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Volume 22, Number 5September/October 1971

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Fouad Sa'id

The Man Who Showed Hollywood How

Written by Bart Sheridan
Photographed by Robert Azzi

In the often curious business of making motion pictures, at least the ones made in once-immortal Hollywood, an amorphous grapevine of alert and warning interlinks everybody who is anybody. Lately that grapevine has been pulsing both in awe and apprehension with a name that does not fit any precedented niche in the Hollywood firmament. The man it belongs to is not an actor, a director, a writer, an agent or any other character heretofore familiar in the performing arts. You might say he is a man without a category. He is a fiery young Egyptian who grew up in his uncle's movie studio in Cairo, and who came to the University of Southern California at the age of 18 to study cinematography. He is also an irresistible force that almost literally is turning the Hollywood studios inside out.

Fouad Sa'id is now 36, and the cause of all the talk is a revolutionary system he has developed for making movies on location at bargain costs. Sa'id started working on the system shortly after becoming chief cameraman on the I Spy television show in 1964. Since then he has shown Hollywood in effect how to take a complete studio, compress it into a single mobile van and drive it or ferry it by cargo plane to any location anywhere, ready for use on arrival. For reasons that much of the film industry is only beginning to recognize, the economies in this are substantial. And in addition to netting Sa'id a personal fortune in the millions of dollars, and winning an Academy Award for technical excellence as well, the system is creating sweeping changes. As president of the company that runs the system, Fouad Sa'id all but single handedly is forcing the most drastic alterations moviemaking has seen since the silver screen started to talk.

Sa'id's breakthrough in costs comes in what may or may not be the nick of time for an industry that is ailing, and for a town that is uneasy. American movie companies are shooting fewer major pictures than at any time in recent memory. On a given day this past spring, Hollywood Reporter's weekly "Barometer" listed only 45 movies in actual production against 57 a year ago and 76 the year before. And of the current 45 only 26 were being shot in the United States, a mere handful in Hollywood proper.

One of many reasons for the decline, and the one that makes Sa'id's influence so timely, is that movies cost significantly more to shoot in the United States, particularly in Hollywood, than they do in other countries. Today's audiences are too varied and too selective, and therefore too small, to pay for Hollywood's imbedded lavishness, its enormous studio overhead, its astronomically high wage scales and its endemic addiction to featherbedding. Hence producers are seeking to partially offset these costs—and at the same time cater to the "new" audience's demand for real-life action in real-life backgrounds— by going more and more on location rather than building expensive sets and shooting on studio sound stages.

Before Sa'id hit town the trouble with this solution was that it changed only the locale of a shooting. The methods remained the same. A company went on location exactly as companies have done for decades. Caravans of trucks spent days toting cumbersome studio equipment. Tradition-oriented crews held stubbornly to the time-consuming, in-studio procedures developed in the cost-be-damned era of the sound stage extravaganzas. Thus while a company might save on set construction and studio overhead by going on location, it paid as much if not more for the commodities that are costliest of all in any movie making: time and manpower. That key problem is what Sa'id is attacking with such dramatic results.

Making movies this way, the young Egyptian reasoned a few years ago, was like trying to manufacture a new product in an old factory. The thing to do instead was to start a new factory from scratch. Read "studio" for "factory" and you have exactly what Sa'id did. He began designing some "studios" of his own. He engineered them specifically to make location shooting fast, efficient and cheap. Then he put them on wheels, ready to go anywhere on instant notice. Today he has 18 such "studios." He calls them Cinemobiles, and he rents them out for prices ranging from $225 to $1500 per day, the rate depending on their size and equipment.

This is a fraction of what a producer might pay for a day's shooting with conventional methods either in-studio or on location. Sa'id insists he's offering a bargain, and apparently enough producing companies agree with him: in 1970 producers of more than 70 feature films and scores of TV segments used Cinemobiles. That's nearly three out of four of all American feature films made during the year for standard release. By March of this year a two-page trade paper ad placed by Sa'id pictured Cinemobiles on 14 locations simultaneously, and "Locations by Cinemobile" will be credited on at least two of the year's most heralded productions. One is the New York-filmed production of the best-selling The Godfather, with Marlon Brando, the other the newest John Wayne blockbuster, The Cowboys, to be shot throughout the Pacific Southwest.

This much acceptance of radical change is a clear indication that Fouad Sa'id has done a good deal more than merely build his better mousetrap. For it's an aphorism in Hollywood that nothing is resisted as steadfastly as the idea whose time has come. Especially when the idea is one that cuts down on jobs and diverts money from old channels to new. For these reasons I was fully prepared to meet an unorthodox personality when I sought out Sa'id for this report, and he did not disappoint me.

We had agreed to talk after office hours at the sumptuous Cinemobile headquarters on Hollywood's Sunset Strip, directly down the street from the Playboy Club. There was no sign of Sa'id at first and after waiting more than an hour, I started for my car. Hearing my name called I turned to see this trimly tailored, jockey-sized man sprinting up the hill, hand outstretched, his coal-black hair slightly disheveled, his face wreathed in a concerned smile. He was not even breathing hard after what must have been a considerable exertion. He clapped my shoulder in apology as he explained, with only a touch of non-American accent:

"I am so terribly sorry. I will tell you about it as we go. There was a very big deal for Cinemobile, the biggest ever. A John Wayne location that will run 21 weeks. But it is late now. My wife will be waiting. You will come home for a fast dinner and we will talk? OK?"

I said OK and tucked myself into the passenger seat of Sa'id's powerful little sports car, an orange-red Lamborghini. He gunned the car out of the parking lot like a rocket, streaked across teeming Sunset Boulevard and powered up into the Hollywood hills overlooking the Strip. We cornered one or two fast curves and we were there.

The Sa'id hillside home is so set out that you step directly from the car to the front door. The landscaping, a semi-Oriental terraced effect, is mostly in the rear, where it sets off the symmetrically curving, shimmeringly blue-lit swimming pool. But the view from within, seen through an enormous floor-to-ceiling picture window, provides a stupendous panorama of the Los Angeles basin even in smog season. When the skies clear the Sa'ids can see not only the basin but a huge slice of the Pacific Ocean as well, including, inevitably, Catalina Island.

The decor within is no less spectacular: a floor-to-ceiling mirrored wall to complement the view; huge sofas and club chairs grouped for conversation before a wood-burning fireplace; futuristic cobalt-blue guest chairs copied after those in the Pan American ticket lobby in Brussels; a space-age window lounge, brilliant scarlet, that Sa'id had flown from Paris after spotting it in a shop window; a prize-winning, two-ton marble sculpture by Montoya Escobedo, a figure of a kneeling woman, that Sa'id brought from the sculptor's native Mexico after filming there on location.

Such prizes were not the only treasures brought home from Sa'id's travels. When his vivaciously blond Viennese wife, Henny, came in to greet us and to show off one-year-old Soona, I learned that Henny and Fouad Sa'id met three years ago in Greece, where Sa'id was filming an I Spy episode and where both were attending the wedding of a crew member. Henny is a non-professional, but her startling good looks and her lightly accented English seem made to order for the dark-complexioned, intensely active, strongly masculine man, a driving activist who already was getting out various technical data about the Cinemobiles to explain to me.

As for secure little Soona, she goes right along with the scene. The distinctive blend of her Nordic-Arabic features seems to say "today" and "the future" just as much as her home, her daddy's jet-propelled, imported automobile and his revolutionary concept of mobilizing movie making with his Cinemobiles.

You don't have to be with Sa'id long to perceive how totally he is engulfed not only by those Cinemobiles themselves but by a crusading zeal for the radical methodology they represent. The latter dedication all but obsesses him. He is frustrated to the point of despair at seeing waste and inefficiency still being tolerated in Hollywood despite the lessons of what he considers his own better way.

"They don't want to change!" he explodes, teeth gritting, black-brown eyes vivid, his arms sweeping the Hollywood panorama before him in defiance. "The people out there had it too good for too long. They learned to do things a certain way. Now if something new comes they fight you every inch of the way. Even when you save them money. They look at your figures, then look you in the eye and say 'We don't want to experiment.' They are afraid!

"My company is successful, yes. What people don't know is how hard we have to sell. It is not easy for one man like myself to take on a whole industry and say 'I am going to change this industry.' The workmen and their little bosses say my system cuts jobs. Sure it does. What the guys won't see is that saving money with my system eventually will mean more pictures and therefore more jobs in the long run. It's a one-man crusade."

In a way Sa'id has been organizing his crusade since childhood. At the time of his birth in Cairo in 1935 his maternal uncle, the late Joseph Aziz, owned and operated what then was known as the Pyramid Studio in Cairo. Fouad's father died shortly after his son's birth, and Fouad and Mrs. Sa'id went to live at the Aziz home next door to the studio. Young Fouad had free run of the sets during his growing years. Inquisitive and aggressive even then, the mechanically adept little boy soon had a man's technical understanding of cameras, lights, sound, film and moviemaking in general. By the time he was at high school level in Cairo's public schools he was working after hours and during vacations at his uncle's and other studios, usually as an assistant cameraman.

The jump to American moviemaking came when U.S. director Robert Surtees brought stars Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker to Cairo in 1953 to film a picture called Valley of the Kings for M.G.M. Surtees planned to use an Egyptian crew, and you may be sure young Sa'id, then not quite 18, was at the head of the line when hiring started. He got a job keeping the cameras loaded with film ("The unions were not very strong there," he grins). As anyone who knows him today might suspect, he was all over the place when shooting began, just as he had been at his uncle's studio. By the time Valley of the Kings was wrapped up he had caught Surtees' eye and obtained the director's assistance in emigrating to America and enrolling in the U.S.C. cinematography program.

Like other cinematography students Sa'id helped meet his expenses by working in Hollywood studios, for pay and credit, as part of the university's work-study program. Unlike those students, however, he carried his explorations still further through summer-long work-visits to the studios of Europe and Japan. He got into those studios by the simple device of writing letters ahead, stating that he was a student of cinematography and wanted to observe foreign techniques.

Sa'id first sensed what he calls the "progress gap" in American moviemaking when he returned from his studies abroad. Instead of interest in the innovations he had noted, Hollywood mentors were indifferent and even contemptuous. He still winces from the sting of those brushoffs.

"I was just another 'punk kid,' " he reminisces, the hurt and the incredulity still not erased. "They laughed at me. They were using heavy lights you don't need with today's fast film, and the ponderous old Mitchell cameras instead of the light, compact models the Europeans were getting fantastic results with. Things like that. And when I asked why, they answered, 'Because that's the way it's done here.' 'But the new way is so much better,' I would point out. 'Couldn't we at least try?' And they would laugh again. 'Look, son, you can't beat 30 years of experience,' they would say. 'You can't throw all that away for something nobody knows anything about.' So I had to do it their way or shut up."

The full impact of this middle-aged methodology struck Sa'id when he left U.S.C. in 1957 to become a full-time cinematographer for TV films and documentaries such as CBS's sports spectaculars, and later for Sheldon Leonard's I Spy TV series.

"I was absolutely shocked at how backward we were in Hollywood compared with the Europeans and the Japanese," he says now. "For instance, we were still building expensive sets, like say a duplicate of this living room, instead of just coming in here and shooting the real thing. Well, a set like this would cost $30,000 to create on a sound stage. Yet I have rented the actual room out as a set for $100 per day. And why were we not doing that in the late 50's and early 60's? Because the studios were still clinging to the bulky old equipment of the 1930's, cumbersome gear you couldn't get through the door."

"I was absolutely shocked at how backward we were in Hollywood compared with the Europeans and the Japanese," he says now. "For instance, we were still building expensive sets, like say a duplicate of this living room, instead of just coming in here and shooting the real thing. Well, a set like this would cost $30,000 to create on a sound stage. Yet I have rented the actual room out as a set for $100 per day. And why were we not doing that in the late 50's and early 60's? Because the studios were still clinging to the bulky old equipment of the 1930's, cumbersome gear you couldn't get through the door."

By 1964, when Sa'id took the I Spy job, a swing to locations was getting under way, but not with any noticeable change from the old way of setting up and photographing.

"Eight, nine, ten trucks in a caravan, each adding another driver to the payroll" is the way he remembers this. "All that stuff ... it took hours every time you moved. And every hour's time cost thousands and thousands of dollars while everybody stood around. I thought to myself no wonder this country can't compete with European movies."

Enabling Hollywood to compete after all was what Sa'id had in mind when, in 1964, he finally synthesized his ideas for what became the first Cinemobile, and with his own money built an experimental model. Unfortunately, engineering problems proved insurmountable, and the project was on the verge of failure when producer Sheldon Leonard came to the rescue with a personal loan to help finance a replacement, a 16-foot van that Sa'id called his Mark I model. The new Cinemobile worked and Leonard promptly rented it for the next several I Spy episodes.

The results were sensational. Leonard reduced his crews from 18 men to 11, cut on-location costs by a third and got through 13 pages of script per day instead of the customary five. As the word about that got around, and as Sa'id hammered home his new gospel to other TV and low-budget movie producers, the Cinemobile family of trucks enlarged to meet the growing demand. By 1968 "Fouad Sa'id Productions" vans were being used on a dozen low-budget TV feature films and on the Felony Squad and Ironside TV series as well as on I Spy. The Big Change was on its way.

At this point Sa'id decided it was time to go major league, and to woo producers of the high-budgeted Hollywood feature movies his facilities are working for today. For this he needed more and more elaborate Cinemobiles. To get them he merged Fouad Sa'id Productions with Taft Broadcasting Company, an entertainment conglomerate whose holdings include TV and radio stations in medium-sized U.S. cities, a television syndication company and Hanna Barbera Productions, a Hollywood production company. The deal gave Sa'id $5.1 million in Taft stock and made him Taft's chief shareholder. It also made him president of Cinemobile Systems, which replaced Fouad Sa'id Productions as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Taft.

Today Sa'id and 60 employes run the Cinemobile show from a Sunset Strip headquarters with walls covered with gray flannel suiting cut from tailors' bolts and an elaborate stand-up Eames desk around which Sa'id paces restlessly as he talks or telephones or dictates whenever he is in Hollywood.

This is not often. Much of Sa'id's time as company president he spends with his Cinemobiles on actual locations. He flies or drives to those sites at least once on every rental, wherever in the world they might be. He insists on seeing with his own eyes how they are doing, what can be improved, how the production crews are reacting to the facilities.

"This is the only way I can stay on top of what we have done so far," he explains. "Remember, I am still trying to convert people to a system some of them don't want. They are looking for things to go wrong. I want to beat them to the draw. That's why I go out and talk, myself, with the guys who are doing the work—the grips, the gaffers (electricians), the assistant directors, the cameramen. Always we are looking for ways to change, to modernize, to improve.

"On a location we did for Stanley Kramer's RPM somebody grumbled that one of our 10-K lights was too hard to get out of its compartment and too heavy for one man to load onto a Molevator, which is a kind of tripod with big legs that nests next to the 10-K. All right, that's what we want to know. When the electrician told me that we set to work. We figured out a way to make both the 10-K and the Molevator smaller. Now one man can do the job in one minute where it used to take two men two minutes. That way we stay ahead of complaints."

Nor is that the only way. From the dinner hour on each evening the multiline telephone at the Sa'id home buzzes with call after call as the driver-operators of the various distant Cinemobiles report in. You can practically see each Cinemobile come alive in Sa'id's mind as he takes these calls. He leans forward intently, glued to the driver's every nuance, eventually bursts into some outburst of approval, reassurance, instruction or criticism. "How are things going with the cameraman? You are sure? There are no gripes? The unit is setting up and wrapping up without delays? Hah. Now you listen. You tell that cameraman Sa'id says he must be pleased. Sa'id will do anything he wants, anything. What he wants he gets. But you tell him Sa'id says so. OK?"

Or: "You are washing the Cinemobile? Everything clean and neat the way I like it? I am not so sure. I hear today the production manager is saying we gave him an old model. It is not so. It is practically new. Wash it!"

Or: "Wipe 'em out, Chuck!" (i.e. do a fantastic job of getting the set wrapped up). "We've got to get them finished on time so we can move the Cinemobile to Utah. You've got to be the best crewman on the whole set."

This extent of Sa'id's involvement with operations is made no less necessary by the emergence of competing location services, several of which inevitably followed in the wake of Cinemobile's success. Universal Studios has three "UniVan" production coaches, although the studio and its independent producers also remain customers of Cinemobile Systems. TV producer Sidney Sheldon, best known for his I Dream of Jeanie series some years ago, has 12 mobile units operating under the name "Hollywood Mobile Studios." He undercuts Sa'id's prices approximately 25 percent Only time will determine whether his and other systems are as dependable and efficient as Cinemobile Systems, which has a six-year track record and a head start in experience. Sa'id himself doubts the present competitors will ever cut his lead. "Most of the units are still just trucks with equipment loaded into them," he shrugs. "There's so much more to this business than that. It's like bread. If you want good bread, you give the flour to the baker, not the shoemaker."

If one were to surmise that social life for the Sa'ids is somewhat subordinated to this intense preoccupation with Cinemobiles, the surmise would be generally correct.

Such recreation time as he does have is generally devoted to technical books, taped recordings of informational broadcasts and interviews having to do with business administration. He keeps cassettes in his car at all times, plays them on the car's tape system while driving to locations or negotiating the Los Angeles freeways. "I am immodest enough to say that I am already well informed on the techniques of shooting pictures," Sa'id explains. Even the odd cocktail and dinner party which Fouad and Henny give periodically is usually attended by directors, assistant directors, cameramen and production managers.

Despite the considerable success he already has attained, Sa'id has no plans either for retiring or for returning to Egypt to live. To the contrary he is planning to expand his ventures in co-production, in which he occasionally participates in the financing and producing of movies, contributing Cinemobile facilities plus crew in return for a share of the picture's profits. (He would like eventually to co-produce in this manner with filmmakers in the Arab nations, where he thinks co-production with nations outside the Middle East would be mutually productive.) But most of all he is looking forward to introducing still more startling innovations to the movie business. On the drawing boards are plans for flying Cinemobiles—"Cinecopters" and "Cinesaucers"—and for a "mother ship" Cinemobile from which lesser mobile units can be dispatched to sub-locations from one central location site.

In perhaps the most far-out fantasy of all, Sa'id is also weighing the possibility of building a new kind of in-shooting studio for scenes not suitable for locations. This will be a system of computer-controlled sound stages designed to rise vertically, one atop the other, instead of being scattered out horizontally over hundreds of acres as they are at existing studio lots. Programmed properly—to revolve, rise and accept deliveries by elevator—such stages could effect fantastic savings in time and motion.

Although projects such as these would themselves seem to be props for a space-age scenario, Sa'id says they conceivably could all be in use as early as two years hence. And then what? Sa'id has no doubts on this point. "The Hollywood studios as we know them will go out of business, close their doors and sell off the rest of their real estate," he says, matter-of-factly.

Any studio that thinks he's kidding, he might have added, had better stop wasting its time.

Bart Sheridan is a former Managing Editor of Good Housekeeping and associate editor of Life, has written for the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, and spent six years with the Selznick and RKO studios in Hollywood. He now lives in Southern California where he writes for the physicians' magazine Medical Economics.

A Drive-It-Yourself Movie Studio? Ask The Man Who Owns One

A first glance Fouad Sa'id's enter­prise sounds expensive. His Cinemobiles cost from $250,000 to $750,000 each to build and to equip with such sophisticated items as lightweight Arriflex cameras, gener­ators capable of illuminating three city blocks and hydraulically-lifted plat­forms for high-angle shots. But when you consider that the fleet of 18 trucks last year shot more feature films than M.G.M., Paramount or any other major Hollywood studio, the investments look a little more earth-bound.

A Cinemobile for all practical purposes is a movie studio, housed in a moving van that's anywhere from 16 feet to 40 feet long, 6½ to 7½ feet wide and 7 to 13 feet high. The smaller units look like panel trucks, the larger ones like huge sightseeing buses. Aside from being mobile, a Cinemobile differs from an actual studio in that it has no sound stages, which Fouad Sa'id considers obsolete in their present format and un­necessary in most cases anyhow. In other words, you don't go into a Cinemobile studio to shoot pictures. You take whatever you need out of the Cinemobile, use it and put it back. In the largest vehicles "whatever you need" can include not only movie hardware such as cameras and lights but also actors (there are dressing rooms and lavatories), crew (there are seats for 40 passengers) and instant meals for all hands (there are airplane-style electronic kitchens.)

Despite the expensive equipment, the Cinemobiles' big sell is the economy they make possible through reduced manpower and faster opera­tion. Manpower is cut because one Cinemobile eliminates the old need for eight or more trucks and drivers, and because fewer men are needed to handle Sa'id's lightweight equipment. Lights weighing 28 pounds, for exam­ple, do the job that 400-pounders formerly were used for.

As   for   speed,   the   whole   Cinemobile design is aimed at getting up to 32,000 pieces of equipment in or out of the van in a hurry. In the larger vehicles a dozen storage compart­ments are engineered to house specific items in specific combinations, with each compartment being accessible independently from outside the van through its own door. When all doors are open a visitor can see an over­whelming variety of lights, cables, tripods, cameras, complete soundtrack systems and other movie-making material, all pieces snugged cozily into assigned niches without benefit of lashing or stacking.

With equipment so accessible a production crew needs a maximum of ten minutes to "set up" a typical scene—i.e., unload the van and get cameras, lights and props ready for shooting. "Wrapping up," or putting the equipment back, takes not more than another ten minutes. These times represent a saving of one to three hours, or more, off that required when a company uses the conventional truckloads of regular studio equipment on location. The saving becomes especially significant in situations where several on-site changes of scene are required on the same loca­tion.

Most Cinemobiles fit readily into the belly of a cargo plane for transport to distant locations. Such a shipment from Los Angeles to New York City would cost a producer about $2,000 for a middle-sized vehicle.

When a producer uses a Cinemobile he usually brings his own crew, paying Sa'id's company only the rental charge plus the wages of Sa'id's driver, whom the producer carries on his own payroll. In such cases Sa'id has no part in story, script, casting or other aspects of the production other than to supply the Cinemobile. Occasion­ally, however, he participates as co-producer, in which capacity he does have a voice in these matters and supplies equipment and crew without charge in return for a percentage of the picture's profits.

This article appeared on pages 16-25 of the September/October 1971 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1971 images.