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Middle East fest makes desert debut

Abu Dhabi aims to be film capital of Arab world

With October already bursting at the seams with film festivals in Pusan, London, Rome, Antalya and Tokyo, the addition of another fest might normally have elicited a groan.

But film execs are eagerly awaiting Abu Dhabi’s inaugural Middle East Intl. Film Festival, set to unspool Oct. 14-19. That anticipation might be due to the fest’s attempts to rewrite the rules when it comes to supporting emerging filmmakers from around the world.

The fest’s competition, the Black Pearl for feature, doc and shorts, which is open to debut or sophomore helmers, is offering an unprecedented prize for winners: potentially unlimited production grants that will ensure their next projects get financed.

“It’s going to be the biggest prize of its kind that I’ve ever seen. I don’t believe there’s any other prize that’s like this,” says fest director Jon Fitzgerald, who founded Slamdance as well as startup fests in the Bahamas and Gasparilla.

“It’s exciting for me to know that we’re directly going to impact the careers of these filmmakers, and there’s clearly untapped sources of funding here in Abu Dhabi,” he adds.

The capital of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi is reputedly the richest city in the world, its wealth largely springing from oil reserves.

While neighbor and fellow emirate Dubai has forged ahead in turning itself into a regional hub for media, construction and finance, Abu Dhabi has in recent months amped up its own cultural activities. It has signed multimillion-dollar deals to bring local versions of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums to Abu Dhabi.

In September, officials from Abu Dhabi inked a multibillion-dollar, multimedia deal with Warner Bros. that includes a $500 million film production fund, $500 million vidgame fund and the creation of a Warner Bros.-licensed theme park, hotel and jointly owned multiplex chain in the emirate. Warner Bros. Pictures Intl. will work with the newly formed Abu Dhabi Media Co. to develop and produce a slate of Arabic-language features for local and pan-Arab distribution.

The size of the deal underlines Abu Dhabi’s ambitions to become the film capital of the Middle East. In fact, the concept of holding a festival in the first place began with a desire to establish a space where the world’s film financiers and producers could meet.

“The film festival complements the overall progression of developments here in Abu Dhabi and for developing the film industry,” says fest exec director Nashwa Al Ruwaini. “It really is the icing on the cake. You need the film festival to make all the other film-related projects that are happening here happen.”

To achieve their goals, Abu Dhabi officials have formed a film commission, film fund and film academy — a tie-up with the New York Film Academy set to open in the city in January — in the hope that all the initiatives will come together and address the needs of aspiring local filmmakers and international execs interested in tapping new sources of coin.

“We are all pieces in the same big picture puzzle envisioned by the leadership of the Abu Dhabi government,” says film commission topper Abed Awad. “We aspire to be the best professionally staffed and managed one-stop shop for filmmakers in the world.”

While they still have a long way to go before realizing their lofty ambitions, Abu Dhabi officials have already succeeded in attracting some big hitters to their Film Financing Circle, set to run during the fest Oct. 15-17.

The conference, which will offer pitching sessions for filmmakers, will see the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Summit COO Robert Hayward and Hyde Park Entertainment chairman Ashok Amritraj attending.

The winning pitch will receive a sizable production grant, dubbed the InCircle Pearl, toward the winning filmmaker’s next project.

“The most exciting part of the Film Financing Circle is the prospect of what is going to come out of these brain-storming sessions with our In-Circle guests,” says conference director Adrienne Briggs. “I think the Film Financing Circle will provide the basic infrastructure needed to bring the film industry to Abu Dhabi. It opens the world to them, making these high-profile players aware of what is going on here.”