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Oil gives way to film in Middle East

Entertainment steady for new generation of investors

When Qatari media shingle Alnoor launched a $200 million film fund last October, it became the latest of a growing number of Middle East-based players looking to enter the film biz.

The fund was begun with the intention of financing and producing up to 15 features for the international market in the next five years. Alnoor execs followed up that announcement days later with the news they would be funding a $150 million feature project about the life of Prophet Muhammed with Barrie Osborne (“The Lord of the Rings,” “The Matrix”) onboard as an exec producer.

The arrival of Alnoor, which has been building up its investment in the Arab media biz in recent years, makes for yet another Middle East player alongside Abu Dhabi’s government-backed production arm Imagenation and media zone TwoFour54. The region is finally beginning to deliver on some if its potential.

But it isn’t just Qatar and Abu Dhabi that are joining the Middle East film rush. A whole new generation of savvy investors is emerging in the region.

One example is the deal inked between producer Matty Beckerman and Saadi Gadhafi (son of Libyan prexy Moammar Gadhafi) in July last year.

Gadhafi boarded Beckerman’s Natural Selection shingle as its majority financier. The company, which has other backing from private equity groups, has raised some $100 million in total and has already co-financed helmer Paul Scheuring’s “The Experiment,” starring Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker.

In 2007, Saudi media maven Sheik Waleed al-Ibrahim, widely respected throughout the region, invested substantial coin in Mark Gill and Neil Sacker’s new production and finance shingle, the Film Dept.

“The whole idea for us is to learn so we can be part of the film industry and it can be part of our business. I think we will see a revolution, a great change,” al-Ibrahim told Variety at the time.

While the Film Dept. investment may not have gone as well as planned — the company was hit hard by the Writers Guild of America strike, the credit crunch and the downsizing of the U.S. indie market — other investors are not being shy about putting their money where their mouths are.

Beckerman, for example, was first introduced to Saadi Gadhafi through mutual friends and spent the best part of three months in direct discussions with the Libyan maven.

“The Middle East is absolutely for real as a place to find film financing as long as you have a business plan,” Beckerman says. “There have been too many people coming to the region looking for pie-in-the-sky money and boasting of crazy profit structures which can’t be achieved. If you go in with a sound business plan and reasonable expectations, you can definitely do business here. A lot of patience helps, too. I was supposed to be here for a week and ended up staying for three months.”

Beckerman is building the slate of his company, which aims to produce some 20 films over the next five years, with budgets of $15 million or below.

Likewise, Abu Dhabi’s Imagenation can’t stop making deals — at least with Hollywood execs. Last October, it announced a $10 mil-lion development pact with producers Walter Parkes and Laurie Macdonald. The two parties have subsequently optioned the rights to Richard Matheson’s novel “Earthbound,” the first property acquired solely through the revolving financing fund to develop film projects, as well as partnering with DreamWorks on “Museum of SuperNatural History,” based on a website created by Ernest Lupinacci, and “Eat, Sleep, Poop: A Common Sense Guide to Your Baby’s First Year,” written by pediatrician Scott W. Cohen.

Imagenation has also inked deals — and greenlit pics — with the likes of Participant Media, National Geographic Films, Hyde Park Entertainment and Singapore’s Media Development Authority. Image-nation’s progress with Arab filmmakers, however, has been relatively slow, and the company has yet to announce its involvement in an Arabic-language feature, although that is believed to be imminent.

“The real question is, will oil money go to Arab culture, or will it go to Hollywood?” asked Franco-Tunisian maven Tarak Ben Ammar during a confab at the inaugural Doha Tribeca Film Fest in November. “(Look at the) buildings outside this hotel. Do you know how many Arab films could be made for the cost of one of those buildings?”

A new paradigm for Middle East/Hollywood relations may be apparent in the pact inked between Saudi billionaire investor Prince Al Waleed bin Talal and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Though in the works since 2006, the deal was only finally confirmed in February. The pact will see News Corp. take a 9.1% stake in Rotana with an option to acquire another 9.1% within 18 months. The stake is believed to have been worth $70 million. This deepens the strategic partnership between Murdoch and Al Waleed, who is a substantial investor in News Corp.

News Corp.’s Fox and Rotana have a long-standing relationship, and the two companies launched two Fox-branded English-language channels in the Middle East. Rotana also has inked to distribute Fox fare on DVD in the Middle East.

Rotana has interests across film, TV and music. The deal with News Corp. will focus on the film and TV aspects of Rotana’s business.

Fox is developing its first Arabic-language feature film, “Samba,” with Moroccan helmer Hicham Ayouch. It’s about a Moroccan man obsessed with a Brazilian telenovela star. He teaches a samba dance class to young femmes, all eager to win his heart. Then his mother hires a local conservative imam to cure her son’s obsession. “Samba” is currently being cast with a view to pre-production starting in the first half of this year.

Execs from Alnoor are showing encouraging signs of wanting to develop both the local and international aspects of their business. The company has been busy acquiring a number of leading Arab production entities as it seeks to become a regional titan as well as a global player.

“In the past, investors in this region used to put their money into shares and real estate, thinking they were more solid,” says Alnoor Holdings chairman Ahmed Al-Mustafawi Al-Hashemi. “Now investors have seen this is not the case. We have good financial resources here in the Gulf, and we believe there are now good opportunities to invest in the film market.”

Alnoor has tapped Dune Entertainment chairman and chief exec Greg Coote to its board as a non-exec director. Dune, which is allied to hedge fund Dune Capital Partners, most recently co-financed James Cameron’s “Avatar” with 20th Century Fox and Ingenious.

Coote will work closely with Alnoor execs to identify potential projects to finance and produce as well as consult on a number of other film-related issues. “The studios recognize that the business of producing filmed entertainment outside of the U.S. is an important growth area of this worldwide industry,” Coote says. “I look forward to helping expand Qatar as a creative base in the Middle East and beyond.”

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