Hicham Ayouch to direct project

20th Century Fox is making its first Arabic-language feature film after inking a deal with Moroccan helmer Hicham Ayouch to develop and finance “Samba.”

Project is about a Moroccan man, obsessed with a Brazilian telenovela star, who teaches a samba class to a host of doting young femmes all eager to win his heart. His life takes a turn for the worse when his mother hires a local conservative imam to cure her son’s obsession.

Budget for the Moroccan-Brazilian-U.K. co-production is in the low seven figures with former BBC Films topper David Thompson producing.

Fox’s relationship with Ayouch stretches back to Abu Dhabi’s film financing and training confab the Circle, the second edition of which took place last October.

Fox co-chairman Jim Gianopolous delivered the confab’s keynote speech, and was also on hand to award Ayouch its lucrative $100,000 Shasha screenwriting grant after “Samba” was selected as the winning entry by a jury that included producer Kathleen Kennedy.

At the time, Gianopolous confirmed to Variety that Fox was seeking to expand its presence in the region.

Discussions between Ayouch and Fox’s international productions division, led by Sanford Panitch, have been ongoing ever since.

“Samba” is currently being cast with a view to pre-production starting by the end of this year or early 2010.

While the Fox move is the first time it has ventured directly into Middle Eastern filmmaking, the company has been steadily increasing its presence in the region thanks to the strategic partnership between Rupert Murdoch and Saudi billionaire media maven Prince Waleed bin Talal.

Prince Waleed, who owns Arab multimedia titan Rotana, has long been a substantial investor in News Corp. Fox is a division of News Corp.

Fox and Rotana have a long-standing relationship. The two companies launched two Fox-branded English-language channels in the Middle East last summer and Rotana has also inked a deal to distribute Fox fare on DVD throughout the Middle East.

Conversations are being held at the highest levels of both congloms that could eventually lead to the merger of their operations in the region. That decision, if ultimately taken, is still some way off

And while the “Samba” deal is separate from the Fox-Rotana activities, it underscores the extent to which the Middle East is becoming of increasing importance to Fox.

News Corp.’s Asian entertainment unit Star, for example, is launching a Farsi-language general entertainment TV channel this year with a sales and marketing office based in Dubai. The channel will target Iranian auds in their own country and the wider region.

Not that the Middle East is the only emerging territory attracting the attention of Fox’s international production division. Despite being one of the last studios to announce a local-language unit in May last year, Fox is now ramping up its activities in Japan, Russia and Korea.

Fox also merged with fellow News Corp. division Star to launch Fox Star Studios in October last year and promptly inked a multi-picture deal with Indian producer Vipal Amrutal Shah.

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