Geographic Teams With Abu Dhabi To Make Movies

On National Geographic's agenda: More Imax films like its successful
On National Geographic's agenda: More Imax films like its successful "Sea Monsters." (2007 Nght)
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By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 11, 2008

National Geographic is entering a $100 million partnership with a media company owned by a Middle Eastern government. The deal is designed to at least double National Geographic's output of films for theatrical release.

The arrangement with Abu Dhabi Media is intended to fuel a revolving fund that would produce half a billion dollars' worth of films over the next five years. While this would hardly put National Geographic in the league of major Hollywood studios, it could make the society a significant indie producer of two or three films a year.

The impact on the economy of the District, where National Geographic is based, will probably not be large, says Tim T. Kelly, president of its global media division. Rather than spend a lot of money expanding headquarters staff, the plan is to "put money on the screen," funneling funds to filmmakers based all over the world, he says.

Reached yesterday at the opening of the Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi, where he reports the weather is comparable to Washington in July, Kelly says, "The objective for us and them is to tell great stories with substance -- stories that also entertain. You can make movies about superheroes, or movies about real life. We tend to be focused on the latter."

What Abu Dhabi Media sees in the deal, says Edward Borgerding, its CEO, is that National Geographic "is a global brand, admired and respected. It's a perfect partner for us. Kids like it, parents like it, grandparents like it. It's a hugely valuable asset. It cuts across all those demographics, is famous around the world, makes great movies, produces high-quality, respected content. It has a lot of the same values that Abu Dhabi has -- respect for the environment, and for other cultures."

The plan is to make movies for theatrical release, not television, Kelly says. He expects the 15 or so movies to be produced in the next five years to be a mix of documentary features, comparable to "March of the Penguins"; fact-based dramas, comparable to the upcoming television series based on "Undaunted Courage," the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition; and films for Imax-like giant screens, such as "Sea Monsters," which has grossed close to $30 million.

"Right now we're lucky to get one or two movies made a year, some years not any," Kelly says. "This will give us more range, and higher-priced projects. 'Sea Monsters' was about $12 million, and that was a big risk for us. With this fund, we'll be able to participate in films with budgets maybe $25 [million] to $30 million. We're an indie film company with a nice brand, and now some nice funding."

The National Geographic deal is not the first or the largest hookup between an American film company and foreign money. Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks recently agreed to a $1.5 billion joint venture with one of India's biggest entertainment conglomerates -- Reliance ADA Group.

Abu Dhabi is the oil-rich capital of the United Arab Emirates with grand ambitions to catch up with its neighbor Dubai in the competition for spectacular trophy high-rises, tourism and the fruits of global finance.

Abu Dhabi Media includes television and radio networks, newspapers, magazines and other properties, mostly in Arabic, according to Borgerding, who is an American. It employs 1,800, and its gross revenue exceeds $1 billion a year, he says. It is not publicly traded. He compares it to the BBC, in that "it is ultimately owned by the government of Abu Dhabi." But it is "a for-profit company. We sell ads."

At this point the conversation is interrupted because Borgerding has just caught sight of Meg Ryan at the opening festivities of the Middle East International Film Festival.

Abu Dhabi's creative contribution, according to Kelly, is that "they are going to be involved in the greenlighting of films." But he expects National Geographic to retain "editorial control of its movies, and ultimately what we decide to produce."

Kelly does not expect National Geographic's partnership with Arab interests to be a conflict for the society's Jewish supporters. "No, not at all. I don't think so," he says.

Kelly does not believe the market turmoil of recent weeks will have any direct impact on the deal. "I'm here with all the principals. They all seem very calm and comfortable. Frankly, our deal is not a huge deal for these guys. Our money and theirs is already set aside. We don't anticipate a problem," he says, laughing. "Although in this world today, you never know. It's a very weird world we're living in right now."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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