Abu Dhabi, WB ink multi-media deal

Pact includes film fund, theme park, hotels

Warner Bros. and the new-money nation of Abu Dhabi set a multifaceted, multibillion-dollar pact on Wednesday that grants the studio access to a fast-growing region and gives the country a measure of Hollywood clout.

Deal spans many entertainment and leisure categories, but notable features include a $500 million film production fund and a $500 million vidgame fund. Deal’s overall value was not announced, but its pieces total several billion dollars.

Entertainment companies including Universal, Paramount and Nickelodeon have been drawn in recent years to the deep-pocketed Abu Dhabi and its competitive neighbor Dubai, forging licensing and co-branding deals. Warner Bros. is the first major to partner with local entities on Arab-language content creation.

“It’s precedential in terms of the breadth of our involvement,” said Warner Bros. chairman-CEO Barry Meyer. “It’s a unique opportunity, and we feel excited about it. We’re building a new industry of new and old media.”

Time Warner prexy and chief operating officer Jeffrey Bewkes called the partnership a “strategic alliance (that) marks a significant step in Time Warner’s commitment to grow its businesses internationally.”

Deal also provides for the creation of a Warner Bros.-licensed theme park, hotel and jointly owned, digitally equipped multiplex chain with about 40 screens. Abu Dhabi real estate firm Aldar is the lead developer in the deal.

Warner Bros. Pictures Intl. will work with the Abu Dhabi Media Co. to develop and produce a slate of Arabic-language features for local and pan-Arab distribution. Execs declined to identify projects but said talks are well under way and that some pre-strike pics would definitely be set in motion.

Warners will contribute half of the coin to both the film and vidgame funds, with the other $250 million for each coming from the partnership of Aldar and Abu Dhabi Media Co.

Hunt Lowry, former chief exec of Warners supplier Gaylord Films, will head the still-unnamed film arm. He was cited by the studio as the one who brought the parties together.

The arrangement was unveiled at a Gotham news confab in the plush, hushed confines of the Time Warner Center. Reporters either phoned in or sat at a conference table, one at a time, with seven key execs, creating the opposite imbalance of a typical news conference, as execs and flacks outnumbered journalists about 15 to 1.

Time Warner chairman Richard Parsons and Bewkes made brief appearances but left it mostly to Warner Bros. execs to tout the news.

Meyer was joined by Lowry; Warners homevid topper Kevin Tsujihara; exec VP of international Richard Fox; Aldar chairman Ahmed Ali Al Sayegh and chief exec Ronald Barrott; and Abu Dhabi Media Co. chairman Mohammed Khalaf Al Mazrouei and chief exec Riyad Al Mubarak.

Fingering Muslim prayer beads (a common accessory during Ramadan) and sipping green tea, Al Sayegh, seated next to Meyer at the head of the table, said the deal furthers Abu Dhabi’s aim to become an “international cultural destination” and not merely a tourist attraction. Work is under way at the Persian Gulf locale for billion-dollar outposts of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums.

The film biz will gather in Abu Dhabi in less than three weeks for the inaugural Middle East Film Festival, set to unspool Oct. 14-19. The oil-rich emirate, reputedly the single richest city in the world, has been flexing its cultural muscles in recent months with a series of initiatives.

Winner of the fest’s main competition, dubbed the Black Pearls and open to debut and sophomore helmers from around the world, will receive a potentially unlimited production grant to ensure that their next project will get made. Award is the single-biggest cash prize offered by a fest anywhere in the world. “There’ll be no floor, nor ceiling,” said fest director Jon Fitzgerald.

“This strategic announcement demonstrates the depth of our commitment to building Abu Dhabi in a holistic way — bringing the best in entertainment to the communities we are creating,” Al Sayegh said.

Warner Bros. will retain worldwide distribution options and rights on all films made out of the production fund. Pics produced will be “mutually agreed-upon, broad-appeal films,” according to sources.

The four multiplex theaters that Aldar will build across Abu Dhabi are set to open by the end of 2010.

Work is already under way on the development of vidgames, with a dozen titles in various stages of development.

The first games to be published as part of the deal are “Looney Tunes: ACME Arsenal” for X-Box 360, Wii and PlayStation 2 and the accompanying “Duck Amuck” for the Nintendo DS platform to be released in the U.S. on Oct. 9.

Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment will serve as publisher and hold worldwide distribution rights on all gaming properties.