In the desert, winds of change

First Dubai market scores high marks; Jordan plans to launch film fund

As the Dubai International Film Festival headed to the finish line, organizers and participants were exhausted but enthused after a week of screenings, meetings, feasting and, yes, deals.

Begun Dec. 11 at the Madinat Jumeirah resort complex and in cinemas around the city of 4 million on the Arabian Gulf, the fifth edition of the festival carried the motto "Bridging Cultures, Meeting Minds."

Festival director Abdulhamid Juma and DIFF artistic director Masoud Amralla Al Ali, dressed in elegant white robes, oversaw attention to every detail for a diverse global guest list that ranged from such veteran Hollywood stars as Danny Glover and Nicolas Cage to up-and-coming filmmakers from around the world.

The Dubai Film Connection, organized by Jane Williams, honored six of 21 Arab filmmaker finalists, including several DIFF returnees. Awards totaling $118,225 were granted to help finish their next works. As the rest of the world struggles to find film financing, Dubai offered a major increase from last year's $70,000 prize money with help from Desert Door of Kuwait and Bahrain Film Production.

And talk of even more regional money was hinted at in the halls of the elegant Madinat Jumeirah Arena, home to the DFC and DIFF's inaugural film market.

The Royal Film Commission of Jordan told The Hollywood Reporter that it plans to launch a film fund in 2009 for small- to midsize films from the region, welcoming filmmakers to participate in the fifth edition of its Sundance screenwriting workshop in October.

"Now that we've been training filmmakers for four years and developing projects, it's time to start giving them the money to make their dreams and ours come true," said Nada Doumani, the commission's communications and culture manager.

Three DFC films this year are set to be shot in Jordan beginning in 2009. George David, the commission's deputy GM, said that Jordan can double for many countries around the region and that production services and security are a top priority.

"We can offer 20%-25% budget savings, which is important in these tight times," David said. 20th Century Fox executives have made three recent visits to Jordan to explore the possibility of shooting some of its forthcoming feature "The A-Team" there, David said.

In DIFF's inaugural film market, where organizers said that 58 meetings had occurred through Wednesday afternoon with a "95% success rate," some filmmakers chose the venue to publicize details of their most recent deals. For example, Dubai-based Xpanse announced it will begin to shoot the emirate's first CGI film, about a cyborg on a spiritual journey.

The first market revolved around a state-of-the-art digital screening facility, the Cinetech, which allowed buyers to watch the 211 films screening on-demand.

After meetings and screenings had ended, guests packed one party after another under the stars at the Jumeirah or on the beach facing the sail-like Burj Al Arab.

Hollywood execs such as Hal Sadoff of ICM and Alexi Boltho of Paramount mingled with the likes of Kuwaiti exhibition mogul Hisham Alghanim, head of Cinemascape, and Antoine Zeind, chairman of Egyptian movie giant United Motion Pictures. (partialdiff)