x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Hollywood, here we come

Shorts could be the start of a string of cinema hits involving the Abu Dhabi company Imagenation.

Jimmy Bennett as Toe Thompson in the Robert Rodriguez film Shorts, partly funded by Abu Dhabi's Imagenation.
Jimmy Bennett as Toe Thompson in the Robert Rodriguez film Shorts, partly funded by Abu Dhabi's Imagenation.

ABU DHABI // In the family comedy Shorts, the first film venture from Abu Dhabi's new fund, a magic rock hurtles to earth and grants wishes to whoever gains possession of it.

For Imagenation, Abu Dhabi Media Company's (ADMC) billion-dollar movie fund, choosing what to wish for would be simple: big box-office returns. There should be plenty of opportunities following yesterday's Hollywood premiere of the film, written and directed by Robert Rodriguez. Dozens - perhaps as many as 40 - feature films are to bear the Imagenation banner over the next five years. And that means more opportunities to produce entertaining commercial cinema, to make more Arabic-language cinema, and to win awards.

Ed Borgerding, the chief executive of Imagenation and ADMC, which publishes The National, also hopes Imagenation's production arm will help to cultivate a "visual vocabulary" for aspiring UAE film-makers. "The idea," he said, "is you develop a body of film-making that develops its own storytelling voice, and then that self-expression finds form in these films. That has never been done." Imagenation has already signed three contracts with the prominent US production companies: Participant Media in a deal worth US$250 million (Dh918m); Hyde Park Entertainment ($250m), and National Geographic Entertainment ($100m).

More than 13,000km from yesterday's red carpet screening of Shorts at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, the event was also quietly noted by the Abu Dhabi Film Commission (ADFC), whose director, David Shepheard, described the production as a "milestone" for being the first high-profile film to emerge from the early rounds of investments. "Robert Rodriguez is a world-renowned director - very well-respected," he said. "So it's great that Imagenation is a partner with a movie like that."

He added: "It gives inspiration from our side because it's something for our film-makers to look up to. And who knows? Down the line, their film could be the next to invest into." Hundreds of screenplays have already arrived at the Imagenation offices, many from aspiring UAE film-makers. Mr Borgerding is welcoming more, saying that if the storytelling and the voice are there, the tools and financing can be too.

"There's an Egyptian style of making movies and there's a Hollywood style of making movies and there's a Bollywood style of making movies and there's even a Danish style of making movies," he said. "But there's never been a style that has evolved or developed in the UAE. This is a way of having an 'Abu Dhabian', or let's say a UAE, style of film-making emerge from just people doing it." In the meantime, the Middle East distributor Shooting Stars is preparing to screen Shorts the weekend after its regional debut at the Middle East Film Festival.

Stefan Brunner, the chief financial officer of Imagenation, said the festival screening was tentatively set for October 10. Rodriguez is known for hits such as 2005's Sin City and the phenomenally successful Spy Kids trilogy, which raked in more than $450m worldwide. While Shorts is in the same crowd-pleasing, effects-laden mould, Mr Borgerding was keeping a rein on his expectations. "Those films were mega huge. I don't think this movie is going to be quite that big," he said. "We'll see what happens when it comes out [on Friday] in the States."

The next Imagenation project, a film called The Way Back, could be released on a limited basis in four months to be eligible for the next Academy Awards. Based on fact and directed by Peter Weir, previously nominated for Hollywood's top honours for Master and Commander, The Truman Show and Witness, it stars Colin Farrell, Ed Harris and Jim Sturgess in an account of a group of soldiers escaping from a Siberian gulag.

"We just saw the first cut of that movie," Mr Borgerding said last week. "It looks to be a brilliant film, which all of Peter Weir's movies are." The historical drama was co-produced with National Geographic Entertainment. Another possible Oscar contender is the political thriller Fair Game, which wrapped up principal photography last month and is co-produced with Participant Media and River Road Entertainment.

Naomi Watts, nominated for an Academy Award for 2003's 21 Grams, plays the former CIA operative Valerie Plame in the true story chronicling the leak of her identity as a spy to the press. Sean Penn, who took the Oscar for best actor last year in Milk, portrays her husband, the former ambassador Joseph Wilson. Directed by Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity), the film is scheduled for a US release late this year or early next.

"It's a story that has the potential for Academy Awards, obviously, with the two actors that we have attached," Mr Brunner said in a previous interview, adding that the Academy Awards cycle could shape the release date. Also under production between Imagenation and Participant Media is Roger Kumble's comedy Furry Vengeance, which pits Brendan Fraser against a gang of woodland creatures trying to protect their forest from developers.

While the association with big directors and famous stars promises to thrust Imagenation into the world limelight, Mr Shepheard emphasised that the ADFC was continuing to build a local film industry year-round at its own pace. "Imagenation is starting to find film talents that are a bit further along down the career path," he said. "Right now, we're focused on developing writers, talent, technicians, lighting people, helping to almost build an infrastructure for film-making."

Networking opportunities such as Abu Dhabi's The Circle summit, which invites high-profile Hollywood players such as the director Spike Lee to teach masterclasses in the capital, are just one slice of what the commission does. For instance, six young local film-makers are currently in Uganda for a lab with the Monsoon Wedding director Mira Naira. "Our primary focus is helping and nurturing new feature film-making talent here," Mr Shepheard said.

From comedies to thrillers to romance films, any genre is fair game, as far as Mr Borgerding is concerned. "I mean, there are some great stories that we're going to be telling here. Stories like when all the guys here went to America for the first time to go to university - some of these are hilarious stories," he said. "You could do something on the founding fathers of the country - not the whole story, but just an episode - a snapshot of that."

Finding a way to shoot such tales at an economically viable cost will be the challenge. "I think it's going to be absolutely brilliant once we get the machine up and running," he said. "Now the big issue is how will people come and pay for our movies?" mkwong@thenational.ae