The owner and managing director of BIG KAHUNA FILMS on the creativity of strong emotions, changing production models and making a documentary about the Beirut blast
Eddy Rizk’s very first job was as an onset spark and since then he has held just about every production role it’s possible to hold. In 2007, he launched his own production company and was part of a creative and ambitious new generation of studios challenging the status quo, and now BIG KAHUNA FILMS has evolved into one of the most respected commercial production companies in the MENA region.
But while he eats, breathes and sleeps the challenges that come with the big, ambitious productions, what really motivates him as the founder and MD of Dubai- and Beirut-based BIG KAHUNA FILMS is the team. Covid-19 and a precarious economic situation in Lebanon has not made the past year easy, but nonetheless the gang has whipped up a string of big commercials and even have a documentary on August’s Beirut explosion and the related corruption of Lebanon’s political establishment coming.
LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Eddy to find out more.
LBB> What kind of kid were you and where did you grow up? What was your childhood like and how exposed were you to creativity growing up?
Eddy> I was born a few months after the war in Lebanon had begun, and it wasn’t an easy time to say the least. For me, I believe creativity comes from strong emotions, and the way I expressed it in my early years was by writing and playing music.
LBB> How did you first get attracted to the world of filmmaking?
Eddy> To be honest, I was never really into to the world of filmmaking. I applied to go to medical school and was rejected, twice. I then met a friend who was studying filmmaking and it sounded like fun, so I thought I’d give it a shot. It was only when I started university, that I realised I’m not actually bad at it. Back then, I envisioned becoming a feature films director. But in a country like Lebanon, opportunities were limited, if there were any at all.
LBB> How did you learn your craft as a producer?
Eddy> I’ve worked in every single department in production, technical as well as post-production. I’ve also worked in other industries in management positions.
These are the foundations that make a good producer, alongside common-sense, creative input, and the ability to think and act quickly whilst under pressure. Once you reach a point where you are prepared for any challenges and obstacles that each production can face, you’re able to excel at it.
LBB> What was the first film or commercial you worked on and what are your memories of that experience?
Eddy> I don’t remember the commercial, but I do remember the experience very well. I worked as a spark in the technical department. The producer back then had paid us 30 USD per day, and in his words “he was doing us a favour, because any labourer can do this job, for half the pay”.
LBB> If you could go back and give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be and why?
Eddy> To never forget what you signed up for. When I was young, I used to think that any small amount of support, would help me direct a feature film. 10 years later, I realised I could’ve done it. And now, 20 years later, when it seems simpler to do, I’m drifting further away from it.
LBB> What would you say were the pivotal moments in your career?
Eddy> The day I decided to start BIG KAHUNA FILMS. I was the first of the young generation (back then at least), to launch a company and compete with the giants who were in the market.
LBB> What would you say have been the most exciting or challenging productions you’ve been involved in – and what did you learn from them?
Eddy> Challenging? Well, around 80% of our productions are. This is what we are known for, so we end up receiving the most challenging briefs. This means we are constantly learning and adapting. What’s amazing about filmmaking is that it teaches you beyond the job itself. Research plays a huge role in our daily work, with all sorts of topics covered because most of the time, we recreate reality based on characters, events, professions, places, and so on.
LBB> You launched BIG KAHUNA FILMS in 2007 – what originally inspired you to launch your own company?
Eddy> To progress, you need to get out of your comfort zone.
There was no room to grow anymore, and I don’t mean only in terms of ranking and position. There was no forward thinking, the industry was already changing, but no one accepted the change. It was still the old-fashioned way of doing business, and I just couldn’t cope with that.
LBB> And how has BIG KAHUNA FILMS evolved in the past 13 years?
Eddy> It wasn’t long until everyone in the advertising industry knew about us and we built on that and always delivered projects of the highest quality.
LBB> As an owner and MD of a major production company, how do you make sure that the company keeps evolving and is relevant to the changes happening in the broader industry?
Eddy> I consider us lucky to have witnessed the changes, it keeps things refreshed. We are in a creative industry; no-one wants to do the same job over and over. But evolving is not only following a trend, it’s what you contribute to it and this is what defines us as a company.
LBB> It seems like producers have to juggle so much more now – every project can be wildly different in terms of format, technology, the platform on which it lives – how do you find that side of things?
Eddy> The issue is, the briefs are now much more complex when it comes to deliverables. This leads to having to find a middle ground that will work with all formats.
This is from a technical point of view. From brands perspective, and without getting into too many details, I strongly believe targeting all different platform users with the same creative will need to change soon.
LBB> BIG KAHUNA has a base in Dubai and a base in Beirut – in terms with the kind of work you see/get in each market and the way each market operates, what would you say are the distinctive features of each?
Eddy> It depends on a few things; the nature of the project, the target audience and the cultural relevancy. Also, the budget plays a role. Beirut is the best place in terms of production value versus cost, in comparison to anywhere else in the world. Sadly, with the current situation, the country is at the verge of an economic collapse, on top of the political corruption and safety concerns, and this is affecting every industry.
LBB> As agencies and even brands try different approaches to production, come taking capabilities in-house, others looking for a more flexible network of collaborators, and some brands skip agencies altogether to work with production and creators, what are your thoughts about the production model long term?
Eddy> A full-on agency in-house production arm, of course hurts us. In the long term, if this becomes a trend throughout all networks, which I highly doubt, production houses model and services offered will need to change as well.
As for working directly with brands, yes, we can work on the creative and the production of course, but to claim that our concept would be researched in terms of brand long term marketing strategy, wouldn’t be right. Agencies hire several talents to work for one client, we do not offer this. But then again, we would work directly with clients as a one-off, but not often.
LBB> I can’t not ask a question about Covid! How have you as a leader and BIG KAHUNA FILMS as a team navigated this crazy past year? How has it changed you as a company?
Eddy> There were moments, mainly in the beginning, where we were completely in the dark, from a “what is happening” perspective and our mental state. This was a shock to the system, as we were never used to doing nothing.
We are constantly shooting and travelling… and shooting and travelling. It was actually exhausting. Then everything stops, and not by choice. It took us a few weeks to really realise how serious the damages were on a business level, and in terms of the whole economy.
Like everyone else, we tried to keep our head above water. Even though as a company, we are good and healthy, there’s only so much anyone could last with no projects and a considerable head count.
BIG KAHUNA FILMS is all about the people, this is what makes us who we are. It is the consistency in the quality of our work. And this is the result of having an in-house team in key positions, from research, to production, to post-production. I never believed in a one-man production. So, I made a promise to myself, that I would make everything in my power to make sure everyone kept their job. And I am proud to say, I kept my promise.
Of course, this wouldn’t be possible without the help and support of our loyal agencies and clients, with whom we started working again at the first possible opportunity. And not to forget, how fortunate we are, being in Dubai, a city with an outstanding leadership, as it wasn’t long until we were, once again, producing big projects.
LBB> What recent BIG KAHUNA FILMS projects are you particularly proud of and why?
Eddy> As finished commercials, we are proud of all our work. But sometimes, it goes beyond that and it’s about how powerful the message is and the background of it.
The explosion that happened in Beirut port, left a big scar in all us. We just finished producing a documentary about the incident, shedding the light on the country’s situation and corrupt politicians and government institutions.
We recently produced a very emotional campaign for Etisalat about “what together means to you”. Even though “together matters” was the brand positioning pre-covid, now it felt so real that it actually makes you wonder, how many situations of our every day’s lives we used to take for granted.
We also produced the first KSA tourism campaign to launch their e-visa, which is by itself quite a remarkable thing and we are proud of being part of it.
Another campaign for DU #postwisely we produced couple of years ago, which were based on real life events, and won many awards worldwide, marked us a lot.
Yes, we produce work to convince consumer to buy a specific product, but this is not what tickles us. If we manage with our work, to change one life, or even just one person’s behaviour for the better, then we can say we did a great job.
LBB> Outside of work, what are your passions?
Ok, that will be the shortest answer: I never had time to pursue many hobbies, other than diving, where I get to completely and literally disconnect from the world.
LBB> Who are your creative heroes?
Eddy> I don’t actually have creative heroes. It’s all about who or what inspires you, and my biggest inspiration is my late father. For the things I loved and the things I didn’t really agree with, they’re all a big part of who I am, how I feel, what drives me and what I live by.
LBB> And looking forward to 2021, what are your goals for BIG KAHUNA?
Eddy> I tend to take things that come easy for granted. I’m one of these people who functions much better when facing challenges.
When I was younger, not in a pretentious way, but if anyone were to tell me I wasn’t doing the right thing, or I was making a mistake, I was very vocal in saying, “I don’t fail”. After 13 years, BIG KAHUNA FILMS is one of the most successful creative production houses in the region. We know we will adapt, grow and by the end of 2021, we will look back and say, “well, it wasn’t that bad after all”.