side-lines of On.Dxb, a festival organised by Dubai Media City designed to support industry growth and talent development. Jaber was one of the headliners at the November 2019 event, speaking to eagerly listening audiences as he revealed secrets of his journey from YouTube to Hollywood.
“I thought about making a video, like a short film, combining my profession of being a rally driver with the city I now call home — Oulu, Finland. I started planning it but I had no idea or concept of filmmaking,” says Jaber who graduated in computer science.
He identified a commonality between rally car driving and filmmaking — funding through sponsors. “I wanted to shoot a sequence where I would drive a rally car through city streets, drifting around curbs while exploring the nearby countryside as well.”
Jaber approached the city authorities who were pleasantly surprised when they heard the sponsorship would cost them $15,000. “They asked me, ‘you will land a helicopter and stage explosions for just $15,000?’. They quickly jumped on board and we signed a contract. I soon realised that the project would cost $120,000. Where was I going to find that kind of money?”Jaber pondered.
He fell back on his rally sponsors and drummed up an additional $50,000 but was way off the target. “I never once went back to my principal sponsor — the City of Oulu — to ask for more money. You have to be a problem solver in life and that’s what I set out to do. Do not complain to sponsors after signing on the dotted line. Fix your problems, and tell them what you did and how you achieved things once the agreement has gone through,” Jaber reveals.
Left with no choice, Jaber approached students studying film in University of Oulu. The idea was for them to work on the production and post-production of the short. Jaber sold it to the students as “hands-on experience” that would go a long way in contributing to their master’s degree thesis.
“Thanks to their participation I now had access to RED cameras and all the sophisticated equipment in the university’s inventory. The project in its entirety — production to post production — was done by the students of the University of Oulu.“All the profit I made out of this project was spent in making future projects such as the one I did in Paris. I produced two more short films — Two Hours to Vegas and Fate — which were Prison Break-style movies.” The film was uploaded to iTunes and was downloded three million times in one week. “People thought it was a prison break sort of movie, of course it wasn’t,” Jaber laughs.
The film also raked in several thousand views on YouTube in a matter of days. The ball was set rolling and Jaber was convinced he could swap the rally car seat for one in Hollywood.
“From the outset, I wanted to be in charge of my productions, it’s important to attract sponsors but I don’t want to be linked to their failures. The way to succeed is to have a good team around you,” Jaber notes.
Jaber set up a holding company — RNG Entertainment — with five people in the team.
“These people have paid a fee to be part of the company, and that’s because I wanted them to feel like they have a vested interest in RNG Entertainment’s affairs. It’s important for people to feel more than just an employee in a company — that’s when they go the extra mile because they feel the company is part of them and vice versa,” he says.
Jaber also opened other businesses which includes a diamond factory — Kingdom of Diamonds; and a football team — AC Oulu.
“When we receive funding from new sponsors we set aside some of it for producing new and existing movies and the rest of it is diversified in our other business ventures. In total we have about seven companies,” says Jaber.
The business model closely mimics a concept of a mutual fund where a single investment is diversified into companies of various risk levels. Ensuring the investor that the success and failures will be evenly balanced out, yielding better returns on investment.
Having started from YouTube, Jaber envisioned making feature films.
He moved to Los Angeles and started hosting house parties where he invited industry specialists. “Some spend their wealth on the finer things in life, but we chose to host these parties and make the right contacts.”
Over the last few years Jaber has been busy with the production of The Misfits – an action heist flick – which stars the likes of Pierce Brosnan, Tim Roth and Nick Cannon.
The film is directed by Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master and Deep Blue) with Kia Jam as one of its producers.
Jaber has created the concept for The Misfits from scratch. He notes: “In 2016 I hosted a party which had producers, directors and writers in attendance. The idea [for The Misfits] was born here after I shared a concept with one of the writers at the party — we finished the script and started producing the film.”
The Misfits brought Jaber back to the place he spent his formative years — Abu Dhabi. “We were initially slated to film in Puerto Rico and Los Angeles. Following a natural disaster and the ensuing crisis that struck Puerto Rico, we were forced to re-look at other destinations. We decided on Abu Dhabi, which would replace Puerto Rico. UAE was ideal because they had previous experience with movies such as Fast & Furious in Abu Dhabi or Mission Impossible in Dubai. The level and quality of the facilities is what we are used to shooting with in LA.”
The entire cast and crew were in the UAE capital to film a few scenes in February 2019. And while the film has been scheduled for 2020 additional scenes are currently being written “to make the film even better”.
“The film is still under production with the writers busy putting together new scenes. These new scenes will be shot in LA. Writing and filming of the additional scenes will be done by January 2020,” Jaber notes.
Make in Arabic
Amidst the glitz of tinsel town Jaber hasn’t forgotten his roots and vows to make a Arabic movie someday. “I’m not too sure about making an Arabic movie just as yet, I’m confident of a TV series on the other hand. It’s a case of never say never, and my dream is to make an Arabic movie featuring big names from Hollywood and Bollywood,” Jaber reveals.
The small screen is a realistic possibility and Jaber initially planned on working towards producing a TV series for the lucrative Ramadan period. “I want to produce Arabic content with Hollywood actors and build a bridge between the Middle East and Hollywood. We are most certainly looking at doing a big [budget] Arabic TV series which will have a star cast. The series will also include a few renowned Arabic stars as well. There’s no denying that the Middle East is home to a vast pool of talented directors — based in Egypt, UAE, Tunisia and all over the region.”
Hard work pays off
One could easily put Jaber’s successes down to being in the right place at the right time but behind the calm demeanour and warm smile lay countless hours of painstaking hard work and planning. “When I started I sat with the video editor for 18 hours at a stretch, which was like university for me. I shadowed directors, camera and lighting professionals asking them the silliest of questions, I wanted to learn everything. Four years before I produced my first short film, I worked on two other films just to learn how to produce movies.
“Assembling a star cast like we did for The Misfits doesn’t happen overnight — there’s a lot of hard work. I saw Pierce Brosnan on TV but today I can say that I work with him,” he says.
The Misfits is being produced at a budget of $55m but Jaber is aiming higher. “My goal is to do a $150m movie someday. Eventually, I want to do movies and sell them to studios, I’m working towards that. I don’t approach people if I don’t feel it’s the right time, and currently I don’t have anything powerful in my hand,” he says.
Jaber found success on a platform much before YouTubers found a lucrative means of earning ad revenue. He used social media to spring board his way into the big leagues, and invested big in the process.
“You have to be able to believe in your ideas and back them. Spend big if you need to even if your film is going to appear on social media platforms. I can proudly say I’m on the only filmmaker to make $6m on a short film, by spending $1.8m (Fate). No one has ever made money by making short movies,” Jaber concludes.