Progress slow for billion-dollar partnership

LONDON — The Abu Dhabi-Warner Bros. partnership was unveiled with much fanfare in September 2007, but after 18 months, the billion-dollar multimedia production pact has had so little activity that some onlookers are questioning whether the partnership still exists.

Execs from both Abu Dhabi and WB insist that talks are ongoing — but it seems clear that any final agreement will differ significantly from the one originally envisioned.

Aside from one greenlit feature — Robert Rodriguez’s “Shorts,” which is in post-production — and a clutch of vidgame titles, progress has been slow from a deal that originally earmarked $500 million for film production and another $500 million for vidgames.

Abu Dhabi is still active in negotiating film deals, but the WB feature production fund is likely a casualty of the redesigned talks, while the two sides may continue to collaborate on real estate projects and new media.

Of course the global credit crunch changed all businesses, but with WB and Abu Dhabi, one of the biggest problems was the speed with which the deal was originally announced.

The Emirates inaugurated their Middle East Film Fest in October 2007, and Abu Dhabi execs were keen on making a buzzy statement to help entice big names to the fest.

The Warner Bros. deal, which had taken months of negotiation, seemed the perfect answer. But the actual announcement, in September 2007, was less a longform agreement than a memorandum of understanding.

Hunt Lowry, formerly chief exec of Warners supplier Gaylord Films, had spent 10 months acting as the middle man between the studio and Abu Dhabi. When the deal was announced, Lowry was supposed to head the film production division of the newly formed Abu Dhabi Media Co.

While Lowry moved fast to get “Shorts” into motion, he soon found himself sidelined as Abu Dhabi execs began to re-examine the details of the deal.

Internal considerations also saw original Abu Dhabi Media Co. chief exec Riyad al-Mubarak replaced in February 2008 by former Disney Intl. exec Ed Borgerding.

Soon, Abu Dhabi execs were re-drafting the Warners contract to ensure better terms.

Primary among their objections was their perceived lack of input on which films would get greenlit, plus a creeping sense that the studio was only tapping into the emirate’s coin, and not creative input.

The lack of movement on the Warners front, however, hasn’t stopped Abu Dhabi from pushing forward with its ambitious film plans.

In September ’08, the emirate announced the creation of $1 billion production arm Imagenation, with Borgerding tapped as its chief exec.

The division has since announced two separate $250 million production joint ventures with Jeff Skoll’s Participant Media and Ashok Amritraj’s Hyde Park Entertainment, and a $100 million production pact with National Geographic Films. No projects have yet been announced out of any of those deals.

Abu Dhabi also recently tapped former Tribeca exec director Peter Scarlet as exec director of its Middle East Film Fest.

Given the fall in oil prices from an all-time high of $150 a barrel last year to its current levels around $50, not to mention the general downturn in the global economy, it appears Abu Dhabi execs are learning to be more prudent with their still-plentiful coin.

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