Saudi Prince sets spy pic

Bin Talal's co. acquires rights to 'Ragol'

Saudi billionaire maven Prince Waleed Bin Talal’s Rotana Films is bringing the Arab world’s very own kick-ass secret agent to the bigscreen.

Rotana has acquired the rights to Egyptian writer Nabil Farouk’s “Ragol al mostaheel” (“Man of the Impossible”) 25 years after the bestselling book was first published. The book centers on the adventures of Adham Sabri, a highly skilled Egyptian superspy, whose exploits often see him foiling the rival intelligence agencies of the U.S., Russia and Israel.

The move is a coup for Rotana Films prexy Frederic Sichler, who was tapped by Prince Waleed in January from Studio Canal with the stated aim of turning his shingle, one of the largest distributors and producers of Arab films and pop music, into an international shingle.

Farouk had been courted by film producers ever since the book’s publication but had resisted. Egyptian scribe Mohammed Hefzy is on board to write the project, which is set to hit cinemas sometime in 2009. There is no word yet on who will play the plum role of Sabri.

Rotana will co-produce and co-finance the project, which is already gearing up to be a must-see Arab film next year.

“We’re going to hold a beauty contest of Arab producers and decide who we want to work with,” quips Sichler. “There is no doubt it will be one of the most important productions in the Middle East next year. It might not be that exciting for people in Los Angeles but it marks a major step forward for us in the Middle East.”

Sichler has been quietly coming to grips with the vagaries of the Arab film biz. Based in Cairo, where Rotana produces, co-produces or acquires up to 30 Egyptian films a year, Sichler, along with Rotana’s head of production Ayman Halawani, is unveiling the series of projects designed to turn Rotana into an international player.

This month Rotana is sponsoring a master class for Arab scribes by screenwriting guru Syd Field. Rotana will reserve the right to develop further the most promising projects for potential production.

Sichler has also held a number of meetings with studio execs, most notably with Fox, about the possibility of collaborating in the future. Prince Waleed is a substantial investor in Fox parent News Corp. and is known to have a close relationship with Rupert Murdoch. The two companies are already working together in TV having launched joint venture satellite channel Fox Movies in the Arab world this May.

While a similar deal between the film divisions is still some way off, it is an indication of Sichler’s future ambitions for the shingle.

“When I came here I settled to be 100% Egyptian,” says Sichler, who had been set to join a U.S. company before the Prince came knocking. “The talent here is everywhere. Our top priority is to deliver strong Arab content and make Arab films which work internationally. We are going to build the distribution outlets and get the stories out. No other part of the world is so absolutely crucial to the future of the world. People are waiting for strong, relevant artistic stories that show the Arab point of view. The Middle East is filled with politics and religion but that is only part of it. That is not the only story.”