Pressure is mounting on Hollywood’s business relationships with Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the disappearance–and possible murder–of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Endeavor, the talent and media company run by Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell, is trying to end a deal for the Saudi government to invest $400 million in the company. But the termination is not yet complete yet as it’s “complicated to unwind,” says one person with knowledge of the deal.
On Monday onstage at MipCom, an entertainment buying trade show, Emanuel said he was “monitoring” the situation and that he was “personally . . . really concerned,” though said he would not completely end the relationship with Saudi Arabia, which is planning on taking a 5% to 10% stake in the company.
Endeavor declined to comment for this story.
Khashoggi’s disappearance on October 2 after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has captured the attention of the White House, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood and beyond, due to the strange circumstances surrounding his vanishing. Turkish authorities have accused Saudi Arabia of brutally murdering Khashoggi, who was a vocal critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.
In Hollywood, the drama has major business ramifications, as Saudi Arabia has been actively seeking investment from the entertainment industry. Last April, Bin Salman was lavishly courted by Disney’s Bob Iger and Fox’s Rupert Murdoch, a well as other poohbahs, when he visited Hollywood. Bin Salman has been praised for ushering in new reforms in Saudi Arabia, such as allowing women to drive and opening up the insular country to outside investment. Hollywood has been particularly pleased with the prince’s decision to end a 35-year ban on theatrical screenings. Analysts predict that a new theatrical market in Saudi Arabia could be worth $1 billion in ticket sales.
But in the wake of Khashoggi’s disappearance, the mood in Hollywood has changed considerably. Several prominent names, such as STX CEO Robert Simonds, Viacom’s Bob Bakish, and the Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, pulled out of the Future Investment Initiative, which will be held later this month in Riyadh. Other companies with ties to Saudi Arabia, such as AMC, IMAX, and Cirque de Soleil, have either not commented or said they were monitoring the controversy.
The Saudi investment would further Endeavor’s global expansion as Emanuel and Whitesell continue to transform the company from a traditional talent agency into a global media powerhouse. Endeavor owns IMG, Ultimate Fighting Championship, and Professional Bull Riders, among other entertainment and live events entities. Its talent agency, WME, represents some of the biggest Hollywood stars, including Oprah Winfrey, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, and Mark Wahlberg.
The investment was met with protests when it was first announced back in April. Members of Code Pink, a social justice organization, protested outside of WME’s Beverly Hills headquarters. The demonstrators were angry over a Saudi-sponsored military intervention in Yemen that has contributed to a humanitarian crisis.