Hollywood silent on UAE Blackberry ban

Executives unwilling to stand up and challenge the new edict

No BlackBerry service! The very thought is enough to strike terror in the hearts of thumb-happy Hollywood executives, who rely on the ubiquitous device as their lifeline to the business.

Visitors to the United Arab Emirates, and the burgeoning media centers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, face that grim possibility because the UAE's telecom regulator said this week that it intends to block such BlackBerry messaging services as e-mail and texting because it can't monitor the BlackBerry's encrypted data system.

But if BlackBerry users are sweating about going cold turkey, no one is willing to stand up and challenge the government edict. Calls to a half-dozen players who work in the Emirates and Hollywood were rebuffed. As soon as the word BlackBerry was mentioned, execs suddenly were in meetings, on planes or out of the country.

"I don't really feel comfortable sharing anything with you about that," said one BlackBerry-wielding exec, reached in Abu Dhabi. "I don't know enough to make an assessment. We're hearing bits and pieces, but nothing substantial so far."

The ban -- which would not affect iPhones and Nokia handsets -- is set to take effect Oct. 11 unless the Canadian-based Research in Motion, which manufactures BlackBerrys and maintains the servers they use, reaches accommodation with UAE authorities. While the UAE and RIM faced off, Saudi Arabia jumped on the bandwagon and, according to the Saudi Press Agency, intends to shut down BlackBerry service today.

RIM said that "customers of the BlackBerry enterprise solution can maintain confidence in the integrity of the security architecture without fear of compromise" as the company tried to shift the spotlight to the rollout of its newest smartphone, the BlackBerry Torch.

However, shares of RIM were down 3.85% Wednesday amid concerns over the company's ability to grow in key overseas markets, like the Arabic world, and renewed concerns about its competitiveness with Apple's iPhone and other hot devices. The stock is down more than 25% since April on fears the iPhone is making inroads in the corporate world.

The threat of a BlackBerry shutdown could also throw a chill over efforts to lure Hollywood to the Middle East.

In May, Imagenation Abu Dhabi COO Stefan Brunner was proudly showing off "Fair Game," the upcoming spy tale starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, at the Festival de Cannes as an example of Imagenation's partnership with such Western producers as Participant Media and River Road. He also cited the growing opportunities for filmmakers in his country.



Financing Arabic as well as international features, Imagenation has been particularly active in courting Hollywood producers, striking deals with Hyde Park Entertainment (which has a creative exec, Jason Mirch, working out of Abu Dhabi), National Geographic Films, Parkes/MacDonald Prods. and Participant.

Brunner, who was visiting Los Angeles for meetings this week, was unavailable to comment about how he expected his company would cope with the looming BlackBerry blackout.

If the ban goes through as scheduled, it will present immediate headaches for the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, which kicks off Oct. 14. Last year's fest attracted such celebrities as Hilary Swank, Demi Moore, Dennis Haysbert and Franco Nero, but it could be harder to entice stars to attend this year if their BlackBerrys are rendered mute.

The Dubai International Film Festival, set for Dec. 12-19, will face a similar quandary.

International media companies would be affected as well.

In November, CNN opened a production center and newsgathering hub for its Middle East operations in Abu Dhabi; Tuesday, it named Mohammed Jamjoom as its newest correspondent. Beginning this month, he will cover the UAE, Iraq and other places in the region out of Abu Dhabi.

"CNN employs more than two-dozen staff at its editorial operations in the United Arab Emirates and will continue to monitor the situation surrounding BlackBerry services," a network spokesperson said.

News Corp. also is looking to increase its footprint in Abu Dhabi.

Speaking at the opening of the Abu Dhabi Media Summit in March, News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch said his company is seeking to run its Middle East global online advertising operations out of Abu Dhabi while moving several of its satellite television channels there from Hong Kong.

"The Middle East is experiencing radical change," he said at the time, adding that its media should "accompany this revolution."

A News Corp. spokesman declined comment on how the UAE's BB-crackdown could affect those plans.

Georg Szalai in New York contributed to this report.
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