Rain soaks the Croisette. It battered through the night and has been gusting fitfully all morning. It drums on the roof of the Abu Dhabi pavilion in the international village. "How do you find Cannes?" I ask Edward Borgerding, the CEO of Imagenation Abu Dhabi, the UAE-based film company and Abu Dhabi Media Company, parent of The National. "I find it wet," he says. It isn't only the weather that is dampening the festival mood: the economic climate is showing, too. "Attendance is down," says Borgerding. "Companies, instead of sending 10 people, are sending five. We saw the same thing in Berlin."
But the Abu Dhabi team is in buoyant spirits. It has just announced a partnership with the Circle Conference, which programmes film-industry panels and masterclasses to support film production in the UAE. As Borgerding explains, Imagenation will help to "develop the programme for the Circle itself, so that what's being discussed is relevant and topical. Of course they know these things, but we also bring a different perspective to it." Imagenation will expand the Circle's circle, so to speak, supplementing and complementing its existing range of business contacts. And it will offer its expertise to the Shasha Grant, a screenwriting prize open to entries from all over the world. "The best screenplay will win $100,000," says Borgerding. "Also, Imagenation will guide that filmmaker for the film to be developed into something that can eventually be produced and distributed worldwide."
As David Shepheard, the director of the Abu Dhabi Film Commission which now runs the Circle Conference, explains, the chosen writers will receive "lots of assistance from the film commission for development producers or script editors to help them shape the budget. And once the project is at a certain stage, it goes to Imagenation for a first-look deal." In the current climate, he notes: "A very generous scriptwriting award, plus a first-look deal for the winner, is quite unheard-of."
The Circle deal slots neatly into Borgerding's sense of his company's purpose. "The motivation for setting up Imagenation itself was to create an environment where people can learn the professional skills of the film industry," he says. "It's sort of that old saying of, if you feed a guy he's not hungry for a day but if you teach him how to fish he'll never be hungry again... The idea with Imagenation is really to train a generation of media executives who understand how to finance movies, develop them, make them, get your money back and do it all over again."
And it couldn't be a better time to professionalise the UAE's movie industry. Around the world, sources of funding for filmmakers are drying up. Abu Dhabi remains one of the few buyers in a falling market: witness the keen interest that the movie trade press has take in the emirate. Variety alone has published a barrage of stories just over the past fortnight, covering Imagenation's forthcoming projects with Participant Media and National Geographic, the development of the Abu Dhabi Film Commission, the Shasha Grant and more. The studio head Harvey Weinstein was reportedly sighted at parties hosted by Imagenation and the Middle East International Film Festival in Cannes on Friday night. All of which goes to suggest that, as Borgerding says: "there's greater access to talent".
This ought to benefit all sectors of the local industry. Local projects will be able to attach big names, with their attendant benefits to publicity and expertise. And local talents will have the opportunity to observe the best in the business first-hand. Shepheard explains: "We all share the same ambition, which is that if there are international projects that come into Abu Dhabi or are kind of assisted in some way, we want to gain the best benefit for the local filmmakers. So, in discussion with Imagenation, if there are certain projects that are coming to the region, and we have interns or trainees that we can attach to that project, that's one of the ways we can work together." In a stormy climate, the burgeoning Abu Dhabi film industry represents a rare ray of hope for all concerned.