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Sun 19 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

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Abu Dhabi hits the headlines

While media companies cut jobs globally, the UAE capital is welcoming media companies with open arms.

The Abu Dhabi Media Zone is just the latest in a line of projects designed to position the emirate as the beating cultural heart of the Gulf. While elsewhere around the world media companies are cutting jobs, the UAE capital is welcoming media companies with open arms.

It has lured in the louvre and convinced superstar architect Jean Nouvel to ink the designs for the dome at the heart of its Cultural District.

The Frank Gehry Guggenheim, the foundation's biggest anywhere in the world, is under construction. A Ferrari World theme park is roaring towards the chequered flag, and somewhere a team of Warner Brothers creatives is preparing to unleash an array of Gulf-oriented video games.

We’re aiming for quality rather than necessarily size, and we hope that will be what attracts people to Abu Dhabi.

UAE capital Abu Dhabi is positioning itself not just as a regional but as an international cultural hub, and last week it took a major step towards the realisation of that goal with the unveiling of Abu Dhabi Media Zone (ADMZ).

The zone, also known as twofour54, will host international media giants including CNN, publishers HarperCollins and Random House, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), The Financial Times and the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

While the current global economic downturn has prompted many Western media corporations to lay off staff, Abu Dhabi is actively encouraging companies to set up shop in the Gulf, boasting a series of incentives for interested parties.

"You have to look at the essence of what their business is. They're all mainly based on advertising revenue, which is at best flat in the Western world. Now, it's probably not even flat, but at a year on year decline," notes Tony Orsten, CEO of ADMZ.

The UAE is still one of the safest growing countries in terms of GDP and ad revenue. It's an attractive place for people to come and bring their businesses, expertise and invest here."

The zone is essentially a content creation project, part of the cultural initiative that the Government of Abu Dhabi is setting up, according to Orsten.

"Abu Dhabi needs to be able to have a really mature creation, publishing, broadcasting and digital business," he says. "We'll start now and eventually be mature enough in a few years time so that when Abu Dhabi becomes the city that it will become there is an industry here."

Orsten hopes to build enough creative infrastructures in the media zone over the next five years in order to employ a substantial number of people to generate the creative business.

Otherwise you will just have a few people walking around. It's just like the UK in the early 90s when the independent production business started properly, but you need to have a creative hub," he says. "People need to believe that they go there not because it's cheap but because that's where all the creative people hang out. That's what we needed to create, but it takes time."

So far ADMZ has managed to attract a number of prominent media companies from around the world.

Rotana Studios has joined the zone as a partner and Orsten says Arab media companies around the region have also approached him. Further announcements are expected over the coming weeks.

American news organisation CNN Worldwide has decided to make a "pretty sizeable" investment in its Abu Dhabi operations, to be based in the upcoming media zone.

The company plans to start broadcasting live daily news programmes from its facility in Abu Dhabi, and the development will host CNN's new broadcast and production centre, opening in early 2009.

This will be CNN's fourth international broadcast centre, alongside existing facilities in London, Hong Kong and Mexico City; and US production centres in Atlanta, Washington DC, New York and Los Angeles.

"We wanted a fourth broadcast centre outside the US, and regionally this was the area where we already have a number of bureaus, reporting and considerable audiences," says Tony Maddox, managing director of CNN International.

"The UAE has a number of possibilities for us because it's got a number of infrastructure links, it's easy for us to get in and get out, our people here can move around freely and the ADMZ seems to offer all the facilities that we need."

In addition to a daily local-primetime newscast, the new production centre in Abu Dhabi will provide the infrastructure for expanded news gathering activities in the region. As such, CNN's Abu Dhabi operation complements its ongoing presence in Dubai."The show that we are doing in Abu Dhabi will go across the whole of CNN around the world and will be a good opportunity to showcase that material," says Maddox, adding that the offices are currently being built and should be ready by the second quarter of 2009.

The entire zone is divided into two parts, the first near Khalifa Park, nearing completion, and the main cluster will be located in the Mina Zayed Waterfront. "Plans will be approved by the end of this year and will go into production some time next year," says Orsten.

Maddox is convinced that CNN's venture into the capital is bound to attract further global media companies to the venue.

"My experience is that when CNN does something quite a few other people tend to follow," he says. "I think a lot of people will sit back and see what happens now. As and when we are successful I think a lot of people will see it as something that they should do as well."

Orsten says ADMZ has been seeking out the right partners who will help achieve its objectives. The zone will offer training in all types of media whether journalism, broadcast, music, film, or production. People who conclude their training will then be directed to find employment in the zone.

"We wanted partners who would believe, as we do, that there needs to be an Arab groundswell of creative talent here. Eventually, these media companies will take in the people that come out of the training courses," says Orsten.

Publishers HarperCollins and Random House have also made a careful decision to enter the market.

"They truly believe that there is an opportunity to attract new authors to write books about the Arab world in Arabic and publish those books around the world.

That is a viable business and that's why they want to come here and do it," says Orsten. "The reading habits in the Arab world are nowhere as nearly developed as in the Western world and that's where we think there's a growth opportunity here.

But the big question is whether giant media companies joining the zone forsee any restrictions on content, especially with a large number being US and British corporations, used to the relative freedom of the press back home. Maddox of CNN believes there are no such obstacles ahead.

"The authorities have been totally cooperative and we have experienced no difficulties in trying to conduct ourselves editorially in the region," he says.

Orsten believes the restrictions are "quite clear", and says that the 1980 Media Law is currently under review. Orsten and his team are working closely with the National Media Council in Abu Dhabi "to try and make this media law as transparent and logical as humanly possible", he adds.

The zone will have its own regulations, which will mirror those outside it, but will be of a "very high standard to make people comfortable about what they do and say in this part of the world", according to Orsten.

Based at the heart of the zone will be the Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADMC), the largest and most diversified media corporation in the Arab world.

The company has already partnered with Warner Brothers in a $1bn deal to develop a series of movies and video games in the Gulf. And last week, ‘imagenation abu dhabi', a subsidiary of ADMC, inked a deal with National Geographic Entertainment to dedicate $100m to the production of 10 to 15 films over the next five years.

Imagenation was launched last month to develop, finance and produce content for global and Arabic language markets. The company plans to spend more than $1bn throughout the next five years to create full length feature films and digital content.

The company aims to attract international production companies to the Arab region and make award-winning films that are also commercially successful and with global appeal. ADMC, as a whole, will be moving to ADMZ once it is completed.

"We're looking to produce in the range of eight films a year," says Edward Borgerding, CEO of imagenation.

Imagenation has three basic structural elements, says Borgerding. One is film-related with two joint ventures formed and a third to be announced soon.

The company has partnered through a $250m joint venture with Participant Media, which was founded by Jeff Skoll and known for its award-winning movies.Among its past productions are films including Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck, and documentaries including An Inconvenient Truth and Fast Food Nation.

What's interesting about Participant is that when they make their movies Jeff [Skoll] also spends a lot of dollars from his own money to create materials for schools and NGOs around the US and the world," says Borgerding. "The issues raised by his movies are then discussed in schools so there's a learning element to it."

He claims he is not worried about government censorship either, especially when it comes to producing movies that will have international appeal.

"We are very comfortable with telling the story that we want to tell and that Participant is a good partner for us, a very professional and respected company in Hollywood," he says.

All imagenation's joint ventures are 50-50, according to Borgerding. The company will make its first announcement on films "greenlit for production" in the first quarter of 2009. Borgerding hopes not only to make back the companies' investments, but also record solid revenues. He seems convinced the movies will be successful with people rushing to buy tickets.

"Our relationships and businesses are designed to produce content for global distribution," he says. "We will be working within the region with Arab filmmakers, writers, directors and producers to produce content in Arabic and possibly in English so that we can cross over into the global market. But we are much more focused on working with Arab talent."

Having "very strong relationships with the Hollywood community" is definitely a plus for imagenation, which is constantly in talks to evaluate new project opportunities.

"I think imagenation is an important entry point into Hollywood for us and that bridge creates a return path for filmmakers and media people to come and talk to at least our company here in Abu Dhabi," says Borgerding.

According to Borgerding, ADMC is also looking into digital media. "The world is going digital and we want to get experience in producing content that is consumed in the new digital media.

This is what companies need to focus on now, he insists. The future will see many changes related to digital content including new digital distribution methodologies that are "changing the economic models and consumption patterns of consumers".

"ADMC will always be looking at new future challenges to exploit media," he suggests. "We will continue to invest in content and try to participate in the new distribution platforms that are being created in the digital world and otherwise."

And the media zone could be the place to do just that, especially with the wide range of media it intends to host. The music industry holds a whole new wealth of potential in this part of the world, according to Orsten, who believes it is currently "gaining ground".

"There is some very interesting music, locally and from around the region, which hasn't been creatively exploited yet. We want to be able to offer that to our customers to work on in many different ways," he says.

He adds that the company is in talks with parties interested in developing music on the internet "from the Arab perspective, rather than just iTunes".

"We also have a number of big international companies who want to get involved in performance here and we have a local company called Flash, a partner, who creates events around the region for the promotion of music," he reveals.

For all the optimism, Orsten admits that the success of ADMZ will depend on the talent it manages to attract through its doors.

"Our intention is to make it based on excellence - in journalism based on accuracy, in production facilities based on the highest quality we can provide, and in training on the best trainers that are available anywhere in the world," he says. "We're aiming for quality rather than necessarily size, and we hope that will be what attracts people to Abu Dhabi."