SHAFAQNA – The banner aims to develop and finance projects that feature Muslims in a “positive but not flawless light”
“A Muslim and a Jew walk into a restaurant” sounds like the setup for a hacky joke, but for Ahmos Hassan and David Stern, it simply indicates a decade-long friendship that has now spawned a business venture.
Hassan, a Muslim-American manager-producer, is launching Chariot Entertainment, a production company dedicated to making content featuring Muslim characters that go beyond Hollywood’s go-to portrayals of terrorists and taxi drivers. It’s an enterprise that Hassan, who also has consulted on projects like Homeland and Disney’s upcoming live-action Aladdin, has been discussing for years with his friend Stern, a partner at law firm Jeffer Mangels.
“I’ve always wanted to develop my own material, but it wasn’t commercially viable. [Muslim representation] just didn’t matter,” Hassan tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Now it does, not just to the industry, but to the American audience.”
Hassan and Stern, who will serve as outside legal counsel (his partnership status at the firm precludes him from an official managerial position at Chariot, but “spiritually, we’re partners in this endeavor,” he says), began putting the company together in earnest a year ago, just as Donald Trump’s campaign viability and Islamophobic rhetoric began to increase. Hassan says Chariot would have happened regardless of the election’s outcome, but Trump’s presidency has underscored the need for such a company, and also given rise to very unique language in its subscription agreement: The “risk factors” section invokes the McCarthy Era and Japanese American internment and states, “We cannot predict whether your investment in the Company might later be construed as ‘Un-American’ activity by certain elements of our government or citizenry.”
Stern, who free-drafted the unprecedented legal clause, tells THR he “felt duty-bound to alert our investors” to the unique risk. But rather than scaring away prospective investors (Chariot seeks to raise $20 million in initial funding), “It’s been a motivating factor,” he says. “The risk factor section serves as a confirmation of the mission.”
Chariot is currently developing three features (a dark comedy and two dramas) and three TV series (two comedies and a drama). As with the investors already on board, Hassan and Stern are tapping their network for talent as well. Hassan has long-standing philanthropic involvement in the Muslim-American creative community, which includes chairing the Hollywood bureau of the Muslim Public Affairs Council and mentoring young creators.
But both Muslims and non-Muslims are needed to effect change, Hassan says, adding that Chariot will be happy to come on board and invest in outside projects that share the same mission. “We should help our communities — Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus — become closer and create a business and media networking society.”
It’s a vision modeled by Hassan and Stern themselves, who met more than a decade ago working on a mutual client’s project, then started sharing periodic meals together and bonding not just over ordinary family matters, but also through a desire to reach across their respective cultures.
“We’d talk about the need to break through clannishness,” says Stern.
Hassan credits Stern for being proactively interested in experiencing Muslim culture, including visiting his mosque. “What’s different about David is his awareness and attention to how we can bond over our spiritual and religious differences,” he says, adding that it was also Stern’s “action-oriented” style that helped make Chariot a reality. (“I had to pull teeth to get him to get though these [legal] documents,” Stern jokes.)
“He’s always known I wanted to do this, so it was helpful to have someone continually prodding to make it happen on the ground,” Hassan says.
“All my work related to Islam had been on a nonprofit basis, [separate from] my work as a producer-manager of mainstream material,” says Hassan, who earned a Daytime Emmy nomination for executive producing client Louie Anderson’s 1990s animated series Life With Louie. “In Chariot, the two are totally aligned. This is ultimately for the industry to make money and also to provide this great social purpose. What’s so great about using Islam as the foundation for stories is that there’s so much that can come from it in terms of material, like women’s issues, geopolitical issues and interfaith issues. What’s been done so far is just scratching the surface.”