In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

Credit crunch: Hollywood embraces Arabia

Posted by smeddum on November 30, 2008

Hollywood embraces Arabia
Business 24/7

By Rachel McArthur on Friday, November 28, 2008
With the end of the year fast approaching, it’s safe to say that film fans around the globe have already witnessed some of 2008’s most glamorous international film festivals – such as Cannes and Sundance – with some of the world’s biggest celebrities attending.

But what’s different this year is that Arab film festivals are also getting their fair share of Hollywood action. Who can forget the recent Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi, where the likes of Antonio Banderas and Meg Ryan visited the region for the very first time?

This month has been particularly busy for regional autograph hunters thanks to two respected events in the industry: Morocco’s Film Festival of Marrakech (FIFM) and the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF). The Egyptian festival celebrated its 32nd anniversary, while FIFM is in its eighth year.

Although both are internationally recognised, it is commonly known that FIFM caters for those who have a passion for non-mainstream world cinema, while CIFF is targeted towards Arabic and American cinema lovers. However, the one thing they did share was an increase in internationally recognised superstars.

“It’s exciting for everyone when a big celebrity is in town,” Karim Hussein, an Arab celebrity agent who brings stars to the region tells Emirates Business. “It generates tonnes of publicity for the event. In terms of a film festival, it can help increase revenue as ticket sales go up dramatically when fans know they will see or meet a famous face.”

Both FIFM and CIFF got their fair share of big names this year, making them two of the largest celebrity-attended Arab film events of 2008.

At FIFM, star spotters caught a glimpse of American actress Sigourney Weaver, who was the recipient of the festival’s lifetime achievement award, as well as of Bond girls Michelle Yeoh and Catalina Murino. Legendary director Roman Polanski also made an appearance alongside Rainman filmmaker Barry Levinson.

CIFF was perhaps a little more glamourous – not only due to the attendance of nearly all of Egypt’s top stars – but also thanks to the appearance of Oscar winner and the permanently stunning, Charlize Theron, and her British actor/director beau,

Stuart Townsend. The pair stopped off in Cairo before heading to the launch of Atlantis The Palm last week.

Theron then jetted back to the Egyptian capital on Monday to attend a press conference with the festival’s president and prominent Egyptian actor, Ezzat Abu Ouf.

Other guests included Susan Sarandon, Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, Julia Ormond, Alicia Silverstone, and Priscilla Presley.

Amusingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, Turkish actors Songül Öden and Kivanç Tatlitug, stars of the Turkish, Syrian-dubbed MBC hit drama, Gümüs (AKA Noor), were also invited.

Although not Hollywood talent – and according to Turkish media, they’re not even taken seriously as actors in their homecountry – Öden and Tatlitug do grab headlines everywhere they go in the Arab region, thanks to the phenomenal success of the television show about the beautiful Turkish girl (Noor) who falls for the handsome businessman Mehmet (or in Arabic, Muhanad). In fact, according to MBC, Noor was the most watched drama of the year so far, with advert requests pouring in for commercial breaks during the show.

Now with CIFF coming to an end tonight, all attention is set to shift to the 2008 Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) – the final major Arab event in the film festival calendar.

With news that stars, including Nicholas Cage, Brendan Fraser and Salma Hayek are on the guestlist makes the seven-day event all the more exciting.

So just why is Hollywood taking a bigger interest in the region more than ever before? Seven years ago, most of these celebrities wouldn’t have come to the region with the negative press the Middle East received Stateside at the time of the September 11 attacks.

The answer, it seems, is the growth of the region, as well as word-of-mouth from other celebrities. Oh, and of course, the money helps.

Sheeraz Hasan, owner of online portals Hollywood.tv and Dubai.tv tells Emirates Business: “A few years ago, celebrities had the wrong impression about the region “But now, because certain stars were offered a lot of money to visit, they go back telling everyone that the region is nothing like what it is portrayed, and that, for example, Dubai is even nicer than Los Angeles.”

A-listers are also interested in networking over here now that the credit crunch has hit the American film industry.

In August, Hollywood director Spike Lee exclusively revealed to Emirates Business that he was struggling to find funding for his films – and that the UAE may be the answer. “There is a tonne of money in Dubai, so I gotta start making connections,” he said. “I gotta go to other sources of finance.”

Oscar winner Ben Kingsley has also previously spoken of his interest in the region. “We are quite serious about co-productions here [Abu Dhabi].

“The UAE seems to have its priorities right; it doesn’t seem cluttered by any preconceptions or cynicism. Anything’s possible, which is very exciting.”

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