If you are rich, restless and want to reinvent your career as, say, a movie mogul, Villa TreVille can provide plenty of inspiration. Plastered on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, next to the village of Positano, it was the home of famed Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli, who played host to some of the greatest artistic talent of the sixties, seventies and eighties – Federico Fellini, Elizabeth Taylor, Leonard Bernstein, Rudolf Nureyev, Maria Callas, Leonard Cohen, the Beatles – in the villa’s fairy-tale gardens and terraces.
Today, the great muses have largely disappeared from the villa’s guest roster, but the artistic tradition remains. The villa is where Robert Friedland, the Canadian-American founder and executive co-chairman of Vancouver’s Ivanhoe Mines Ltd., is contemplating his new career as a film producer and celebrating the success of Crazy Rich Asians, the new hit movie co-produced by Ivanhoe Pictures. He happens to own Villa TreVille.
“This is heaven,” he says, perched on a high terrace that overlooks the Mediterranean Sea, the town of Positano – which cascades like a waterfall down impossibly steep cliffs – and the Amalfi Drive, the narrow, terrifying road that was built by Joseph-Napoléon Bonaparte, the king of Naples and Sicily and older brother of the emperor.
Mr. Friedland is 68 and is worth US$1-billion, according to Forbes. The Positano News reported that he paid a local hotel owner between €45-million and €70-million in 2013 for Villa TreVille, which is now one of the world’s most expensive boutique hotels. (Mr. Zeffirelli, who is 95, sold it in 2007 and retreated to Rome.) It is one of the world’s most expensive boutique hotels and underwent a sumptuous refit under the direction of Mr. Friedland’s 43-year-old geologist son, Govind, who wants to turn Villa TreVille into an international luxury brand whose properties blur the line between villa and hotel. The September rate for one of its 16 suites was almost €2,000 a night.
Mr. Friedland isn’t dressed like he’s the owner. He wears shorts, a light blue polo-style shirt decorated with a small seahorse and fashionable tortoise-shell sunglasses with blue lenses. He hasn’t got a lot of time to talk because he and his entourage, which includes Egizio Bianchini, the former BMO Capital Markets mining co-head who became Ivanhoe Mines’ executive vice-chairman in March, are within hours of leaving for meetings in France and then China. As always, Positano is an exceedingly pleasant pit stop that mixes sun, sea and glamour.
Mr. Friedland bubbles with enthusiasm about his film career, even though his mining assets still utterly dominate his business interests. “Yes, I am more interested in telling moving stories, through local film and TV – human stories – than I am in mining,” he says. “Mining is a very difficult business. I always say it’s not for intelligent people.”
As if to prove the point that film trumps mining, he mentions that Peregrine Diamonds Ltd., the Toronto-listed owner of a small diamond property in Nunavut, has just been sold to De Beers Canada for $107-million. Peregrine was founded by his brother, Eric, and together they owned about 43 per cent of the company. That’s one less mining investment to occupy his mind.
But the rest of his mining empire is intact and, apparently, staying put. Ivanhoe Mines, whose market value is $2.6-billion and which is now 19.4-per-cent owned by China’s CITIC Metal Africa, controls three big projects in southern Africa that make the Canadian company one of the region’s top foreign investors: Platreef, a platinum operation in South Africa; the Kamoa-Kakula copper play in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), ranked as the world’s richest undeveloped copper project; and, also in the DRC, the old Kipushi zinc-copper site, which is being brought back to life.
They are not trouble-free. In the DRC, foreign mining companies, led by Ivanhoe Mines, Switzerland’s Glencore – the world’s biggest commodities trader – and Randgold Resources of South Africa are trying to negotiate a new deal with the government. The government’s overhauled mining code would reportedly hike royalties and profit taxes, designate cobalt as a “strategic” mineral subject to royalties as high as 10 per cent, end some tax exemptions and remove the ostensible stability clause that guaranteed a 10-year grace period following any amendments to the code.
The talks so far have not gone in the mining companies’ favour, but Mr. Friedland is sanguine about the prospects for an acceptable compromise. He thinks the DRC should exact more from the mining companies, noting that the current, 2-per-cent royalty rate is less than half that of Australia or Mongolia. “The Congolese have a legitimate right to ask for more,” he says. But “if they ask for too much more, money is a coward and runs away. [Both sides have] to seek a balance.”
The DRC is to hold an election on Dec. 23 to determine a successor to President Joseph Kabila. “It will be normal for the new guy to want to attract new investment,” Mr. Friedland says. “I am sure the new government will say, ‘C’mon, let’s get back together and make a sustainable deal.’ ”
But Mr. Friedland really doesn’t want to talk about mining and becomes visibly annoyed by questions about his African projects. He wants to talk about film.
Adding film to a mining magnate’s résumé may not be as strange as it seems. Wealthy chief executives often go off in different directions to keep themselves amused or to see if their success in one industry can be replicated in another. “The Chinese say: If you don’t do something different every seven years, you’re already dead,” Mr. Friedland says.
And film may not be such a crazy reinvention for a mining magnate. Frank Giustra, the Sudbury boy who spent much of his career as a mining financier at Yorkton Securities and Goldcorp Inc., among other resources ventures, co-founded Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. in Vancouver in the late 1990s. Lionsgate, as it is now called, went on to phenomenal success in movies and TV, with some 30 Academy Awards and 29 Emmys on its mantel for productions ranging from The Hunger Games to American Psycho.
Both movies and mining are exceedingly high-risk ventures – with exceedingly low hit rates. Finding commercial quantities of any mineral is as rare as producing an Oscar-winning film. In other words, both industries attract executives with long-term investment horizons and a high tolerance for risk.
Mr. Friedland, who was born in Chicago and is now based in Singapore, has always loved movies and says he made his first film when he was seven or eight. But for decades, hunting for mining deposits thrust him into a peripatetic lifestyle that saw fortunes come and go, disasters such as cyanide spills hit and a couple of blockbuster scores seal his reputation as a buccaneering mining financier and promoter with an incredible lucky streak. His big break came in the mid-1990s, when he whipped up a bidding war for the vast Voisey’s Bay nickel discovery in Labrador, which would go to Inco Ltd. for $4.3-billion. He went on to found Ivanhoe Mines and develop the enormous Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold deposit in Mongolia, which is now owned by Rio Tinto.
His life would change again when, six or seven years ago, Govind, then living in China, met movie producer John Penotti in Hong Kong. Mr. Penotti was the producer behind GreeneStreet Films, whose credits included the Oscar-nominated In the Bedroom and Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion.
At the time, Mr. Penotti was looking for a new Asia-centric business model. Govind introduced him to his father, and a concept was born that would see the new Ivanhoe Pictures focus on the burgeoning, film-mad Asian market, financing and producing local films with global audience potential. That market had largely been ignored by Hollywood. Internationally successful films with high Asian content, such as The Joy Luck Club and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were the exceptions that proved the rule.
“Hollywood has gone largely to big tent-pole pictures, like Spider-Man, The Avengers, with huge amounts of CGI and US$200-million budgets,” Mr. Friedland says. “But they’re not really meaningful to audiences. We want to go back to the US$20- or US$30-million film that tells a story and has heart. We are very interested in international film. Every nation has great stories to tell.”
Mr. Penotti was happy to join forces with Mr. Friedland, in good part because of the mining magnate’s extensive knowledge of Asian markets. “Robert has 35 years of experience in Asia and has a strong ability to understand Asian audiences and how they would react to having their stories told,” he said in a phone interview.
Mr. Friedland also had the money to finance such a venture – and the desire, viewing film as a potential counterpropaganda tool. In his mind, the common message is that mining is an evil industry, bent on the destruction of the environment and Indigenous peoples. Just look at James Cameron’s monster 2009 hit, Avatar, whose plot involves ruthless Earthlings mining a precious mineral called unobtanium on a moon inhabited by humanoid beings who fight to protect their paradise. “This is a popular cultural misunderstanding, which is epitomized in Avatar,” Mr. Friedland says. “The miners are the bad guys, and this is one of the most successful movies ever made.”
He wants to shed a new light on mining. “Everything you touch in life was either mined or grown, so let’s not be hypocrites,” he says.
Not all Ivanhoe Pictures productions can be pro-mining, of course, but the studio is working on a sci-fi thriller series for TV called Red Rush and set in a distant future on Mars, where, he says “the miners are going to be the good guys. It’s our turn to tell the story now.” The first script was written by Charles Randolph, who co-wrote the screenplay for The Big Short.
Ivanhoe Pictures is evolving into a proper independent studio. Last year, it merged with Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, a Hollywood film finance and production company, to form SK Global. Mr. Penotti says the majority owners are Mr. Friedland and Sidney Kimmel, the Jones Apparel Group Inc. founder and veteran film financier behind the movies 9½ Weeks, The Kite Runner, Moneyball and Hell or High Water. Mr. Friedland and Mr. Kimmel are also co-chairmen of SK Global, and Mr. Penotti is its president.
Today, SK Global and its international label Ivanhoe Pictures are hot commodities because of Crazy Rich Asians, a romantic comedy filmed in Singapore and Malaysia and directed by Jon M. Chu. The film, distributed by Warner Bros., is based on Kevin Kwan’s 2013 book of the same name. By last weekend, its U.S. and international box-office haul had approached US$200-million – pretty good for a movie that cost US$30-million to make.
The film was the first American studio production since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club whose principal characters are all Asian or Asian-Americans. Two sequels are already being planned, each of which, as with the original, would be co-produced with Color Force, the production company led by Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson that made The Hunger Games series.
A raft of new international movies is being pushed out by Mr. Penotti and his production team at SK Global. A Taiwanese film called Cities of Last Things made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival this year to generally good reviews. Two films are in production in Mexico, and Mr. Friedland says negotiations are under way for the rights to the story of the boys who were trapped and rescued from a flooded cave in Thailand, a drama that captivated the world in June and July. Trouble is, just about every film director and producer wants to make that film, but Mr. Friedland insists the odds look good and that Mr. Chu would direct the film if the rights are nailed down.
Mr. Friedland still has the vast majority of his wealth tied up in mining and knows that, despite his enthusiasm for film, he is still a mining man. But there is little doubt that film will take up more of his time, all the more so because he sees “content” as an endless growth industry. “Apple wants content,” he says. “Uber wants content for the automobile. You have an autonomous car, what do you do? You watch a movie and you want high-quality content.”
In a sense, he is prospecting again, this time in film. There will be duds, just as there were duds in mining plays. But the success of Crazy Rich Asians has raised his hopes for striking box-office gold.