Abu Dhabi pumps Participant funds


As financing sources dry up globally, Participant Media has launched its first film fund — a $250 million revolving equity and debt facility — by going where the money is these days: the Middle East.

The producer of issue-oriented films and Imagenation Abu Dhabi, owned by the Abu Dhabi Media Co., have forged a five-year revolving fund that provides production and P&A funding for 15-18 narrative features.

Participant plans to boost its slate from about four films a year to seven or eight features, with about half of those financed by the fund, to which both companies have contributed an undisclosed share. The remaining will be feature-length documentaries financed by Participant alone or with outside partners.

The production ramp-up will begin next year on releases slated for 2010.

Participant has partnered with outside producers on virtually all its features since it was founded in 2004 by chairman and deep-pocketed philanthropist Jeff Skoll, with CEO Jim Berk and president Ricky Strauss at the reins.

ADMC unveiled Imagenation Abu Dhabi last week to develop, finance and produce full-length feature films and digital content for Arabic and global markets, pledging to invest more than $1 billion in feature films and digital media over the next five years.

ADMC, run by chairman Mohamed Khalaf Al-Mazrouei and CEO Edward Borgerding, is itself only 14 months old. The state-owned firm is backed by oil profits from the Arab capital. Last September, it signed a pact with Warner Bros. Entertainment and Abu Dhabi real estate developer ALDAR to create a theme park, hotel, jointly owned multiplex cinemas and a co-financing agreement for features, video games and Abu Dhabi's digital infrastructure.

Participant and Groundswell Prods. recently had a sizable indie hit with the immigration-themed Overture Films release "The Visitor." But many Participant films have been controversial in, or critical of, parts of the Arab world (including "Syriana" and "An Inconvenient Truth," both of which took on the oil business, and the Afghanistan-set "The Kite Runner," which included a scene of child rape).

The pact raises questions as to whether the crusading social activist filmmakers will get overt or implicit pressure to shift their focus or tone down such material.

"We will never enter any agreement that restricts our mandate for social change," Berk said. "Nothing will stop, change or alter our approach to material, and there are no restrictions, requirements or elements in this fund that will change that in any way."

Imagenation's mandate is to create projects for the Arabic markets, but Berk said Participant has no specific plans to increase such subject matter.

"It was important to us to maintain control as we continue to create entertainment and inspire social change, and their belief in what we do was particularly attractive to them," he said. "The important thing is that this fund provides us with real stability for the next five years."

Participant also will maintain rights to each project, with a return in profits divvied from an aggregate of revenue from the features. (partialdiff)