x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

MEIFF is a balancing act this year.

MEIFF Diary: The Circle three days of film industry panels organised by the Abu Dhabi Film Commission, gives valuable tips to aspiring filmmakers.

Executive director Peter Scarlet has mentioned numerous times in the past week that a real effort was made to balance the programme among Middle Eastern films and non-Middle Eastern films and between the esoteric and the entertaining. The Circle, three days of film industry panels organised by the Abu Dhabi Film Commission, engaged in a balancing act of its own. The sessions on Sunday ranged from discussions on how to package and pitch a project to a position-by-position rundown of physical film production, a primer on what a filmmaker needs and why. "It's challenging," David Shepheard, Abu Dhabi's film commissioner, told me in a conversation outside the meeting room. "We are building from the ground up...It has to be little by little."

The balancing act at an event like this then comes in presenting panels that are relevant to those seeking to build a local film industry from "Step One" and those residents whose skills and experience can be employed in a more developed and sophisticated industry. Although the packaging and pitching panel may have been the most entertaining as producers such as Jake Eberts described personal experiences in getting films off the ground, the concept of packaging for the nascent local industry -- where a producer assembles a script, a director, stars and perhaps other key participants as a "package" -- is some way off. It is valuable knowledge to have for the future but it presupposes the existence of the Hollywood model of a star system and directors with bankable track records. "You can't really compare the UAE with Hollywood or Bollywood," Basheer Barakat, Festival Coordinator for the Abu Dhabi Film Commssion, told me after the panel. "We will have to grow in our own way and develop our own system."

Ironically, it was the agents' panel that turned out to be most engaging in terms of prompting a vibrant dialog between panel members and audience - ironic because agents are often seen as the vipers of the industry, driving prices up as they work their hardest to keep clients and producers apart. The agents themselves appeared to be grappling with finding a direction for the discussion when Rich Klubick turned the tables and asked the audience what they want to see in local theatres. With a number of Emirati film students in the audience, this sparked a fascinating discussion on UAE demographics, the tastes of the nation's filmgoing public and how to foster a movie culture in the UAE. There were no clear-cut answers on how to foster a film-going culture in the UAE but all of the agents stressed the importance of exploring the possibilities of television. "You have a strong and very developed TV industry in this region," explained the agent Rena Ronson. "You should try to do as much as you can in that medium right now. I can't stress that enough." Perhaps the biggest message that came across in all the panels was the admonition to never accept 'no' as an answer when trying to enter the business or selling a project. The agent Rich Klubick was a lawyer who took a job as a secretary to a film executive when he changed careers. "Of course, I wanted to be the chairman of a major company but I took what I could to get in the door," he said.

"Never take 'no' for an answer," plainly stated Ronson. "Never accept rejection." Argentinean producer Fernando Sulichin told a story of selling his first film for $2 million, a film that went on to make many times that. When someone asked after the film's success why he took such a small amount, he looked at the audience and said, "Because we didn't know what we were doing," a comment that brought as much laughter on stage as off. It brought to my mind my first interview with Christine Vachon, whose Killer Films in New York is one of the longest-running and most successful independent production houses bringing to the screen Boys Don't Cry, One Hour Photo, The Notorious Bettie Page and many, many others. "James [Shamus, now CEO of Focus Features, an arm of Universal] talks about our first time in Cannes when we had Todd Haynes' Poison," she recounted. "He talks about how we decided to do this and then we decided to do that...We didn't decide anything. We didn't have ANY idea WHAT we were doing!"

The subtext, of course, is getting into the film industry is exactly what makes the industry work: hubris, hubris, hubris. jsipe@thenational.ae