Disney expands into Middle East

Studio in talks to fund, produce 'Storytellers'

The Mouse has landed in the Middle East.

Disney is in advanced negotiations with Lebanese helmer Chadi Zeneddine to finance and produce “The Last of the Storytellers.”

The Mouse House’s first feature in Arabic will mark the start of an expansion drive by Disney execs into the region.

Pic, which will also be produced by Rachel Gandin, will draw on the Arab world’s rich folkloric traditions. “The Last of the Storytellers” should go into production by the end of 2009.

Disney has big plans for the Middle East. The Arab world has a population of some 300 million people, and with two-thirds under age 30, the market is a natural for family-friendly Disney fare. Disney expects to announce two more Arabic-language features in time for the fifth edition of the Dubai Film Festival, which unspools in December.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for us in the Middle East,” said a Disney exec, who insisted on anonymity. “There’s a lot of room for growth for us. It’s the international territory that we’re most excited about expanding into.”

Disney may be the first of the majors to announce its Middle Eastern plans, but the other studios are also seriously eyeing the region.

Fox chairman Jim Gianopulos was in Abu Dhabi this week for the emirate’s annual financing and training confab. After delivering the event’s keynote speech Monday, Gianopulos confirmed to Daily Variety that Fox was seeking to expand its relationship with Saudi Prince Al Waleed bin Talal’s media titan Rotana.

Al Waleed, a significant investor in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., has a long-standing relationship with Fox. The two companies launched two Fox-branded English-language channels in the Middle East during the summer, and Rotana has also inked a deal to distribute Fox fare on DVD throughout the Middle East.

Gianopulos was also on hand Wednesday night to award the Circle’s lucrative $100,000 Shasha Grant to up-and-coming Moroccan filmmaker Hisham Ayouche for his project “Sambo Do Maazouz.” Story concerns a Moroccan who becomes infatuated with a Brazilian actress, while at the same time having to contend with an interfering conservative imam.

“Let’s make a revolution in our countries and make beautiful movies,” said Ayouche upon receiving his award. “We’re going to change the world.”

The Circle, one of Abu Dhabi’s major initiatives designed to turn the emirate into a global film player, attracted a top lineup of Hollywood industry talent, including producer Kathleen Kennedy, Hyde Park chairman Ashok Amritraj and Endeavor’s Graham Taylor.

Event held a glittering closing night ceremony Wednesday at the Shangri-La resort, overlooking the new mosque built by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheik Mohammed.

Abu Dhabi execs launched $1 billion production company Imagenation on the eve of the Toronto film fest and unveiled a $250 million production pact with Jeff Skoll’s Participant Media days later.