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Gulf gulps at slow progress in film biz

Saudi conservatism, bad economy pose challenges

LONDON — At first glance, last month’s cancellation of the fourth Jeddah Film Festival would seem a minor blip in the film world. But it has larger implications, causing people to wonder again whether a film industry in the Gulf is a mirage.

Jeddah was a bold move, since it offered a festival in Saudi Arabia, a country that has banned films since the 1970s. (When it launched in 2006, the fest avoided using the word “film” in any publicity.)

As the richest and most populous of all Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia holds the key to building a film biz in the region. Considering everything else going on in the Middle East, the battle over cinemas might seem trivial. But it provides a clue to feelings, hopes and hatreds that are deeply-rooted in the Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical balance.

Elsewhere, the oil/gas-rich region, including Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Qatar, has sunk millions of dollars into launching film funds, building multiplexes and trumpeting their ambitions to become global film biz players. But they, too, are facing major hurdles in their film ambitions — though for very different reasons than the Saudis.

With the worldwide Arab population pegged at 350 million, and entertainment being an ever-evolving industry, the potential for growth seemstantalizing. But Saudi society remains the most conservative of all Middle Eastern countries.

Cinemas were banned by religious clerics in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. Since then, there have been liberalizing moves. Last December, Prince Waleed bin Talal opened “Menahi,” a Saudi pic financed and produced by his company, Rotana, in the cities of Jeddah and Dammam for eight days, allowing mixed members of the public to buy tickets for the first time in three decades. The prince followed that move by opening the pic in capital city Riyadh for four days in February.

The prince’s attempts left him vulnerable to attacks by the hardline establishment. His own brother Khaled publicly denounced him in June for spreading vice in the country through his attempts to have cinemas re-opened.

Turki al-Shabanah, the producer of “Menahi” and general manager of Prince Waleed’s Rotana TV channels, says that 30 years ago, the nation was more open. “We used to have cinemas in Saudi Arabia,” al-Shabanah says. “Then, in 1979, Khomeini took over in Iran, and you had a competition between the Iranians and the Saudis over who would be the leader of the Muslim world. It became a race to see who could be more conservative and retreat more. That’s the big picture. It’s much bigger than simply the issue of a cinema in Saudi Arabia.”

Elsewhere across the Gulf, the obstacles are similar to those confronting the entertainment biz in the rest of the world.

Dubai’s once-booming economy has been badly affected by the global credit crunch as it has struggled to cope with substantial debt and over-leveraging. Its much-vaunted Dubai Studio City — billed as a one-stop shop for filmmakers, with three soundstages as well as other production facilities — has been plagued by construction delays. Its soundstages are set to open in summer 2010, more than a year later than originally planned.

However, Dubai has succeeded where its far richer neighbor Abu Dhabi has failed: actually making an Arab film.

Ali Mostafa recently completed his feature debut “City of Life,” a multilingual drama based in Dubai. Government investment arm the Dubai Intl. Financial Center coughed up the majority of coin for the mid-seven figure project, the most ambitious Emirati film to be fully funded with local coin.

But lack of government incentives and subsidies is proving a barrier to building a local film industry.

“The biggest problem we’re facing here is people understanding what is needed to create a film industry,” says “City of Life” producer Tim Smythe. “In most places in the world, you have the government actively involved in creating incentives and subsidies to attract international films to shoot there and also supporting your young, local filmmakers. What’s the point of building all these film schools if your students don’t have an industry to work in once they’re done?”

An hour’s drive away, Abu Dhabi has the $1 billion production arm Imagenation, which has inked a series of big pacts with U.S. companies — namely two separate $250 million deals with Jeff Skoll’s Participant Media and Ashok Amritraj’s Hyde Park Entertainment and a $100 million deal with National Geographic Films.

But no coin has yet been invested in a Middle Eastern project.

The shingle’s Film Arabia arm, which was dedicated to Middle Eastern content with the aim of developing and producing five to seven projects in 2009, appears to have been folded back in to Imagenation.

Any future Arabic-language projects will be produced entirely under the Imagenation banner. One positive development is the company hiring Abu Dhabi Media Co. exec Weera Saad to oversee its Arabic-language projects.

“We’d like to create something here using local talent and get the rest of the world to see it,” says Imagenation chief operating office Stefan Brunner. “That would be a home run for us.”

Another encouraging sign is the appointment of David Shepheard, previously a film commissioner at U.K. regional agency South West Screen, to head the newly created Abu Dhabi Film Commission.

The org, which falls under the auspices of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage, will take the lead in nurturing emerging film talent in the emirate and also serve as the central conduit for Abu Dhabi’s various film initiatives.

One of Shepheard’s first decisions was to convince Imagenation to partner with the commission on Abu Dhabi’s Circle film financing confab, with this year’s Shasha grant winner being offered a first-look deal with Imagenation to develop and produce the project.

Ultimately, the answer to the question of whether the Gulf is a film-financing and -producing mirage or oasis may lie somewhere in the middle.

“I do believe we’re getting there,” al-Shabanah says. “You have to remember that it was only a few years ago we didn’t have a proper TV industry. There will always be system adjustments but we’re moving in the right direction.”

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