DOHA // The idea first came to Raja Sharif last fall, as the Gulf seemed overrun with cinematic glitz and glamour. "I saw that they were doing a lot of film festivals around the region," said the director of international affairs at the Doha-based media firm Alnoor Holdings, citing events in Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai. He envisioned a new local event, but not another festival.
"I rang up the guys at the Financial Times I'd dealt with in past," he recalled. "I managed to convince them there was a big part of the movie industry that people didn't focus on." They may not offer the tabloid appeal of Brangelina or the next James Cameron blockbuster, but the legal, financial and business aspects of the film industry are set to have their day in the sun later this month, at the inaugural Business of Film Summit, organised jointly by the Financial Times and Alnoor.
The event will be held March 22-23 in Doha and address the industry's changing international landscape. As the financial downturn has slowed funding from western banks, producers have ventured far and wide for new audiences and funding sources. Hollywood players such as Warner Brothers and Sony have moved into the Indian market. Last year, Disney made The Book of Masters, its first film for a Russian-speaking audience. Last month, Fox Corp snapped up a piece of the Saudi-based Rotana media conglomerate. Here in Doha, Alnoor launched a US$200 million (734.6m) fund to finance and produce Islamic- and family-friendly films.
"This industry is in a state of flux," Mr Sharif said. "Film has had to shift in so many ways to increase capital and liquidity, in part by attracting people from the East and Middle East and allowing those who had ambitions to move into the film world, to do so." The Financial Times Group had similar ambitions. FT has organised business and luxury events for 30 years, but none centred on film. "We're essentially getting our foothold into an industry which we haven't really engaged in the past," said Toufique Khan, FT's Business Development Manager. He had been looking to do events in the Middle East, and the time for a film business conference seemed ripe. "It looked as if there had been a shift in the industry," he said.
Partnering with Alnoor, FT developed the idea and put together the event's programming. Panel discussions will address the globalisation of film, the impact of technology, the role of governments and the budding film business in the Middle East region. Several events will address the changing landscape of the industry in the wake of the financial crisis. Matthew Garrahan, FT's Los Angeles correspondent, will serve as chairman and present opening and closing remarks. The event is open to the public, for just under US$1,000.
Senior executives from Hollywood, Bollywood and Arab production firms are set to speak, including Greg Coote, the CEO and chairman of Dune Entertainment, which helped finance the most financially successful movie of all time, Avatar. Mr Sharif and Alnoor Holdings' CEO Ahmed al Hashemi told him about the summit during a meeting in Los Angeles late last year. "I was immediately taken with the idea and moved my calendar around to accommodate the dates," Mr Coote said via e-mail from a Utah ski resort. Networking at this sort of event is a key part of the business, he explained, but even more important is branching out into new regions.
"Holding it in Qatar is really inspired," Mr Coote added. "The actual box office business in the US is mature, while the world outside of the US is a massive growth area for filmed entertainment, and this applies to the Middle East. By hosting the event in Doha, Alnoor and FT have thrown a spotlight on the region." The Gulf has been polishing its film industry bona fides of late, with major festivals blooming across the region and new film funds such as that of Alnoor. The first big budget Qatari film will hit theatres in May, following the release of several Emirati films.
Still, Mr Sharif believes the global spotlight represents progress only if it leads to profit. Despite all the show, the film industry is a business, just like any other. Before investors can make money they must first stir up interest, get people talking. That, according to its prime mover, is one of the main goals of the summit. "It's a nice way for people to understand the legal, financial, and business issues involved in filmmaking," said Mr Sharif. "We know all about the glitz and glamour, the movie stars, but this will focus on the inner workings of the film world people mostly don't see, maybe create a buzz about the business side of the industry."