x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Back stories

Alongside the MEIFF is The Circle, a conference of the men and women who run the business side of the film industry.

The Moroccan director Hicham Ayouch won last year's Shasha prize.
The Moroccan director Hicham Ayouch won last year's Shasha prize.

Amid the whirlwind of glamour that is the Middle East International Film Festival, with movie lovers queuing to buy tickets for screenings and the chance of spotting Hollywood stars around the city, it's easy to forget about the less exciting, but equally essential, side of cinema - the business.

But if fans can afford to remain in blissful ignorance insiders cannot, and coinciding with the first three days of the festival, which starts today, The Circle Conference aims to bring some of the world's leading industry names to Abu Dhabi, not only to help nurture Middle Eastern cinema, but also to carry word of its achievements to the wider film community. Now in its third year, the event includes filmmaker workshops, panel discussions, big-name interviews and even a US$100,000 (Dh370,000) grant to launch the careers of outstanding regional filmmakers.

"We have 250 guests registered to attend the conference from 35 countries, all around the world," says David Shepheard, the director of the Abu Dhabi Film Commission, the conference's organiser. "It's not just about the film festival. For us its part of the overall strategy of creating a long-term and sustainable film-production hub in the Middle East." Among those taking part in this year's Circle will be Deepa Mehta, the Indian-born Canadian filmmaker behind the "elements trilogy" and Nancy Tellem, president of CBC Paramount Network Entertainment and one of the most powerful figures in the US television industry.

As well as being a place for established industry members to network, the Circle also aims to develop new talent, with its $100,000 Shasha grant. In recent months, five promising filmmakers with links to the region have been chosen from from more than 90 entrants. During the conference, each will be asked to present a screenplay to a panel of experts. The winner will receive not only the cash prize, but also a first-look deal with Imagenation, Abu Dhabi's billion-dirham film fund.

"The Shasha prize is a highlight for us," says Shepheard. "Last year's winner [the Moroccan filmmaker Hicham Ayouch], is now with Fox International Productions and the film is about to go into production early next year. That is a success story. "One of last year's runners-up also has a film that has gone into production - he met that producer here in Abu Dhabi, over breakfast." In a year that has seen international film collaborations such as District 9 and Slumdog Millionaire achieve unprecedented box office success and yet more high-profile financing deals between eastern and western companies, many of the Circle's discussion topics will focus on the convergence taking place in the international film business.

Topics to be addressed at this year's event include "developing stories for the international market", "developing co-production in the region" and "new models of financing media". There will also be a number of lectures and speeches focusing on regional issues, such as women in film, which will be chaired by Nashwa al Ruwaini, the chief executive of the UAE-based production company Pyramedia. "For the first time, the Circle's remit now includes the television and digital media industries, as well as filmmaking," says Shepheard, "which is very important in the Middle Eastern media sector."

This wider-reaching aim will be reflected in a number of panel discussions, including "selling and distributing across media" and "the future of media: 360 models and multiple revenue sources". But the inclusion of other media is not the only change this year. The guest list appears, at least on the surface, to feature far fewer well-known names than in the past. Last year's Circle included an appearance by the actor and filmmaker Antonio Banderas, the Terminator Salvation director Joseph McGinty Nichol (also known as McG) and one of US cinema's biggest names, Spike Lee. This year's lineup features nobody of such stature.

Shepheard comments: "Some of these filmmakers this year probably don't have the same public profile, but they have an awful lot of respect within the industry. The names of the films they have made are very well known to the public. There are lots of creative types, particularly Middle Eastern ones sitting on the panels. "Last year McG was here, Spike is obviously a great talent as well as a well-known face, and Banderas too. But this year those types of star names are more aligned with MEIFF and not the Circle."

Some of the better-known speakers and panelists at this year's event, are Sanford Panitch, president of Fox International Productions, Barbara DeFina, the producer of a number of Martin Scorsese's films, including GoodFellas and Casino, and Amin Matalqa, the Jordanian filmmaker behind 2007's Captain Abu Raed. The British writer of the television series Life on Mars, Ashley Pharoah, and Andy Harries, the producer of the Oscar-wining film The Queen, will also appear.

The Circle Conference takes place tomorrow to Sunday in a number of locations across Abu Dhabi. For more information, visit www.film.gov.ae.