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Film interests expand in Middle East

Execs seal deal with National Geographic

Film execs in Abu Dhabi scored a one-two combo this weekend, announcing a $100 million production deal with National Geographic, and unveiling a multibillion-dollar media zone dubbed twofour54, with the aim of turning the ambitious emirate into a world-class center of content creation.

The National Geographic deal was inked with Abu Dhabi’s $1 billion production arm Imagenation. Pact, a joint venture, will see the two companies develop, finance and produce 10-15 feature films with a budget range between $5 million-$60 million over the next five years.

It follows on from the $250 million Imagenation-Participant Media deal inked Sept. 10 during the Toronto film fest.

The Imagenation-National Geographic deal will focus on real-life storylines, rather than the nature projects which National Geographic has become famous for. Examples of pics the newly formed joint venture is likely to make are “Gandhi,” “The Killing Fields” “March of the Penguins” and “Syriana.”

National Geographic Films chairman Jake Eberts was in Abu Dhabi to unveil the deal, along with National Geographic Global Media prexy Tim Kelly, Imagenation chief exec Ed Borgerding and Imagenation chairman Mohamed Khalaf Al-Mazrouei.

“We’ve been thinking about our next steps at National Geographic for a while and we believe we have a responsibility as filmmakers to go out to the world and tell stories in this very dangerous time in our lives,” Eberts told Daily Variety. “We’ve got half a dozen good projects in development and a couple of great ones we hope to start work on in the next three to six months.”

Imagenation, which launched Sept. 3, is a wholly wned subsid of the Abu Dhabi Media Co., and a linchpin in the emirate’s attempts to turn itself into a global film player.

Those efforts got a further boost with the unveiling of twofour54, a multibillion-dollar hub for content creation across all forms of media that is aiming to lay the building blocks for a sustainable film, TV and new media industry in the Middle East.

The title twofour54 refers to Abu Dhabi’s geographic coordinates.

The media zone opened Sunday in a specially constructed, futuristic bubble marquee that was as eye-catching from the outside as it was sweltering on the inside. The confab was attended by Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheik Mohammed Al Nahyan in a sign of support for the initiative and a dizzying number of intl. execs with a newly forged stake in the creative ecosystem, funded in large part by the Abu Dhabi government.

CNN, the BBC, HarperCollins, Random House, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, as well as leading Middle East film company Rotana Studios, were all there announce individual projects.

CNN, for example, will be using the site to launch its fourth global broadcasting hub — after Atlanta, London and Hong Kong — out of Abu Dhabi. Newsie will preem a local primetime news show that will transmit out of twofour54.

Random House and Harper Collins will open divisions dedicated to developing Middle Eastern writers and stories.

Rotana Studios, which is owned by Saudi billionaire maven Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, is prepping 12 feature-length TV pics as a way to nurture up-and-coming Arab talent.

Involvement of Rotana, as well as Kuwaiti producer and filmmaker Walid Al-Awadi ensured that there was some Arab participation at an event which laid claim to being a major step forward in the creation of sustainable Arab film and TV industry.

Al-Awadi announced the formation of his new film and TV shingle C-Sky Pictures. He is set to go into production in November on a $5 million 30-episode TV skein entitled “Tora Bora.” Skein is about an elderly Arab couple who travel to Afghanistan in search of their son who has gone to fight with Al-Qaeda. Lensing will begin in Morocco next month.

“I’m not here only to represent myself as a filmmaker, or my country,” said Al-Awadi. “I’m supposed to represent the Arab world. The media zone has been picky with its choice of partners and I think that’s a good idea. More will come when they see if they fit under the umbrella of the media zone.”

“This is not a real estate investment or something we’re expecting a return on our investment on in the first year,” said twofour54 chief exec Tony Orsten, formerly the head of content strategy and acquisition at online TV site Joost. “We’re here to create content. We’re unique in what we’re doing. There’s a huge opportunity for a generation of young Arabs hungry to learn. We’re putting all these ideas and people under one roof.”

Project will open at a temporary site in the emirate’s Sheik Khalifa Park in early 2009 and eventually move after that into a permanent 200,000 square metre waterfront site.

Abu Dhabi’s second annual Middle East Intl. Film Fest opened Oct. 10 with a glitzy if somewhat chaotic ceremony. Fest opening night proceedings, which was staged in Abu Dhabi’s lavish seven star Emirates Palace and included the regional preem of Rian Johnson’s “The Brothers Bloom,” were handicapped by event organizers’ desire to turn the spectacle into a TV show for a local channel.

That resulted in lengthy speeches and dance numbers adding some 90 minutes to the show’s running time and left spectators in the auditorium sitting for two hours before the film actually unspooled.

About half the audience had left the auditorium by the time “The Brothers Bloom” began. Most came back, though, to take revel in the outdoors after-party, which included the requisite fireworks display and relatively incongruous sight of performers on stilts mingling with the attending guests.