Recession clears path for Imagenation to cherrypick the best projects and partners

If Dubai catches cold, does neighboring Abu Dhabi get a sniffle?

That question was foremost in the minds of many of the world’s film and media players last November when Dubai fell on hard times and one of its largest state-owned companies, Dubai World, was on the verge of default.

The answer came soon enough in the form of a $10 billion bailout from Dubai’s oil-rich cousin to the south. When Dubai catches cold, Abu Dhabi hands it a hanky. (And then, many would say, gets the tallest building in the world named after its ruler for its trouble.)

Rather than hurt Abu Dhabi’s growing film and media business, Dubai’s troubles may have actually helped it.

“Dubai’s problems are Dubai’s problems,” says Imagenation Abu Dhabi chief operating officer Stefan Brunner. “Abu Dhabi may have been a little bit affected, but Abu Dhabi has one tiny advantage over Dubai, and that is resources.”

Abu Dhabi happens to be blessed with 9% of the world’s known oil reserves and has not slowed the pace of its media investments throughout the global recession. Imagenation Abu Dhabi, its billion-dollar film fund, was launched in September 2008, and announced a series of high-profile partnerships — including a $250 million joint venture with Participant Media, a $100 million deal with National Geographic and a $250 million deal with Hyde Park Entertainment — throughout that autumn as the global economy seemed to disintegrate around it.

“If we were affected, it was in a positive way, because the market suddenly needed money, since money had dried up everywhere, and we can pick the best projects and the best partners,” Brunner says. “For us, it had a positive effect.”

That effect has resulted in a full slate of films over the past year, including Doug Liman’s “Fair Game” (with Naomi Watts and Sean Penn), a co-production of Imagenation and Participant Media that is competing for the Palme d’Or in Cannes.

For Dubai’s film industry, the economic tough times have made funding films harder, but have hardly put a damper on enthusiasm from local filmmakers. The April Gulf Film Festival, now in its third year, saw 1,300 applicants for just under 200 spots — a third more applicants than in the previous year, says festival topper Abdulhamid Juma.

And Dubai’s hotel prices, which dropped by 10% in 2009, have actually made it easier to attract international filmmakers to come and scout Dubai, says Tim Smythe, topper of Dubai-based production services company Filmworks. “To a large extent, for my international marketing, it has helped, because the bubble has popped, and Dubai’s prices are real.”

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