Abu Dhabi launches media hub

Multi-billion dollar epicenter for Mideast content

ABU DHABI — While the world’s financial markets are struggling with the credit crunch, Abu Dhabi is building its city of dreams.

The ambitious emirate has launched twofour54, a multibillion-dollar hub for content creation across all forms of media in the Middle East.

Project underscores Abu Dhabi’s ambition to become a global film player, which includes moves such as the launch of $1 billion production banner Imagenation, as well as the expansion of its annual film finance confab, the Circle, and the Middle East Intl. Film Festival.

The latest initiative, which is supported by the Abu Dhabi government, has already signed up market-leading global brands such as CNN, the BBC, Harper Collins, Random House, the Thomson Reuters Foundation as well as Rotana Films, one of the Middle East’s leading film companies.

A number of U.S. studios are also in discussions about linking up with the project.

Twofour54 — the name refers to Abu Dhabi’s Atlas co-ordinates — launched Oct. 12 and will open at a temporary site in the emirate’s Sheik Khalifa Park in early 2009. The project will eventually move into a permanent 200,000 square-meter (2,152.9 sq. ft.) waterfront site.

The company aims to provide a creative eco-system that focuses on four pillars: state-of-the-art production facilities, world-class training academies, an incubator for innovation and a technical support network for all organizations based there.

The site’s facilities will include three midsize and two smaller studios for film and TV production, as well as a fully equipped post-production suite.

And whereas Abu Dhabi’s $1 billion production banner Imagenation will actually fund projects, twofour54 will invest in infrastructure to give companies the means to turn the Middle East into a creative hotbed.

“It’s about sustainability and infrastructure by Arabs for Arabs,” says chief exec Tony Orsten, formerly the head of content strategy and acquisition at online TV site Joost. “We’re not going to pay for content. We are going to create the environment by developing training, facilities and incubating ideas that will facilitate the creation of content. It’s going to help put Abu Dhabi on the map and give people in the region something to aspire to.”

CNN will use the site to launch its fourth global broadcasting hub — after Atlanta, London and Hong Kong — out of Abu Dhabi. Newscaster will also be preeming a local primetime news show that will transmit out of twofour54.

Random House and Harper Collins will open divisions dedicated to developing Mideastern writers and stories. Projects developed out of the two publishing houses could then be adapted for the bigscreen by any of the film companies based at the site. Those pics, in turn, will be able to lens at twofour54’s production facilities and may be crewed by local graduates of the site’s training facilities.

The BBC is opening its first training and development center outside the U.K. in the Abu Dhabi project. Focus of the academy will be on exporting the BBC’s expertise in drama productions to the Arab world. Film companies based in twofour54 have committed to employ a number of graduates.

“It’s a major initiative that will encourage, stimulate and support Arabic content creation by Arabs in the Arab world, embracing films, television and music through to animation, digital media and art,” Orsten says.

The project is the latest in a series of moves by Abu Dhabi to became a major global film player. The emirate wrapped its annual film finance and training confab, the Circle, Oct. 8 with Moroccan helmer Hisham Ayouch receiving the event’s $100,000 Shasha screenwriting grant for “Sambo do maazouz.” Project is about a Moroccan obsessed with Brazilian culture who becomes infatuated with a Brazilian actress, while contending with an interfering conservative cleric.

On Oct. 11, Abu Dhabi’s Imagenation also inked a $100 million joint venture with National Geographic to finance 10 to 15 features over the next five years. That pact follows a $250 million deal with Jeff Skoll’s Participant Media to finance 15 to 18 features that was announced Sept. 10.