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In the south of France, the Middle East makes its move

May 18, 2010 |  1:19 pm


The films competing for the vaunted Palme d'Or here in Cannes have nothing on another behind-the-scenes race: the battle to become the movie kingmaker of the Middle East.

Once upon a time, it was going to be the Japanese investors who would save Hollywood. Then came the Germans, the Indians and numerous other countries and regions. All of them sashayed up to U.S. studios and producers with big checks (checks that Hollywood, for better or worse, was all too happy to accept).

Lately, the group with the most motivation and swagger has been a cluster of Arabic-speaking countries. Flush with cash, they have launched various programs meant to forge Hollywood ties -- and, in some cases, lay out money for productions -- even as cultural and financial questions linger.

The locus of much of that activity here on the Croisette has been the Abu Dhabi Pavilion. Located in a particularly scenic spot in the seemingly unending row of country pavilions (essentially constructed lounges that showcase a particular country's film industry) along the Riviera, with a spacious deck overlooking the water, the Abu Dhabi tent has over the last week been a scene that suggests the region's sizable ambitions and, possibly, hints at Hollywood's future.

The Pavilion has held lunches meant to promote itself and bring other Middle Eastern commissions into the tent (literally). After years of chatter about a rising Middle East, there's finally some substance to promote, as each country tries to make inroads in its own way.

Abu Dhabi has created a screenwriting grant and also partnered with the film-fund Imagenation, which helped finance the Cannes favorite "Fair Game" and co-financed slates from Hollywood players such as Participant Media, National Geographic Films and Parkes/MacDonald Productions (though it was off to a somewhat uneven start with the middling performance of "The Crazies" and "Furry Vengeance"). It  also established the influential Circle conference. (At Cannes, the commission also threw an elaborate party and  a lunch to honor its first local production, "Sea Shadow," a teen love story directed by a young, eminently enthusiastic filmmaker named Nawaf Al-Janahi.)

Fellow emirate Dubai has a festival of its own and is seen as a rising power in the region. Doha, the Qatar capital, has been boosting its film efforts with the establishment of an institute and a film festival and assorted other ventures with the Tribeca Film Festival; Geoff Gilmore and other Tribeca luminaries could be seen along Pavilion row throughout the festival.  Other Middle Eastern and Arabic-speaking countries -- including Egypt, Morocco and Jordan -- have ramped up not only their location incentives but also their general film activities.

Representatives from many of these  cities and countries were regularly present in the Abu Dhabi pavilion, as they carefully looked for ways to collaborate and boost their region's awareness (while also still, privately, very much treating each other as competitors).
There is, incidentally, plenty of eye-rolling among all these would-be kingpins about the inclusion of Abu Dhabi as a setting in the upcoming "Sex and the City 2" -- producers sought permission from both Abu Dhabi and Dubai, were turned down by both, but shot in Morocco and included Abu Dhabi in the film.

Abu Dhabi Film Commission director David Shepheard said that the growing presence signaled the birth of a new era.  "What this Cannes is about is showing the world that we're here," he said of his group. "That sets us up for future years to really be a part of the business."

But it won't always be a smooth sail. Film commissioners in the Middle East are often caught between satisfying the needs of Western production companies and their own particular (and often conservative) governments (a truism thrown into relief by the "Sex and the City" issue).

Producers have also noted issues, both cultural and logistical, with financiers in emerging markets in Asia. And eagerness isn't always sufficient to overcome a culture clash or an innocence about the ways of Hollywood.

But for now, the Middle East's desire to position itself on the film map remains a positioning best achieved in a small town in the south of France.

-- Steven Zeitchik and Rachel Abramowitz, reporting from Cannes, France

Photo: Abu Dhabi skyline. Credit: Abu Dhabi Tourism Board

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