MEIFF: Eastern Promises

Can government officials make Abu Dhabi the next great entertainment industry Mecca?

Q&A: Peter Scarlet, MEIFF executive director

"We were late to join the party."

Those are the words of Nashwa Al Ruwaini, the executive director of the Middle East International Film Festival. But, she argues, "we haven't lost time."

As part of Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 -- an urban structure framework strategy created by the United Arab Emirates government to guide planning decisions in its capital for the next quarter-century -- the city has moved forward on a number of fronts. It has launched MEIFF, established a film financing entity (the Circle), a film commission (Abu Dhabi Film Commission), a film school (New York Film Academy), and also set up a

vertically integrated media company (Abu Dhabi Media Co.).

Although separate entities, the various media initiatives have begun to make inroads into the international artistic and cultural communities under the watchful eye of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage.

"It's very rare to find such a well-structured plan and organization of film and media bodies anywhere in the world," says Al Ruwaini, a popular Arab TV personality who is in the process of producing an Emirati film set in Abu Dhabi through her company, Pyramedia. "There is no overlapping and no lack of clarity. We operate independently, but work together to achieve the 2030 objectives."

Since 2007, when the inaugural edition was held, MEIFF has aimed to bring Arab cinema and talent to the forefront. The festival has furthered its desire to create a steady culture of cinema in the region by setting up the Circle, a film financing initiative, hosting scriptwriting workshops and exposing its local audiences to an array of cinema from around the world.

Despite competition from other festivals in the Gulf region -- such as Dubai, a sister emirate, and Doha in Qatar, a neighboring country -- Al Ruwainy doesn't foresee any consolidation of resources.

"Festivals are not banks," he says. "They celebrate movies and cinema. The more the merrier. Our dates don't overlap and we're all in constant talks to do initiatives together. Our common goal is the cause of Arab cinema."

She says, further, that "budgeting is not an issue." With more than $1 million in prize money distributed as part of its Black Pearl Awards, Al Ruwaini says "the festival has always acknowledged that a strong budget for prize money was needed as an edge."

Any and almost all references to Abu Dhabi, which is reported to have about one-tenth of the world's oil reserves, include its healthy financial situation. Ed Borgerding, a former Disney executive vp, who is now the CEO of Abu Dhabi Media Co., is aware of the world's perceptions of the emirate. "It would be incorrect to say that we're irresponsible with money. We make decisions the same way any well-run business does. If it's worth it, we invest accordingly," he says of the ADMC.

The ADMC's production arm, Imagenation Abu Dhabi, was created in 2008 with more than $1 billion to spend during the next five years developing and creating content for the global and Arabic-language markets. With a decline in film financing from Wall Street and a recession-hit U.S. economy, the Middle East has emerged as an important player in filmed entertainment. In less than a year, Imagenation Abu Dhabi has already partnered with Warner Bros., National Geographic, Participant Media and Hyde Park Entertainment, which will also establish its regional headquarters at twofour- 54, Abu Dhabi's media-free zone.

"There's a huge opportunity to tap into creating quality content for the Arab world," says Karim Sarkis, executive director of radio and TV at ADMC, which has five Arabic television channels. He admits that the crisis has affected the Arab media at large with revenue dropping as it has around the world, but hasn't compromised on the ADMC's channels' content development budgets, as they have recently been rebranded and relaunched in October.

Sarkis faces the added challenge of operating in a TV and satellite market that lacks official statistical data or audience measurement. "There are tons of channels in the Arabic language, but they're all free-to-air and operate in many markets. There is no clear segmentation of markets, so it's very difficult to make a profit in the TV business in the Arab world as it is hugely undervalued in terms of ads," he says.

TV also faces a huge threat in the form of the Internet, which is a reason for Abu Dhabi's media free-zone entity, twofour54, positioning itself as a center for digital content creation targeting the Arab audiences and consumers. With more than 50% of the populations in many Middle Eastern countries and North African regions younger than 25, Wayne Borg, twofour54's COO, senses enormous potential in the areas of TV, film and gaming. "We're creating a creative ecosystem," he says of the zone, from which CNN is expected to start broadcasting later in the year.

Abu Dhabi's aspirations to emerge as a strong Arab content creation capital are facilitated by the Abu Dhabi Film Commission, which is described by director David Shepheard as "another piece in the jigsaw puzzle."

The ADFC works with other such bodies as the New York Film Academy, Imagenation Abu Dhabi and twofour54 to feed new talent into the constantly evolving media economy. The Film Commission also provides such film and location services as assisting with securing permits and other infrastructural support for the international film community to shoot in the Abu Dhabi emirate.

In order to avoid scenarios like the one in which "Body of Lies" director Ridley Scott was refused permission to film in Dubai, Shepheard recommends contacting and liaising with the ADFC as early on in the preproduction process as possible. "A film script has to be submitted to the National Media Council, which has to approve it before filming is allowed. The Film Commission only helps producers navigate the easiest way to the Council," he says clarifying that the ADFC's "borders of functioning are the government of Abu Dhabi."

Although only a few months old, the ADFC is exploring the possibility of signing co-production treaties with other emirates and Gulf states to ensure filmmaking stays in the Middle East.

"Our focus at the moment is to help Emirati filmmakers and get their projects going," Shepheard says. At May's Festival de Cannes, the commission announced its new programs, including the 2009 edition of the Circle Conference in association with Imagenation Abu Dhabi, which is expected to assemble the world's leading producers, financiers, executives and filmmakers in the city Oct. 9-11.

"The sequential and predictable exploitation of content that you see in more mature markets doesn't exist. So it reduces the revenue potential for content. We also face the same challenges as these developed markets that are coping with a world migrating from analog to digital. We're working on the structural element and instituting structural changes to release more revenue into the media industry so it allows growth and continued investment in content."

Imagenation Abu Dhabi invites scripts through its Web site. And Borgerding says they get them.

"Any film company rejects 99% of the scripts it gets," Borgerding says, "but the ones we like we send across to our American partners to develop. But, because the economic environment in the Middle East is potentially low, it's much more interesting for us to take a story that comes from this part of the world and cross it over into a big American movie. That would be fantastic, as it would publicize some of our heroes, images and culture to a global audience."
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