New avatar: Hollywood hotshots such as James Cameron feel Abu Dhabi's considerable resources will help it evolve into a premium player in the regional film industry in the years to come Image Credit: Associated Press

The movie industry in the Arab world has the potential to be a "cash cow", Mohammad Al Mubarak, Chairman of the capital's billion-dollar film fund, Imagenation, proclaimed with confidence during this month's Abu Dhabi Media Summit.

The fact that earlier on the same dais ace Hollywood film-maker James Cameron — who has given the world its two biggest hits in 2009's Avatar and 1994's Titanic, with combined box office earnings of $4.5 billion (about Dh16.5 billion) — shared Al Mubarak's sentiments, you can't help but take notice.

Abu Dhabi's foray into the film world has been a steady progression of well thought out strategies that have involved courting top business conglomerates and Hollywood A-listers equally.

When the capital's Middle East International Film Festival (MEIFF, now Abu Dhabi Film Festival) was first conceptualised in 2007, Mohammad Khalaf Al Mazroui, Director General, Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH), had said: "We have opened up our doors in Abu Dhabi to everyone who has an interest in films. The emirate has a lot of potential and we want people to be a part of this."

In the circle

In its first year alone, MEIFF drew in names such as Joseph Fiennes, Michael Baston and French actress Eva Green. But it wasn't just the well-known names that saw the film festival flourish, but also a concept known as the Circle Conference, which invited industry moversand shakers to generate dialogue about thefilm-making business.

"The Circle is a tremendous opportunity for dialogue among the leading lights of the entertainment community. By bringing their global perspectives to Abu Dhabi, they'veplayed a vital role in our efforts to stimulatea new level of entrepreneurship," Abu Dhabi Film Commission Director David Shepherdhad said at the time.

This prompted even stars such as Orlando Bloom, who attended the 2008 edition of MEIFF, to express interest in doing business in Abu Dhabi. "I've got a production company that I started about two years ago, so I am looking at financing movies," said the Pirates of the Caribbean star. "This region is an exciting place for that kind of thing."

The industry buzz highlighted an unfulfilled market gap that saw Abu Dhabi's vast capital resources step in to fund a business model that promised long-term gains and recognition.

Thus, 2008 saw the birth of Imagenation Abu Dhabi, announcing a $1 billion-film fund that would partner with global cinematic greats, along with focusing on nurturing regional talent.

Abu Dhabi had taken its first step in creating a film industry as its legacy.

Funding the future

Since its inception, Imagenation Abu Dhabi's promise to court Hollywood's elite and bring talent to our shores has seen money-spinning partnerships with Warner Bros, National Geographic and Hyde Park Entertainment, the latter with which it has signed a $250-million and 20-film deal.

Movies such as the Doug Liman-directed Fair Game, starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, along with Peter Weir's The Way Back, starring Colin Ferrell and Jim Sturgess, have been the direct result of such partnerships.

Earlier this month, Imagenation went a step further and announced a new film with Summit Entertainment and Participant Media, to be based on the BP oil rig disaster. Interestingly, it was not a book or screenplay that caught their attention but rather an article published in The New York Times titled Deepwater Horizon's Final Hour published December 25, 2010, written by David Barstow, David Rohde, and Stephanie Saul.

A planned filmed adaptation of the article will depict the courage of those who worked on the oil rig and the final minutes leading up to arguably the world's biggest oil spill disaster.

Michael Garin, CEO, Imagenation Abu Dhabi, says in a statement: "Our partnership with Participant Media, and by extension Summit, continues to generate movies that raise awareness on issues and inspire social change.

"This powerful account truly represents the ideal aims of storytelling, where the search for the truth uncovers everyday heroism in the face of adversity, and sois destined to be an important film appealing to international audiences all over the world," says Garin.

Other films in its kitty include the drama Million's Poet, the horror thriller Djinn and the romantic comedy Monsoon.

Regional reach

Abu Dhabi has been also striving hard in the bid to promote regional talent. Room has been made for institutions such as the New York Film Academy to hone budding film-makers. Ideas such as the Emirates Film Competition have been implemented into ADFF's ten-day schedule to specifically showcase films that have been locally produced, scripted and filmed.

The focus is now on home productions, given that the UAE is still miles behind more the developed industries in Egypt or even Morocco. And to grow this volume of business, officials at the fund have said they are happy to look beyond proposals from Emiratis and that expats with film projects that spotlight this region or the Arab culture are also welcome to tap into the film fund. �

Imagenation, in association with the Abu Dhabi Film Commission, also launched Mawaheb (which translates as ‘talents'), an internship programme that offers Emirati students with an interest in film-making the opportunity to gain hands-on experience abroad. Support is provided by Imagenation's international partners, including Participant Media, National Geographic Films and Hyde Park Entertainment. A mix of internships is on offer, including appointments at joint venture offices in Los Angeles and New York City, and placements on the films sets of productions across the US and India.

Al Mazroui says, "The key to developing a sustainable film industry in the UAE is to nurture our home-grown talent. We have a generation of creative and gifted young Emiratis whose careers can only benefit from exposure to the best in the international film business. Our hope is that through our internship programme, we can identify potential talent that can play a role in the future of film in this region."

If there was a lesson to be learned at the recently concluded media summit in Abu Dhabi, then it was the simple message: content is key.

The Chairman of Imagenation says the Middle East will no longer have to rely on poorly made programming to tell its stories, as it gears up to become a centre for quality film-making.

Growing returns

Al Mubarak says growing box-office returns in the Middle East and Asia have caught the attention of Hollywood studios, and that his own firm wants to partner with such giants to produce movies with regional relevance.

"There are stories in every single household, in every single majlis, in every single tribe and the platform for those before was extremely weak. It was at best a TV show, a very poorly made TV show. But what we are trying to do is take these stories, with the help of our partners, to the next level," he says, going on to the findings of a study, which revealed that many Emirati families in Abu Dhabi go to the cinema three times a week. This is a frequency "unheard of" in other markets, and indicates that the UAE is home to a storytelling culture. "If you can make movies with the right content for this part of the world, it is a cash cow," he emphasises.