Participant Media, Imagenation form fund

Provides support for 15-18 narrative features

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 issue-oriented producer and Abu Dhabi Media Co.-owned Imagenation Abu Dhabi have forged a five-year revolving fund providing production and P&A funding for 15-18 narrative features.

Participant plans to boost its slate from around four films a year to seven or eight features, with around half from the fund, to which both private companies have contributed an undisclosed share. The remaining will be feature-length documentaries financed by themselves or with outside partners. The production ramp-up will begin next year on releases slated for 2010.

The company has partnered with outside producers on virtually all features since it was founded in 2004, founded by chairman and deep-pocketed philanthropist Jeff Skoll with CEO Jim Berk and president Ricky Strauss at the reins. One-year-old ADMC, run by chairman Mohamed Khalaf Al-Mazrouei and CEO Edward Borgerding, launched Imagenation Abu Dhabi on Sept. 3 to develop, finance and produce full-length feature films and digital content for Arabic and global markets.

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" for their take on the oil business and "The Kite Runner" for its child rape scene). The pact raises questions as to whether the crusading social activist filmmakers will get overt or implicit pressure to shift their focus or tone such material down, similar to questions raised over advertisers on public television or oil company ads prominently featured on newspaper editorial pages.

CEO Jim Berk strenuously denied this. "We will never enter any agreement that restricts our mandate for social change," he 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."

Berk added that despite Imagenation's mandate to create projects for the Arabic markets, 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.

ADMC signed a pact with Warner Bros. Entertainment and Abu Dhabi real estate developer ALDAR in September 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.