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Desert epics or art-house flicks?

Desert epics or art-house flicks?

Few know for certain what will emerge from the Middle East’s new love affair with Hollywood. We look for clues in a recap of recent movie deals.

September 16, 2008 7:55 by

Abu Dhabi’s recent film initiative is but one in a flurry of movie-making moves in the Middle East. Given the amount of money and prestige Abu Dhabi is investing in the film business, it’s worth a brief re-cap of recent developments in the region:

• Start with Imagenation Abu Dhabi, the newest venture. A cool $1bn for 40 feature films. But what kinds of films? Gladiator-style epics? Potboilers? Cinema for the bookish crowd? It has long been thought that Abu Dhabi would start investing in blockbusters, but Edward Borgerding, head of Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADMC), told The New York Times something different: Imagenation Abu Dhabi will invest in six to eight movies a year, with budgets of $10m to $50m – mid-sized budgets by Hollywood standards.

• The film bug has already spread to other parts of the Middle East. Witness the pouring of $550m of Egyptian cash into Hollywood’s Insomnia Media Group in November.

• In March, Abu Dhabi tasked Borgerding with heading up its media venture. A former executive vice-president of Walt Disney International who oversaw the company’s Asia Pacific operations, Borgerding’s appointment was a signal that the emirates is serious about making the newly formed ADMC – which took over the assets of the former Emirates Media Incorporated, a less ambitious state-run company whose assets were mainly in local print and satellite TV – into a conglomerate with global reach.

• Lest the UAE have to import its filmmaking talent until doomsday (much as it imports most other labour), last year Abu Dhabi teamed up with the New York Film Academy to set up a branch in the emirate.

• The UAE already had the Dubai International Film Festival. Starting last October, Abu Dhabi one-upped it with the Middle East International Film Festival, bringing industry brass like Harvey Weinstein at a time when DIFF was still recovering from a nasty fall-out with its previous boss. Three’s a crowd now that Dubai went ahead and launched the Gulf Film Festival in a bid to give Arab cinema, which is currently the in-thing on the international indie cinema festival circuit, a boost. The GFF’s first edition ran April 13-18.

• Meanwhile, the Middle East fest’s main draw, the Film Financing Circle, has been spun off into its own event. The forum originally intended to be “the Davos of the film biz,” said Variety, and now its ambitions are even higher.

• One year ago, Abu Dhabi signed a 50-50 partnership deal worth $1bn with Warner Bros to produce films and video games. In collaboration with local developer Aldar, the venture will also build a theme park and open a chain of multiplex cinemas – a vertical conglomerate covering financing, production, distribution and merchandising.

• In May 2007 (ancient history in local time), the Abu Dhabi government created a film fund, pegged by Variety at $500m, to be administered by a newly created Abu Dhabi Film Commission, that the magazine suggested “may be the long-awaited holy grail of Arab film financing.” Yemeni-British filmmaker Bader Ben Hirsi (“A New Day in Old Sana’a”) has already snagged $10m from the fund to make “Arabian Sands,” a film about Empty Quarter explorer Wilfred Thesiger. It’s not clear to what extent this fund overlaps with the latest venture, Imagenation Abu Dhabi.

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