With the October film festival calendar already bursting at the seams with international jamborees in Pusan, London, Rome, Antalya and Tokyo, the addition of another fest that month might normally have elicited a groan.
That the announcement of Abu Dhabi’s inaugural Middle East Intl. Film Festival, set to unspool Oct. 14-19, has film execs in the region and beyond eagerly awaiting its arrival may be due to the fest’s attempts to rewrite the rules when it comes to supporting emerging filmmakers from around the world.
The fest’s competition, dubbed the Black Pearls for features, docs and shorts and open to debut or sophomore helmers from around the world, is offering an unprecedented prize for its winners: a potentially unlimited production grant that will ensure their next project gets financed.
“It’s going to be the biggest prize of its kind that I’ve ever seen. I don’t believe there’s any other prize that’s like this,” says fest director Jon Fitzgerald, who previously founded Slamdance as well as start-up fests in the Bahamas and Gasparilla. “It’s exciting for me to know that we’re directly going to impact the careers of these filmmakers and there’s clearly untapped sources of funding here in Abu Dhabi.”
The fest has a starry line-up of films for its special presentations program, including opening night gala “Atonement,” closing night gala “In the Valley of Elah,” as well as screenings of Brian De Palma’s “Redacted,” Gavin Hood’s “Rendition,” Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There,” and Claude Lelouch’s “Roman De Gare.”
The capital of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi is reputedly the richest city in the world, its wealth largely springing from its sizeable oil reserves. While neighboring and fellow emirate Dubai has forged ahead in turning itself into a regional hub for media, construction and finance, in recent months Abu Dhabi has amped up its own cultural activities to put itself on the map.
Multi-million dollar deals to bring local versions of the Guggenheim and the Louvre museums to Abu Dhabi have been signed.
In September, officials from Abu Dhabi inked a multi-billion dollar, multimedia deal with Warner Bros. that will include a $500 million film production fund, $500 million vidgame fund, the creation of a Warner Bros. licensed theme park, hotel and jointly-owned multiplex chain in the emirate.
Deal will also see Warner Bros. Pictures Intl. work with the new Abu Dhabi Media Co. to develop and produce a slate of Arabic-language features for local and pan-Arab distribution.
The size of the deal underlines Abu Dhabi’s ambitions to become the film capital of the Middle East.
In fact, the concept of holding a festival in the first place began with a desire to establish a space where the world’s film financiers and producers could meet.
“The film festival complements the overall progression of developments here in Abu Dhabi and for developing the film industry,” says fest exec director Nashwa Al Ruwaini.” It really is the icing on the cake. You need the film festival to make all the other film related projects that are happening here happen.” To achieve this, Abu Dhabi officials have formed a film commission, film fund and film academy — a tie-up with the New York Film Academy set to open in the city in January — in the hope that all the initiatives will come together and address the individual needs of aspiring local filmmakers and international execs interested in tapping new sources of coin.
“We are all pieces in the same big picture puzzle envisioned by the leadership of the Abu Dhabi Government,” says film commission topper Abed Awad. “We aspire to be the best professionally staffed and managed one-stop-shop for filmmakers in the world.”
While they still have a long way to go before realizing their lofty ambitions, Abu Dhabi officials have already succeeded in attracting some big hitters to their film financing Circle, set to run during the fest from Oct. 15-17.
The three-day conference will feature pitching sessions for filmmakers. The winning pitch will receive a sizeable production grant, dubbed the InCircle Pearl, towards their next project.
“The most exciting part of the film financing circle is the prospect of what is going to come out of these brain-storming sessions with our InCircle guests,” says conference director Adrienne Briggs. “I think the Film Financing Circle will provide the basic infrastructure needed to bring the film industry to Abu Dhabi. It opens the world to it, making these high-profile players aware of what is going on here.”