MEIFF wraps, giving 'best of Arabic culture'

One exec says young festival is on the right track

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- The presence of such Hollywood stars as Melanie Griffith, Antonio Banderas, Meg Ryan and Joseph Fiennes helped guarantee a global spotlight for this year's second annual Middle East Film Festival, but festival organizers know there remains a lot of room to grow.

"In just two years, MEIFF has captured the imagination and attention of the global industry and the sky is the only limit for our future ambitions," MEIFF vice chairman Mohamed Khalaf Al Mazrouei said of the fest, which unspooled more than 130 films from 32 countries.

As the red carpet was rolled up for another year, unanimous among the festival's attendees was an appreciation of MEIFF's lavishness, hospitality and spectacle.

Held in the conspicuous opulence of the marble- and gold-clad Emirates Palace, the 10-day event -- doubled from last year's five days -- succeeded in delivering the prerequisite glamor. But for the 300 or so industry attendees that journeyed to the capital, did the second edition of the Gulf fest live up to its promise of "providing opportunities to those looking to invest in the future of film?"

"Great hospitality, a friendly environment; this is the best of Arabic culture," said Karim Chrobog, Washington-based director of the documentary "War Child." "I think the festival will have to evolve in the next couple of years and attract more industry, I think it's going to be able to do that if there's not too much competition with Dubai."

Endgame Entertainment senior vp Adam Del Deo brought three films to MEIFF's slate including gala opener "The Brothers Bloom" and "Every Little Step," a documentary about the revival of the long-running Broadway musical "A Chorus Line" recently bought by Sony.

"There may be some growing pains, but overall they're doing a really good job and are on the right track," Del Deo said. "We've not worked with people here yet and that is a reason why we're here. There's a learning curve in terms of working with other countries and cultures. If we're going to work with them we need to understand what they're looking for. MEIFF has been a way of starting the process and getting a feel for it."

Abu Dhabi has begun a serious drive to become the region's center for culture and the arts. Alongside international museums -- including outposts of the Guggenheim and Louvre -- have been the announcements of billions of dollars of investment including deals with National Geographic ($100 million to produce films over the next five years), Warner Bros. (co-financing films, building a theme park and cinemas) and Participant Media ($250 million to finance films over next five years).

On Oct. 12, it was announced that the capital's seemingly limitless petrodollars will finance a multibillion dollar, 200,000 square meter media hub to rival Dubai's high-profile Dubai Media City. This, it is hoped, will attract the international expertise Abu Dhabi is lacking, and in turn help train a new generation of homegrown filmmakers and media professionals. CNN, Reuters, Harper Collins, BBC and Random House are among the names slated to inhabit the zone.

It's a long way from completion though. The hub won't be ready until at least 2013 and there was a sense of uncertainty among festival attendees about what exactly all this hype actually means on the ground.

"ADACH are trying to get their footing and trying to figure out how they want to invest and participate. They're making huge steps in everything from Formula 1 to the museums and it's mind-blowing," Del Deo said. "It would be useful if they were able to start the process in educating a crew base and putting in the infrastructure, sound stages and equipment. On a feature level you'd need to bring everything in, they don't yet have enough people to staff up a crew, and the bigger films will train local citizens."

Teressa Tunney, a U.S. actress/script supervisor-turned-director was showing her first short in competition at MEIFF.

"I wanted to see if I could finance my next feature and understand Arab filmmaking," she said. "MEIFF is making a start, but it's also confusing because people here don't really understand what questions to ask or who to speak to. I also think they don't recognize what a high risk business it is."

"I'm in split minds about U.S. filmmakers coming here for financing," added Chrobog. "I did the same thing. I came here because I wanted to raise financing for a film, and I think there is a step in the right direction to try and build an industry here. Unfortunately, what is very frustrating is that a lot of the money is not being spent here. The message I've heard from filmmakers here is there needs to be a more cohesive strategy."

One aspect of the festival that will take time, no matter how many celebrities are flown in to parade the red carpet, is attracting a core of industry decisionmakers. And no matter how much money or glamour is attached to the fest, some things just take time.

"I don't think the right people are coming yet. If they are, it's on a very senior level and they come here for a night and leave. There's not much of a way to interact with industry but you can't have everything in the first two years," Chrobog said.

However, Del Deo believes there is a tremendous amount of curiosity about the region and the networking opportunities at MEIFF look promising. "The right people are coming but it just needs time to grow. You see more and more foreign investment in Hollywood and independents are always looking for foreign partners. Overall it's a double thumbs up. They're well on the way."