Middle East Film Festivals Hit Hard Times Amid Apathy

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De Niro with Sophia Al-Mariad, winner of Doha fest’s most promising filmmaker nod.

The Doha Tribeca Film Festival launched with Robert De Niro's backing in 2009, but now it's ending alongside the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

This story first appeared in the June 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Given that the 2014 edition of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival was considered the best in its eight years, the May decision to end the event came as a surprise to many in the industry. But that fest is not alone.

Less than five years ago, three major film festivals in the Middle East took place from October to December, and each lured Hollywood stars eager to court the rapidly developing region. But now two are gone, and another has been dramatically scaled back.

The Dubai International Film Festival, launched in 2004, welcomed the likes of Oliver Stone, Cate Blanchett, Owen Wilson and Tom Cruise, who hosted the world premiere of Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol there in 2011, near the famed Burj Khalifa tower used in the film. Up the road, the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi made a challenge in 2007 with its own event. And in 2009, the Doha Tribeca Film Festival launched with Robert De Niro's backing.

But now Abu Dhabi and Doha have ended, and severe cuts hit Dubai in 2014, eliminating key promo opportunities for stars and studios. Local sources suggest that despite seemingly bottomless pockets, cinema had become a passing fad, quickly replaced when attentions wandered elsewhere, such as towards Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup.

"It's very sad news," says Naji Abu Nowar, director of Jordanian drama Theeb, which had its regional premiere in Abu Dhabi in 2014 and received financial support from the festival's own SANAD fund.

The upshot could, however, potentially be beneficial to the industry, and signaling a new-found area of cooperation between the two neighboring cities. Abu Dhabi is focusing its attention on building a major hub and attracting big-budget productions (Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Furious 7 both shot there), while DIFF has the opportunity to become the region's central platform for cinema, buoyed by the absence of competition and better able to attract major names and titles. Films funded by Abu Dhabi’s SANAD, which is currently set to remain, and Doha’s grants programme, could find international sway on DIFF's schedule and local filmmakers forced to up their game with less overall slots available.

"The Dubai-Abu Dhabi relationship was a big part of the decision," says Rashid Al-Marri, a producer and former ADFF worker, adding that the Abu Dhabi fest never was able lose the stigma that it was competing with Dubai. "Maybe it's better for them to take the front row."