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Image Nation CEO Michael Garin on Abu Dhabi’s $300 Million Fund With China as a Hollywood Conduit (EXCLUSIVE)

Variety logo Variety 12/7/2016 Nick Vivarelli
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Image Nation Abu Dhabi and China’s government-backed Intercontinental Communication Center (CICC) announced a partnership in mid-November to set up a $300 million fund to jointly invest in movies and TV content produced in Hollywood, the United Arab Emirates, China and other countries. Garin spoke to Variety about how the deal could create a new type of bridge between China and Hollywood as well as with the Arab world. Excerpts:

How did the deal germinate?

Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Abu Dhabi, went to China in December of last year and signed a $10 billion agreement for co-investment in the Chinese economy. In January, Image Nation Chairman Mohamed Al Mubarak — who has several other hats — and myself went to China to follow up. We met with virtually every [entertainment industry] company, both private and governmental organizations. We realized very quickly that CICC was really, on a grander scale, the Image Nation of China, and a perfect partner for us. One of the attractions is the fact that, being governmental, it sits above all of the enterprises that Hollywood studios and other entities have been dealing with. That leaves us in a position to be able to deal with everybody in China, just as we are in a position to deal with everybody in Hollywood.

So Image Nation can become a new conduit between Hollywood and China?

We basically can serve as a bridge, bringing China into Hollywood and vice versa. Not as a substitute for what [Chinese] companies are already doing, but as a complement. There is now a second route for Hollywood into China, by heading East through Abu Dhabi. We bring two things to the party. One is obviously capital, but probably more important is knowledge and relationships. Despite all the deals we are seeing, this is an area where everybody is kind of learning as they are going. We can serve as a very effective intermediary, because we are not in competition with anybody. That’s a rare and enviable position to be in. Besides the fact that there is such a high-level collaboration at the state level between Abu Dhabi and China, the other reason this was done so quickly is it’s one of those unusual deals where either we both win or we both lose in exactly the same way.

Can you tell me a bit more about CICC?

They are part of the [Chinese] government, as opposed to, say, Wanda or Tencent or Alibaba. That’s the major difference. CICC funds the operations of other organizations; they are part of the state office of information and the ministry of culture that approves all licenses. They are above all the companies that are currently making news with Hollywood deals.

Can you tell more about the economics of the seven-year fund? I see it’s currently $100 million and the idea is for it to go up to $300 million.

The Chinese will bring in the other 200 million. China is a very organized society; they know where the rest will be coming from. We have a strong expectation it will be there shortly.

So the idea behind the fund is to produce content together for the Chinese market?

Yes, exactly, we are already working on that. People are quickly realizing that except for U.S.-based blockbusters it’s very hard to make films that everyone around the world wants to see. One of the things we’ve learned in television is that local production triumphs over Hollywood production. With few exceptions, nowadays there are very few U.S. television series that run on the main television networks [around the world] anymore. The few efforts that have been made to add Chinese elements to what are essentially Hollywood projects haven’t really been all that successful. One of the challenges is to find projects, like “Fast & Furious” or “Star Wars” [both partly shot in Abu Dhabi], that are location-based rather than character-based. That’s something that we have already demonstrated a knowledge to facilitate.

So you want to make global tentpole movies with the Chinese?

We are actually working on a really interesting idea. Hollywood focuses on blockbusters because they need that to move the dial, but we are also working on smaller [collaborative] projects because that’s what Image Nation does in Abu Dhabi. We are actively working on a project where we have a single movie that would be adapted for local production in different areas. We would basically make a Chinese version, an Arabic version, and an English-language international version. Then there are  projects where the Chinese can participate in U.S. production.

Is there already an Emirati-Chinese movie in the works?

Yes. We had a project that we’ve been working on with a leading U.S. producer that we were going to do in English and in Arabic. Now we are talking about also doing a Chinese version.

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