Movies come in from the cold

Filmmakers may be frozen out by the credit crunch but there is still hope for the film industry.

The international film industry is in dire need of big-money investment in these troubled times to guarantee future movie releases and box office returns.

And just as failing banks have – so far – been saved from oblivion by governments digging deeper than ever before, so production companies are looking for their own backers.

National Geographic Entertainment, as part of this year's Middle East International Film Festival ongoing in Abu Dhabi, announced a far-reaching partnership with the capital's Imagenation, a subsidiary of the Abu Dhabi Media Company.

Under the terms of the deal, both companies will commit $100 million (Dh367m) for the production of between 10 and 15 films over the coming five years.

The fund was announced by Tim Kelly, President of National Geographic Global Media, and Edward Borgerding, CEO of the Abu Dhabi Media Company. National Geographic Entertainment, a division of National Geographic Global Media and Imagenation Abu Dhabi, will develop, produce, finance and acquire films that focus on people's relationship to the world, their environment and each other, according to the fine print of the deal. The films will be budgeted between $5 million and $60m.

Mohamed Khalaf Al Mazrouei, Chairman of Imagenation Abu Dhabi and Abu Dhabi Media Company, said: "National Geographic stands for quality and is a renowned leader not just in media, but also in science, education and exploration.

"It has always been able to tell epic life adventures in ways that deeply move people of all cultures around the world.

"National Geographic is a perfect partner. It is one of the most identifiable and respected global brands.

The deal is certainly good news for National Geographic. As companies the world over feel the effects of the crisis in banking, and financial institutions reduce the amounts they lend (with some ceasing lending entirely), the company will benefit from having a presence in the UAE. After all, Imagenation is far from short of funds. The company, launched last month, will spend $1 billion over the next five years to develop, finance and produce full-length feature films and digital content for Arabic and global markets.

Last month, it announced a $250m partnership with Participant Media, producers of films such as Syriana and The Kite Runner, and Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, to back a slate of feature films. National Geographic's $100m agreement is Imagenation 's second major deal.

Of Imagenation's $1bn, Borgerding told Emirates Business: "It's a round number. We looked at the business and looked at the commitment we wanted to make – the cost of making movies and the cost of distributing movies, as well as the different initiatives that we had.

"We have a business plan and a focus – the first deal was Participant Media, and now National Geographic is going to be a very good partner for us.

"It continues our strategy of building relationships with the world's leading media companies. This partnership supports our aim to produce award-winning films that are commercially successful and appealing to diverse cultures around the globe."

National Geographic Entertainment is a wholly owned taxable subsidiary of the National Geographic Society, which was founded in 1888 by John M Fahey.

The group is one of the largest non-profit scientific and educational institutions in the world, with interests in geography, archaeology and natural science, the promotion of environmental and historical conservation, and the study of world culture and history.

National Geographic Films, part of the company's entertainment sector, has released many commercially successful films, including Mysteries of Egypt, and March of the Penguins, which won an Academy Award for the Best Documentary in 2006. After a record $77m theatrical gross in the United States, more than four million DVD copies of the movie were sold.

Future local releases by the company include Sea Monsters, a prehistoric adventure, and a 3-D presentation of Irish band U2's global Vertigo tour, called U2 3D. Kelly said: "We've got two new films right now: Sea Monsters, which has grossed almost $30m at the beginning of its cycle, and the U2 3D movie is going to be released here soon. We're very much into new technology, like 3-D, which is going to become very prominent in feature films."

National Geographic Films is, with A-listers Edward Norton and Brad Pitt, currently co-producing a 10-hour mini-series of author Stephen E Ambrose's award-winning Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West for American network HBO.

The deal between National Geographic and Imagenation will mean more to the capital than the occasional visit by Pitt.

Not only will such deals attract major film-industry players to the UAE, but it offers the opportunity for the UAE's homegrown talent to show their abilities to the world.

Additionally, it will undoubtedly raise to a global level the profile of locally produced content .

"It's very hard to get studio interest, and it's very hard to get financing. We're hoping this partnership will bring a lot of projects out of the wood work," said Kelly said.

"Imagenation is interested in our deal because we bring a brand – a niche that's strong and evergreen and we have this media that we can use to promote our movies. So we have some unique assets to bring to the party."

The deal will also be a boon for the UAE economy. More jobs will be created, more international filmmakers, writers, producers and actors will visit and tourism will benefit from the region's association with household names.

But despite news of the deal, Imagenation and National Geographic Entertainment remain tightlipped about the plans they have in the pipeline. However, Kelly did mention there would be discussions with Sir Ben Kingsley and his production company, referring to the veteran British actor, who attended the launch in Abu Dhabi.

"That's the benefit of announcing a partnership like this," Kelly said. "We're letting the talent world know we have the finance, the will, and the interest in making movies, and we want to see what comes next."


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