Imagenation to tap into billion-dollar film fund

Abu Dhabi has set its sights on joining the big leagues of pic production.

The Abu Dhabi Media Co., which oversees the emirate’s film, TV and radio outlets, is launching a production shingle with $1 billion to spend on developing, financing and producing feature films over the next five years.

Company dubbed Imagenation Abu Dhabi, which will also oversee Abu Dhabi’s existing $500 million production fund with Warner Bros. (Daily Variety, Sept. 27), has a mandate to produce eight features a year for the worldwide marketplace. Majority of the fare commissioned will be English-language features aimed at mainstream auds. The banner is set to ink a number of deals with U.S. and international film companies in the coming weeks.

Imagenation Abu Dhabi-financed pics will be shot in various locales around the world. There is no mandate to make the pics in Abu Dhabi, but there will be an effort to enlist local talent when possible. The fund is seen as a means of further developing the emirate’s production infrastructure.

“We will be forging relationships with a finite group of world-renowned producers of content,” Abu Dhabi Media Co. chief exec Ed Borgerding told Daily Variety. “The way we’ve allocated our resources allows us to do business with Warners as well as other producers. We’re going to create and distribute content globally. It’s part of the overall investment strategy in Abu Dhabi. We’re looking for a financial return and to be the best in class.”

The company will also set aside some coin to make Arabic-language features for the local market as well as potential international crossover.

Announcement is the latest underscoring Abu Dhabi’s attempts to make itself the film hub of the Middle East.

Last September, Abu Dhabi execs signed a multimedia, multibillion-dollar deal with Warner Bros. that included a $500 million production fund, a $500 million vidgame fund as well as a number of real estate projects (Daily Variety, Sept. 27).

The first pic to be greenlit out of the Warners-Abu Dhabi fund — Robert Rodriguez’s “Shorts” — is in post-production.

The emirate also launched its inaugural Middle East Film Festival the following month. The second edition of the Abu Dhabi fest takes place Oct. 10-19, with more than $1 million in prize money to be awarded.

Teutonic film exec Stefan Brunner has been tapped Imagenation Abu Dhabi’s chief financial officer.

“Our investment strategy is modeled on film financing vehicles used successfully in Los Angeles, New York and London,” Brunner said. “We believe a financial and operational structure that is disciplined, sophisticated and modern should deliver superior returns at both financial and creative levels.”

While the credit crunch in the U.S. and Europe has seen private equity retreating from investing in the film biz, the Middle East is enjoying an economic boom. Record oil and gas prices, a flourishing real estate industry and a growing reputation as a financial hub, particularly in the United Arab Emirates, has allowed investors in the region to start flexing their muscles with a number of diversified investments in recent months.

Abu Dhabi-based investment company Mubadala, for example, inked an $8 billion joint venture in July with General Electric, parent of NBC Universal, to target high-return commercial finance opportunities. While that deal had no media or entertainment industry component, it was indicative of the liquidity currently available in the U.A.E. and the Middle East as a whole.

The move by the Abu Dhabi Media Co., which earlier this year relaunched Abu Dhabi TV, to become a global film player also comes in the wake of Indian mega-conglom Reliance’s proposed $500 million investment in a new venture with DreamWorks’ principals Steven Spielberg and David Geffen.

“The Abu Dhabi Media Co. is starting to emerge as a global media company,” said Borgerding, a former exec veep of Disney TV Intl. “Just like we invested with Warners, and forged a relationship with Bertelsmann, with Imagenation the global profile of the company is definitely starting to come clear.”

In May, the Abu Dhabi Media Co. launched a joint venture with leading Teutonic media company Bertelsmann’s Arvato Middle East Sales company to form Getmo Arabia to provide digital entertainment services such as online music and movie downloads. Digital content will also be a key aspect of Imagenation’s output.

“Abu Dhabi has established itself as a major player in the global economy as evidenced through recent activity in the energy, real estate and transportation sectors,” said Imagenation and Abu Dhabi Media Co. chairman Mohamed Khalaf al-Mazrouei. “Media is no different and the Abu Dhabi Media Co. is fulfilling its ambition to become a global player in the media industry.”

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