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I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business.
Last week, the Tribeca Film Festival announced a new Tribeca-branded festival in the Arabian Gulf emirate of Qatar.
The idea of transplanting such a quintessentially New York film event into the desert seems a bit odd, especially considering that it was founded by that quintessential New Yorker, Robert De Niro. But the idea somehow seems to complete the circle in some weird way when you consider that De Niro created the original festival to bring business back downtown after the attacks of September 11.
But it makes even more sense if you consider what's happening with Qatar's next door neighbor, the United Arab Emirates. Two lavish film festivals have sprung up in the UAE in the last few years as part of their cultural development plan – which also includes buying up existing brand name art and culture. Yes, I attended the Sorbonne – the Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi.
Of course, the UAE also has its eyes on entertainment business. Dubai, one of the seven emirates, has built an impressive production facility for TV and feature film. Another emirate, Abu Dhabi, has invested billions in American film production and distribution and other projects with Hollywood studios.
The sheiks certainly see the business as a business, and expect a financial return on their investments. Dubai, in particular, is running out of oil, and they need to diversify their economy.
But what both are primarily interested in with their investments and culture and entertainment is stepping onto the world stage in a big, big way.
Now, this isn't the first time someone's come to Hollywood with piles of money and the sincere desire to be fleeced. In each case, the town has been only too happy to oblige, no questions asked. And these days, with credit drying up like that on your balcony, outside money is that much more appealing. But this is the first time that the investor is not a person, or a company, but the government of a country. And this is the first time image enhancement is as much a motivation as financial gain. Well, la is the plastic surgery capital of the world.
The question is, should we care what these investors are getting for their money? For instance, UAE censors reportedly cut two minutes from George Clooney's 2006 oil drama, Syriana. Then earlier this year, Abu Dhabi's government invested $250 million in Participant Productions, the progressive film company that made Syriana.
On one hand, you could say that show's Abu Dhabi's increasing openness. On the other hand, you could say $250 million is a cheap price for a very rich country to get the world to think exactly that. For another example, this year Abu Dhabi's Film Festival included a film about the Holocaust. But that was an Austrian film; it is unlikely that you will ever see an Israeli film in either UAE festival.
Ultimately, these are academic questions. The bottom line for the business will be how much money flows from the east and what strings come attached. If the emirates are willing to fund movies they'd never show in their borders, if they're willing for their studios to be used to make movies they would deem offensive, if they don't mind a lot of Jews roaming around the Emirates Palace Hotel, I say right on.
On the cultural front, I do believe in a course of positive engagement. As Robert De Niro said of the Tribeca Film Festival in Qatar, "By learning each other's stories, we can see how much we share in common as well as explore and better understand our differences."
I'd love to know what you think. Send me an e-mail at TheBusiness@kcrw.org. You can download a podcast of this commentary, share it with a friend, or embed it on your blog with the click of a button from our new media player at kcrw.com/TheBusinessBrief. For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman.