Q&A: Abu Dhabi Media's Edward Borgerding


Illustration by Chris Morris
After more than 20 years with Disney, Edward Borgerding joined the fledgling Abu Dhabi Media Co. in 2007 and helped launch its film division, Imagenation Abu Dhabi, which has access to more than $1 billion. Borgerding has since spearheaded a massive deal with Warner Bros. to develop films and video games, as well as film development deals with producers Participant Media, National Geographic, Ashok Amritraj's Hyde Park, Parkes /Macdonald Prods. and Singapore's Media Development Authority. He's at Cannes with Doug Liman's "Fair Game."

THR: Participant has an unabashed social-change agenda, so that deal didn't initially strike me as a natural fit for a company backed by oil money. How did the relationship come about?

Borgerding: The strategy of Imagenation is to identify and interact with the best of world cinema. For instance, we have deals in Hollywood but we also have deals in Singapore. We make movies in Bollywood, and we make movies in China; we make movies in the Middle East and are developing movies for the Arabic marketplace. In Hollywood we ended up with three partnerships that we felt comfortable with at that time. We felt comfortable with Participant and their strategy.

THR: But they have a dual bottom line where they're happy even if the movie doesn't make money as long as it promotes the agenda they set out to do. As the money behind that, how you go to the board of directors and say, "Well, the movie didn't do great but ..."

Borgerding: We're not the money behind Participant, we're half of them. They put in a dollar, we put in a dollar. I think, given the conversations we have with Participant, we're on the same page when it comes to financial returns. I think they're as motivated as anyone else to make money.

THR: Explain the status of the Warners relationship.

Borgerding: There are two aspects. One is the DVD business, which is very interesting. They're doing a lot of games, a lot of great intellectual property. So far on the film side we've done one movie, (Robert Rodriguez's) "Shorts." And we're looking at other projects with them all the time. Sometimes they send us projects that we don't like, and sometimes the ones that we want to be involved in, they don't want us -- they have a lot of partners -- I guess they have some sort of hierarchy.

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THR: You have to be very astute about that development heirarchy. How do you make sure you're not just seeing the dregs of the development slate?

Borgerding: Well, you have a relationship with Walter (Parkes) and Laurie (MacDonald), that's how I did it. When they want to acquire something, we do it as a partnership. There are very few people that have real development skills and insight and track records, where you're happy that they're going to find the right stuff and develop it in a way that's going to make money.

THR: What kind of projects appeal to you?

Borgerding: We have maybe five or six different types of material that we look to produce. With Walter and Laurie, they can acquire stuff and make very high-end, very commercial material. Our producer Ashok Amritraj -- very much a foreign sales, independent model -- that attracts a certain type of material. National Geo has its very specific kind of material. The problem for me in the film industry now is not actually the cost of making a movie but the cost of marketing. Because people now in Hollywood will structure deals in ways to make the actual making of the film much more reasonable than it was when there was all that money and it was just crazy. Marketing is the problem because it still costs $25-$35 million to open a film here.

THR: But more producers are raising P&A on their own.

Borgerding: Yeah, but it doesn't reduce your cost. And when the film ends, the guy gets his money back, but as a producer you're still sitting behind that. Studios feel like they need to spend $30 million marketing a movie because they need people in Texas to say, "Oh, you were No. 1." But each week there can only be one. And everybody else, you're now swallowing all this cost.

THR: What indication have you gotten from Daniel Battsek at National Geographic about the kind of films he's going to make?

Borgerding: I think the vision for National Geographic Films is to make "Gandhi," "Dances With Wolves," those types of movies that are based on true facts. We have a very close relationship with National Geographic and were very happy to be a part of their film division. We have a joint venture with them in the Middle East, National Geographic Abu Dhabi, which is an Arabic version of the TV channel. And we're almost certainly going to launch the Arabic version of their magazine. The first movie we're doing is with Peter Weir ("The Way Back").

THR: How much do your backers care about funding projects that present the Middle East and Abu Dhabi in a positive light?

Borgerding: That's not an agenda for them. The primary motivation for Imagenation is to develop the media industry in Abu Dhabi. Participant has an office in Abu Dhabi, and National Geographic has an office there, and Walter and Laurie have an office there because we want to develop skills in the Middle East. It's not something that happens in a year. You need to have a generation of people that learn. Egypt has a film industry, but down in the Gulf there is none. Fifty or 60 years ago they were living in the desert and they had no money. There is no institutionalized skill set, so we're developing it.
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