EXCLUSIVE: When Mohamed Al Mubarak took over as chairman of Image Nation Abu Dhabi five years ago, the company was at a crossroads. Splashy deals with the likes of Participant ($250 million), Ashok Amritraj’s Hyde Park International ($250 million), National Geographic Films ($100 million) and Parkes/Macdonald ($10 million) had reaped mixed rewards, both commercially and creatively. There seemed a real danger that the company’s initial promise — it had been launched with much fanfare only two years earlier as a $1 billion company — had been frittered away through questionable decisions and mismanagement.
Half a decade later, however, a period where the company deliberately kept its head down, streamlined and re-dedicated itself to core values, Image Nation is enjoying its most high-profile Cannes in years with two new projects — The Circle starring Tom Hanks and Alicia Vikander and Arabic-language sci-fi The Worthy — that sum up its reinvigorated ambition. And much more is set to come, with strategic expansions into TV as well as is continued growth in local and English-language film in the offing. Stuart Ford’s IM Global is selling The Circle, which is proving one of the hottest titles at Cannes.
A lot of the credit for how it got its groove back can be laid at the feet of its youthful chairman.
“When I joined Image Nation, I told everyone my priority was to establish the building blocks to a film industry here,” Al Mubarak tells Deadline. “I’ve spent 30 years of my life watching films and TV. I love every genre, even anime. This is my passion. I had been used to coming in and turning around companies, re-organizing them, but this is a tough business. People sometimes forget there are two sides to show business. You need to deliver on both parts: the show and the business. You also need to entertain.”
His colleague are effusive in their praise. Image Nation chief exec Michael Garin, who has formed a formidable team with Al Mubarak to get the company back on track, is clear about his qualities. “I would compare Mohamed with the best executives in our industry, not the best execs in our region,” says Garin. “I have worked with some of the best leaders in our industry. Starting with Steve Ross who built Warners Communications. Les Moonves used to work for me. Jeff Bewkes and I go back 30 years. I’ve known Bob Iger since the ABC days and I would really compare Mohamed’s talents with each of them. We so rarely have people from our region who transcend the skills and talents that make it an easy comparison.”
The approach to making The Worthy is informative. Teaming Emirati filmmaker Ali Mostafa with genre vets Peter Safran (The Conjuring) and Steve Schneider (Paranormal Activity) for a local-language project underlines the extent to which the company is taking an integrated approach. Al Mubarak, together with Garin, have steadily turned the company into a genuine local, regional and international force, making a sustained effort to support local and regional filmmakers such as Emirati directors Mostafa with From A To B and Majid Al Ansari with Zinzana. Image Nation is also making a concerted push into Arabic-language TV production — a huge growth area — that could become a major revenue generator and job creator for the company in the years to come.
A graduate of Northeastern University, with a double major in economics and political science, Al Mubarak’s career had largely focused on finance and real estate at giant developer Al Dar, where he is now chief exec, prior to joining Image Nation. A prominent local figure — he also sits on the board of the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, and his brother Khaldoon is an executive member of Abu Dhabi’s Executive Council, chief exec of investment arm Mubadala and right-hand man to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Al Nahyan.
A self-confessed film fanatic, Al Mubarak has prioritized education and training as key to Abu Dhabi’s long-term viability as a film and TV hub. Sometimes, that means dampening down individual ambitions in the oil-rich emirate. “When I first started here, everyone I met wanted to be a filmmaker,” says Al Mubarak. “We had to explain to people that there were many other roles they could learn. So we launched Arab Film Studio for our local youth to train. It was not easy to initiate this process of re-education.”
Image Nation’s resurgence comes after something of a banner year across the board for Abu Dhabi from both an inward investment and production point of view. Abu Dhabi execs scored two major coups by attracting both Furious 7 and Star Wars: The Force Awakens to shoot in the desert-set metropolis.
Even though the partnerships with Participant and National Geographic have long since expired formally, Hyde Park and Parkes/Macdonald are still very much on-board. The next international film for release is 99 Homes, which emanated out of the long term production partnership with Hyde Park.
Image Nation execs seem to have worked out a formula that gives them the best of both worlds. Participant co-financed the feature-length documentary He Named Me Malala, about Malala Yousafzai, the youngest-ever Nobel Prize winner. Oscar-winner Davis Guggenheim directed the film, which looks at the events leading up to the Taliban’s cowardly attack on the courageous young Pakistani school girl on a bus, after she spoke out for the education of young girls. Then 15, she was shot three times, point blank, and left for dead. She miraculously survived; the film traces her recovery that led to a stirring speech at the United Nations. Fox Searchlight is releasing worldwide in the fall.
That project was brought to Image Nation by Parkes/Macdonald, which remains a strategic one for the company. The Circle also made its way into the Image Nation stable through Parkes/Macdonald. Nabbing an in-demand project on the eve of Cannes has helped the company make a significant statement that it is looking forward to playing in the big leagues.
“We want to broaden our horizons,” says Al Mubarak. “There are a lot of exciting projects out there that we want to do. The Circle is the first we have announced like this but it will not be the last.”