Trailblazers

Alki David : a man of many parts

May 08 issue
 

With interests ranging from free diving to filmmaking, eccentric billionaire Alki David is now looking to tap the online video-on-demand market. He talks to Nick Britton about his latest project, FilmOn, making a film with Kelly Brook, and why he wants to become a priest.

It’s easy to be cynical about Alki David. An actor, film director and entrepreneur, his is a riches-to-riches story that appears to have limited inspiration to offer the average growing business. And yet, David is no stranger to falling flat on his face.

The last movie he directed, Fishtales, which starred Kelly Brook as a mermaid, was savaged by critics at Cannes, and his abortive bid for Coventry City Football Club last year ended in controversy and accusations from some that he was a mere publicity-seeker.

Endearingly, David does genuinely want his projects to work. The self-confessed prankster is surprisingly serious in person, whether he’s running through the numbers behind his latest project, video-on-demand website FilmOn, or musing on broader issues such as marine conservation, the Greek Orthodox Church, or the state of the film industry.

The director

‘For all my films, right up until I started my own sales agency, I got ripped off by the distributor,’ he relates. ‘It is never transparent; you see your film popping up in countries where you’re never informed about it being sold.’

This was the catalyst for David to launch FilmOn, a spin-off from his production company 111 Pictures. The new business was originally conceived as a platform for him and long-time business partner Elliot Kastner to distribute their own films, but David soon saw a much bigger opportunity.

‘We’ve now aggregated 38,000 titles, of which there are about 4,000 online. We have a deal with [digital media company] Destra in Australia and in India we have a franchise deal with Airtel, the country’s second-largest telecoms company.

‘We invested US$11.5 million (£5.8 million) in the business, and our profits will be about £7 million in our first year. And that’s just in the UK.’

Currently, FilmOn offers a mixed bag of golden oldies, David’s and Kastner’s own films, and what the site coyly refers to as ‘naughty movies’. David recognises that doing deals with major studios is essential for FilmOn’s growth, and says the company is about to sign a contract with Paramount, while Fox and Universal are next in line.

FilmOn is not wholly dependent on punters paying for movies. There is also a business-to-business element, where content partners such as independent film producers can use FilmOn as a distribution channel, in return for a share of their revenues should their sales exceed a certain volume. The site also sells advertising and David claims it gets a million page impressions a day.

If all this is true – and the deals in the pipeline actually become reality – it adds up to a big opportunity. Not that David needs the money. Thanks to the major stake he has in his family’s business empire, the Leventis-David Group, he comes joint-47th on The Sunday Times Rich List (with assets of £1.5 billion), outranking such luminaries as Lord Sainsbury, Sir Alan Sugar and easyJet founder Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou.

The tycoon

Part of David’s personal wealth comes from a shipping company he built with his cousin and sold to US bulk cargo business Navios. The acquirer floated on the New York Stock Exchange last year for $800 million.

‘That was my contribution to the family,’ says David bluntly. Since then he has stepped back from the Leventis-David empire as other family members have taken a more active role. ‘The company’s run by professionals,’ David adds. ‘It doesn’t need prankster-actor types running it.’

David speaks with deep respect of his late father, who in his youth used to sell rats’ tails as lucky charms to American GIs. From these humble beginnings was built a business that now distributes Coca-Cola in 28 countries.

As well as giving David opportunities, his father’s mega-wealth created challenges. ‘Money does cause problems,’ he says. ‘Growing up: it was a problem. The same when I started acting. Then there were relationships. That’s difficult as you don’t know what’s real. You end up becoming a relatively good judge of character as a result of the pain you go through.’

The showman

While David wants FilmOn to be taken seriously, he is often his own worst enemy, feeding a popular perception of him as a dilettante. Killing the Cheeky Girls, released on YouTube to publicise FilmOn, is an elaborate prank played by David on six unsuspecting members of the public (whom he refers to as contributors), who are sent on a trip across Europe ostensibly to make a video for the eponymous pop duo. Then there is Killing Brigitte Nielsen, where one of his “contributors” threatened to sue. It has still to be screened.

The general response to David’s efforts behind the camera has been, to put it mildly, lukewarm. Fishtales, which starred David himself as an evil fisherman pursuing Kelly Brook’s mermaid (pictured) for her jewel-encrusted tail, did attract more than its fair share of media attention.

‘The Sun are terrible people,’ says David. ‘When we were filming, they sent a photographer to the set who was trying to take lewd pictures of Kelly getting changed, so we had him thrown off the island. The next thing we saw from them was a really cutting article – the headline was Hook, Line and Stinker.’

David has been dogged by controversy of late. His bid for debt-ridden Coventry City saw him hailed in the press as the saviour of the club, until he pulled out. ‘It was a disaster,’ he says, noting that he originally thought that the whole deal could be wrapped up for £8.5 million in cash, with the rest of the debt secured by a guarantee.

Those who suspect David’s interest in the club might have been about more than simply football might not be far wrong. ‘I was looking for a venue to stage digital sports for FilmOn, and use as a venue for live events,’ he admits.

The mystic

When the pressures of business and show business become too great, David likes to relax by free diving on his home island of Spetses in Greece. ‘When you’re deep in the ocean, without tanks, you’re completely alone. It’s totally quiet,’ he explains.

David moved to Spetses in the early 1980s and the rest of his family has since joined him. He takes a keen interest in marine conservation through his charity BIOS, which helps local authorities educate children about the issue.

He also keeps in touch with his Greek roots through the Orthodox Church. He married his present wife in a chapel he built specifically for the purpose at the bottom of his house. ‘I have some very good friends who are priests; they are very human, fallible, they recognise they have their own dark side,’ he muses.

In more soulful moments, David even dreams of becoming a priest himself. 'My great-grandfather was a priest, and his father,’ he reveals. ‘That is not to say I am particularly religious.’

For the time being, however, the priesthood is likely to remain a dream as David commits himself to FilmOn, which he says is earning £300,000 to £450,000 per month through UK advertising alone.

‘Money is not my goal, but money is a measure of a project’s success,’ David explains. ‘It means people are responding to what you do.’

And whatever else you think about David, he does demand a response.

Vital Statistics

Date of birth: 23 May 1968

Marital status:
Remarried

Kids:
Two sons from previous marriage, one stepdaughter

Hero:
Albert Einstein

Most extravagant purchase:
A custom-built yacht (worth €60 million)

Hobbies:
Skiing, rugby, diving, English cars

Business motto:
Find something that makes money, and keep doing it