The Middle East, more specifically the Gulf region, is no longer that deep indiscriminate petro-dollar well that Hollywood, in its constant thirst for outside capital, went to during the subprime mortgage crisis. Instead, countries in the Arabian Peninsula are starting to lay the foundations for their own film and TV industries. But strong Hollywood ties can play an important role in this pioneering process.
Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, compared with a few years ago, are gaining greater prominence on the global showbiz map, albeit in different capacities.
And perhaps even more important, while their media investments used to be geared mainly toward Hollywood glitz in a spirit of one-upmanship, which yielded some dubious financial results, that approach has now given way to more constructive collaboration toward the long-term strategic and synergistic benefits of building a local industry.
"We turned a Hollywood-centric strategy into an Abu Dhabi-centric strategy," says veteran U.S. exec Michael Garin, CEO of Abu Dhabi's Image Nation, who is keeping the deep-pocketed production outfit on a self-sustaining and financially disciplined course after some reportedly incautious Hollywood deals made under previous CEO Edward Borgerding.
"We redefined our mission as primarily helping to build a film and television industry in Abu Dhabi and the UAE," Garin says.
The importance of investing in Hollywood movies, such as the upcoming "The Fall Guy," produced by Parkes/MacDonald Prods. and Ashok Amritraj, who are Image Nation's two Hollywood partners, remains significant for Image Nation, but is no longer the driver. (WWE Studios is also a producer on the film.)
There are two reasons Hollywood ties are important for Image Nation. The first is that they now generate capital, managed under a risk-mitigation model.
The second is that being involved in these projects provides aspiring Emirati filmmakers real-world hands-on experience at the highest international levels. That is crucial, considering that, unlike other Middle East territories such as Egypt, where the film industry dates back to the late 1800s, the Gulf is building a business from scratch.
"Filmmaking, the whole film culture, creatively and industrially, it's not in our DNA," says Samr Al Marzooqi, manager of the Dubai Film Market, which runs concurrently with the Dubai Intl. Film Festival and is the only film mart in the Arab world.
One festival trying to change that, Al Marzooqi notes, is the Doha Film Institute's radical reconception of its festival structure. It replaced the glitzy Doha-Tribeca fest with the Qumra Film Festival dedicated to emerging helmers, integrating grants and a year-round film lab, and recruiting Palestinian auteur Elia Suleiman ("Divine Intervention") known for his playful absurdist style, as artistic adviser. The DFI has also launched the Ajyal Youth Film Festival to foster cinematic awareness and education, in the old Doha-Tribeca fall slot.
Doha announced these changes at Cannes, along with another key to regional cooperation: It lifted the restriction that films supported by Doha grants be shown in Doha first. "So now any film that is supported by Doha can go to Abu Dhabi or Dubai, and vice-versa; it works well for all of us," Al Marzooqi says.
As for its Hollywood ties, in February the DFI announced a deal with Participant Media for a $100 million revolving fund with plans to finance 12-16 pics over the next five years.
The deal, the first of this type for the DFI, is considered a key plank of its goal "of creating a sustainable industry in the Middle East," says DFI chief executive officer Abdulaziz Al Khater.
The DFI was seeking "someone to partner with to set up films that are commercially viable, on the back of which we can actually attract other investors in the region into this industry, which a lot of investors in Qatar are really not very knowledgeable about," says Al Khater.
They also liked the fact that, under their Participant deal, they can be an active partner, Al Khater says.
Interestingly, the DFI/Participant deal, which becomes effective in 2014, picks up from a previous deal that Participant had with Image Nation, which expires at the end of 2013. That deal produced several winners, such as "The Help" and "Contagion," but also a few flops, including "Promised Land" and "The Way Back."
"The Help," with its Oscar glow, is understood to have helped bring the DFI to the table with Participant.
Oscars are a point of pride for Dubai Film Market's Enjaaz fund for Arab filmmakers. Mart runs concurrently with the fest, Dec. 6-14.
Enjaaz is among backers of three contenders for the foreign language Academy Award this year: Hany Abu-Assad's "Omar," from Palestine; Lara Saba's "Blind Intersections," from Lebanon; and Haifaa Al Mansour's "Wadjda," which Sony Classics released in the U.S.
But while Enjaaz helped, Al Mansour points out that it's still almost impossible for an Arab auteur to get a film produced without an international production company on board, noting that "Wadjda" got made only after she emailed the project to Berlin-based Razor Film, which became the pic's main producer.
"People (outside the Arab world) are interested in seeing something coming from our region. It is rich. It is politically important ," she says. "(But) locals are never given the chance to step outside and reflect on their culture."
With the help of more inward-looking funds, more cinematic voices in the Middle East may have a chance to thrive.
(Pictured: "Omar," which is repping Palestine in the Oscar foreign-language pic race, will open the Dubai Film Festival.)
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