Keynote speech applauds Abu Dhabi, int'l business

With Sunday’s splashy gala concluded, Harvey Weinstein kicked off the business end of the Middle East Film Festival here on Monday by delivering the keynote address on the future of international co-productions.

Other sessions saw Relativity Media’s Ryan Kavanaugh, Eden Rock’s Thomas Augsberger, Foresight’s Mark Damon and Summit Entertainment’s Robert Hayward discuss the state of film financing.

While there was nothing to match the multibillion-dollar deal that Abu Dhabi execs inked with Warner Bros. on Sept. 26, business was taking place, with many sessions designed to encourage local moneymen to invest in the film biz.

Vet producer Damon announced he had signed a letter of intent with Steven Saxton of Dubai-based Hollywood Studios Intl. to develop a sales and production shingle, with potential coin for the venture coming from Saudi Prince Faisal bin Sultan.

Weinstein was also kept busy by fest officials with behind-closed-doors meetings. When the Weinstein Co. co-topper came out for air, he found himself engulfed by local journos at a hastily arranged press conference.

Weinstein was effusive in his praise of the ambitious emirate. “Any place that’s working with (architect) Frank Gehry and where you can bump into one of my favorite architects, Bob Stern, over breakfast is A-OK with me,” Weinstein said. “Abu Dhabi is setting a trend for the rest of the world. I think America should be a part of this. In fact, I wish things were like this in the States.”

Former BBC Films topper David Thompson brought up the lack of local participation at the Film Finance Circle, the three-day conference running concurrently with the fest. When he asked if any Abu Dhabi government ministers were in attendance, the absence of raised hands spoke volumes.

It was a recurring theme, as screenings unspooled with half-empty auditoriums at the main fest venue, the seven-star Emirates Palace.

While there’s no denying Abu Dhabi officials’ ambition to turn the emirate into a regional and international film financing center — and those running the world’s richest city have the coin to put their money where their mouth is — it remains to be seen how their goals will be achieved. Teutonic producer Augsberger’s summary of the challenges drew applause.

“You have to make the decision about what your motivations are,” Augsberger said. “Is it just about investing all this money from oil production or do you want to build up a local business with local artists? Are you more interested in creating new stories about the Middle East with positive characters we haven’t seen that might change the way people think in Germany and the U.S., or do you want to attract foreign product? It’s all about the motivation.”

Kavanaugh also caught the mood with his call for greater subsidies and financial incentives to lure Hollywood projects to Abu Dhabi. “Why are people going to fly 20 hours here rather than three hours to Louisiana?” Kavanaugh asked. “They’re going to need more than a free plane ticket and hotel.”

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