The beginning of a film career
Riaz Patel moved with his family as a young child from Karachi to West Virginia, and then to Maryland. His father had been a physician on four continents, and after he passed away, Riaz discovered letters from Mawlana Hazar Imam where he had approached his father with the concept of a state-of-the-art, world-class hospital and medical school to be based in Karachi. He wanted his father to develop the vision and then slowly execute it. For many years during his childhood, his father would fly to meet the Imam and the planning committee for the nascent Aga Khan University Medical College. He worked on it through it’s opening and his parents, Rafiq & Yasmina, were present at the opening ceremony.
For Riaz, it seemed ordained that he would follow in the medical tradition. Even in Maryland, patients would come to their home for care. He recalls that at age five, he would hand them a glass of water and try to make them feel comfortable. "I love helping people feel better, it’s in my bones," he says.
He was graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, pre-med, president of the Pre-Med Society, President of the Psychology Honor Society and having dinner with the Deans of medical schools feeling that he wanted to help people, but Riaz was uncertain about a career in medicine.
Majoring in Theatre Arts as well, Riaz realized he loved this form of activity and expression. While at home one day, he saw “Maurice,” a Merchant/Ivory film about a forbidden love between two men in Edwardian England. “And for the very first time in my life,” he says, he recognized that “...such a relationship could be as beautiful as any straight love story.” That had never occurred to him. The story resonated with him “because of my own internal struggles to accept myself at the time." Telling stories
It was then that Riaz decided that he wanted to pursue storytelling. Almost everyone told him he would fail in this endeavor but as soon as he graduated, he drove across the country alone to Los Angeles, without any contacts. Yet, he soon was hired as an assistant at the legendary William Morris Agency that represented many Hollywood actors.
This was not an easy introduction to the film industry. He had to work for a “nightmare, screamer agent,” and “verbal abuse was the rule of the day, with constant harassment and humiliation. Once in a full staff meeting, his boss made him crawl under the table to pick up papers he scattered across the floor. But he had to endure and develop a thick skin to survive and to learn the business.
After leaving William Morris, Riaz worked with actor Stanley Tucci on the film “The Imposters,” moving to New York City to work with him on set. Later, he met actor/director Bob Balaban who was looking to start a production company. When he walked in the first door,” he says, “...there was a typewriter on the desk. My job, what is known in our Industry as ‘Development,’ was to pound the pavement to find scripts, books, theater shows, even just an idea – then develop them into screenplays that were strong enough to attach a director or star, find the financing to make the film, and keep it on budget.”
Three years later, developing really smart scripts with partners such as Robert Altman, who were impressed by the quality of the material, the team was nominated for two Oscars – Best Picture and, the one that was directly connected to his actual development work, Best Screenplay, which they won. Yet, the story did not have a happy ending. Riaz’s boss had reneged on their “handshake” deal over credit.
Finding his own voice
Disappointed and not wanting to build a company for someone else a second time, Riaz left and established his own production company. And success flowed. He has developed or produced projects that have gone on to win an Oscar & Golden Globe (“Gosford Park”) , a Tony Award (“Hedwig & the Angry Inch”) and nominated for two Emmy Awards (“How Do I Look”), and a NAACP Image Award (“Mary/Mary”).
The next step in his producing/directing evolution came when Riaz was having lunch with a friend from William Morris' days who was hired in a brand new “Unscripted” division of the AMC network. Off-the-top of his head, he suggested training and transforming ordinary people into their film fantasies. Like an office manager who always felt a deep connection to the movie “Rocky” or a lab researcher who always wished he could dance like John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever.” Having never taken a directing class, Riaz directed a small pilot for a shoestring budget. The network liked it, 13 episodes were shot, and Riaz became a bankable and reliable producer/director, something known as a “showrunner” in the industry. He went on to produce more “reality” projects where people would come on the show to experience something transformative and positive.
Makeover shows, wish-fulfillment shows, shows where families in crisis needed help from SuperNanny, became his forte. Says Riaz, “This was real people experiencing real transformations. That has been my brand ever since Transformative TV.”
Working on Women’s issues
“My focus became helping women with issues of self-esteem. I kept pitching shows that were experiences I designed that might be able to create huge shifts in thinking in short amounts of time. To help them remove ‘their own baggage.’"
This idea led to the television makeover show that Riaz produced, “How do I Look?” Says Jeannie Mai, presenter of the show, “He has such powerful creative vision and passionately leads his teams through his shows. On his sets everyone strives to do their best because his intention is so inspirational. It’s hard to describe the surge in energy when Riaz walks into the room - I think it comes from his faith and deep sense of purpose.” The show was nominated for two Emmy Awards.
Princess Reema of Saudi Arabia (now Saudi Ambassador to the US) had seen this show, which was broadcast in Saudi. Riaz explains: “On the surface it was a makeover show – but before we went near hair/makeup, we spent a lot of time on issues of body dysmorphia and self-esteem.”
The results were amazing: these women didn’t just look different, they would leave the show and completely change their lives.” The princess recognized this and said that she has a population of women about to enter the workforce. They were trying to find ways of teaching them to develop their sense of self so they could really maximize on the new opportunities.
Six visits to the country and several years later, Riaz now has a pilot that is being taken to broadcasters and financiers. Says Riaz, "I wanted a show to knit together generations of women who sometimes don't lean on each other for their perspective – it’s called “Ajyal” –generations–and is directed/produced for a Muslim audience in the Gulf region."
Riaz has also received the Silver Rose Award from actress Halle Berry for his ongoing work with survivors of domestic violence (based on a lot of his shows and his work on self-esteem at The Jenesse Center, a domestic violence shelter in Los Angeles). He also received a special commendation from The City of Los Angeles for his work with the Jenesse Center. Expanding his influence
An interest in the political divide in the country led Riaz to an interesting, if unusual, project. While in Florida in 2016, he found himself less than a mile away from the murder rampage by Omar Mateen at the Pulse Nightclub. He could see the concern on the faces of people passing them in their Eastern attire.
Expanding his influence
“I felt the media was going to start playing an even larger role and, being a producer myself, I know how “reality” can be distorted “remarks Riaz, adding: “In Hollywood we do it for a show. On CNN and Fox they do it for ratings. I wanted to humanize and personify myself to conservative audiences who never really meet a guy like me in their daily lives.”
Riaz felt that many commentators really only knew about 9/11, other acts of terror and the Pulse Nightclub shooting. So he reached out to conservative talk show host Glenn Beck’s team and asked him to do nothing other than sit with me for an hour of live conversation to talk about their differences and understanding of Muslims.
“After my first show with Glenn, we both learned so much about the “other perspective," and a large part of his network’s audience watched and wanted more so we did 20 more,” says Riaz, and he produced all of them. The series was “...always about desperate groups of people coming together to really listen to and understand the other side, such as the episode, “Make America Dinner Again.” Not shy of tackling difficult conversations, one of his podcasts was with conservatives and NRA members, titled, “The Gun Debate: A Human-to-Human Approach.”
A 2019 Forbes magazine interview with him explores Riaz’s desire and methodology to encourage people how to talk and try to understand different cultures and perspectives, ones that are usually formulated and strengthened by listening to a few commentators or opinion-makers in a small echo chamber. Wrote Forbes about his EPIC framework for dialogue, that is now taught at colleges, high schools, companies, and places of worship:
“Refreshingly elegant and simple, but under-girded by sound behavioral science, the EPIC model of facilitated dialogue (Equalization, Personification, Information-gathering, Collaboration) is a game changer for those working to build bridges while breaking down walls.”
Riaz is now on the Board of Odyssey Impact which is a faith-based documentary company focusing on social-impact projects. Its most recent project was SISTER/SISTER, about an organization that brings Jewish and Muslim women together to promote peace.
Documentary and television projects “...generally shift with the times,” says Riaz, adding, “When Obama was President, the world felt good so people escaped into conflict-based “trashier” TV (not my brand at all). As the world started to feel darker and more scary, projects that bring hope and connection are greenlit, which is exactly what I do. It really does adjust with the times.”
About the film industry
The film industry is not easy to break into nor to maintain success. Riaz says, “You have to really want to do the work, not just enjoy the glamor of the profession – because there is very little glamor and a lot of hard work.” Success comes at the end of a long road traveled, and “you get to the red-carpet premiere after you have worked for years to get a project made–and not just made, but made with your vision intact,” warns Riaz.
What makes the profession more difficult, notes Riaz, is that “...one cannot rely on data to make creative choices – it really is about developing your own vision/brand/instincts, and then working constantly to gain the trust of networks to spend millions of dollars on that vision. Rejection is a daily part of the profession so you really do develop a thick skin after a few years.”
Perhaps what was of most significance to Riaz was when his father apologized many times for underestimating his son but, in his defense, Riaz notes that, “It was a different world – there was no internet. He knew nothing about itm he knew no one who could help me, and he was concerned about his son." His father did love watching Riaz’s career, especially when he was on the Oprah Winfrey Show or CNN, and “adored my partner, and the grandkids - Zara & Tenzing - that came along.”
Some of Riaz’s productions
MAKE AMERICA DINNER AGAIN (documentary special about people discussing differences)
BORN WITHOUT LIMBS (a documentary series about Nick Vujicic, an Australian motivational speaker born without limbs)
HOW DO I LOOK (a makeover series for NBC/Universal that was nominated for an Emmy because it really does change the self-esteem of the women on the show)
FAMILY SOS / TLC (a series with “Supernanny” working with families with older children)
RACE TO ESCAPE (Discovery Science, a game show for younger children to enjoy instead of video games)