World citizen (and universally loved) Elie Wahba’s professional TV career spans 53 years, and is still going strong as senior vice president of Latin America-Caribbean at Twentieth Century Fox International Television based in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Wahba’s life story could well be out of an Indiana Jones movie script: He left his native Cairo to study in France, but after an invasion by Israeli forces, and with France and the U.K. battling the Egyptian army at the Suez Canal, he left Egypt and settled in Brazil.
His boss Mark Kaner, president of Twentieth Century Fox TV Distribution, summarized Wahba’s professional and personal sides: “He’s the only guy I know who can open any door in any country in South America and much of the rest of the world as well and he can do that fluently in six or seven languages. He’s highly cultured but never pompous. He knows the best wines but always at the best price! He has been doing his job longer than anyone I know, but he is always open to new ideas in our dramatically changing business. The only reason he is still sane is because he’s married to a brilliant psychologist! ”
For Wahba it all began in November 1956, when at the age of 17 and just before the Suez Crisis, he left Cairo to study in Montpellier, in the south of France. A few months later, after the Israeli invasion, the Wahba family was forced to leave Egypt and settle in Brazil.
Wahba joined his family in Sao Paulo in 1958, and five years later went to work for an independent film agent. This job lasted just six months, before he was recruited by United Artists in 1964. Wahba recalled that he learned Portuguese very quickly because he already spoke Spanish, French and some Italian.
While at UA, Wahba met fellow program distributor Pedro F. Leda (today chairman of Argentina’s Ledafilms) who recalled their first encounter: “I came to Brazil in the late 60s trying to sell TV product. Then the leader was TV Excelsior, a network that later went out of business. I licensed them RAI’s Studio Uno. The program got big ratings, but I could not collect a penny from the client. One day I met Elie, who was already a very successful United Artists Television executive, to ask for advice. He told me how to approach the networks’ CFO: ‘If you get angry you will never do business with them again,’ he said and instructed me to ask him for promissory notes he had just received from advertising agencies and allow me to pick the ones from the most reliable companies in payment for the channel’s outstanding license fee. And, to my surprise, it worked! When the following day I thanked him, he just shrugged and said: ‘This is the Brazilian way,’ Which was true in the early stages of the business, before the TV industry got very professional.”
After four years with UA, Wahba was asked to open the Twentieth Century Fox Television offices in Sao Paulo by Herb Lazarus, then vice president of the studio’s
international TV sales. Lazarus said, he “was impressed with his knowledge of the business and with his character.” Later, his duties were extended to the rest of Latin America, which he has handled since 1979.
In February 1969, Wahba went to Los Angeles to attend the May Screenings, which in 1983, were renamed by VideoAge the L.A. Screenings. It was his first trade show. Of that organic (not centrally organized) market, he remembered being “impressed by the large number of Mexican buyers that his Mexican colleague was able to invite, compared to the few he had from Brazil.”
Wahba followed that market with MIP-TV a couple years later, since, up until 1978, it was at MIP-TV that many LATAM buyers screened the new U.S. TV season.
Lazarus recalled that at one MIP-TV, “Elie was staying at the Carlton with his wife, and after dinner I asked him if he wanted to go to the casino. He thought it would be better if he went to his room. However, he gave me a 50 Franc note and said to bet it on number 35 at the first roulette table, which I did, and 35 came up. I took 1,750 Francs to his room, gave him the money and said goodnight while he was yelling ‘did I really win or are you playing a joke on me?’”
From 1993 to 1994, Wahba was a key executive who took part in the launches of Fox Latin America Channel, LAPTV (a premium service for Spanish-speaking Latin American territories) and Telecine (a premium service for Brazil). He was also involved — along with his Theatrical and Home Entertainment colleagues — in the selection and commercialization of theatrical movies and the production of television series in Brazil and Latin America.
During his nearly 47 years at Fox, Wahba has distributed classic series such as Lost In Space and Peyton Place, as well as current hits such as Homeland and The Simpsons.
Wahba recalled that in the early days of content distribution “we didn’t have the challenges of nowadays. In those days, the American TV series were new in the market and competing with poorly made local fare, which is far from true today. Local productions have become very popular and generate big ratings at low costs to the networks. In the early years, we didn’t have the challenges of today’s competition from local productions and from the diversity of media that audiences have to choose from.”
And after 57 years in Brazil, does he remember how to speak Egyptian Arabic? “Yes,” he said, “but only after the motor heats up!”
(By Dom Serafini)
Audio Version (a DV Works service)