Hollywood movies, the bête noire of conservative Muslim culture, are an unusual investment for Middle Eastern oil magnates. But the United Arab Emirates, the fourth-largest energy producer in the world, has committed $1 billion to bankroll films, some of which conveniently advance its economic interests.
The government of the UAE established a company called Abu Dhabi Image Nation in 2008 to invest in American movies and develop filmmaking at home. The company has partnered with major studios to fund a number of commercially successful films, including Participant Media’s The Help and Contagion.
Image Nation is now venturing into more politically tendentious work, teaming up with Participant Media and Summit Entertainment on Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hour. Based on a New York Times article reconstructing the horrific 2010 oil-rig explosion and workers’ heroic efforts to contain the spill, the film will provide a graphic reminder of the dangers of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
And Image Nation is backing Matt Damon’s upcoming Promised Land, set for release in December, about a hydraulic fracking company buying up natural-gas drilling rights in a hard-hit Iowa town.
Participant is committed to making films with a social or political messages. It produced Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The studio, headed by eBay-CEO-turned-philanthropist Jeff Skolar, even has a digital division, TakePart, which spins its films into grassroots citizen-action campaigns on the Internet. These campaigns often relate to natural resources and energy policy, and they enable movie fans to click off letters to their congressmen or governors.
The politics of these filmmakers are no secret, but the source of some of the funding may be surprising. Image Nation is owned by a government that stands to benefit by ensuring that the United States remains dependent on Middle Eastern oil for decades.
Is this a new form of foreign lobbying? Unlike American companies, foreign entities are generally required to disclose to the Justice Department not only lobbying but also efforts to influence public opinion in the United States.
The Justice Department’s national-security division, which administers the Foreign Agent Registration Act, faces a host of new challenges in keeping up with public-relations campaigns given the proliferation of social media and television programming, some of it news, sponsored by foreign entities.
TakePart’s website already has begun promoting Promised Land and the social campaign to come.
Bill Allison, editorial director of the watchdog Sunlight Foundation, said that if a movie is funded by a foreign country “with a particular point of view on hydraulic fracking—and it either directly or indirectly is trying to influence public opinion,” that constitutes foreign lobbying that must be disclosed to the Justice Department.
Grassroots campaign firms are continually finding new ways to recruit paying clients and engage public participation. TakePart, for example, just this month launched a new channel on YouTube aimed at the so-called millennial generation. It features a mix of programming and celebrities such as Dan Savage and Kobe Bryant who, TakePart promises, “will shine a light on current topics as diverse as the elections, the environment, sexism or homelessness.”
Unlike conventional lobbyists, grassroots campaign firms have no obligation to disclose who is paying them. But if they are receiving funds from a foreign entity, that could trigger FARA reporting. “If foreign governments are using them, that’s maybe a problem,” said Allison.
FARA does have a public-relations exemption for artistic endeavors. Message-heavy Hollywood films arguably may fall into a gray area there, though not “citizen action” social-media campaigns, said Allison.
Image Nation and Participant have agreed to partner on fifteen films, nine of which have already been made. Image Nation also has agreements with National Geographic Films, Summit Entertainment and Hyde Park Entertainment.
By its own account, Image Nation is looking for more than commercial success. In announcing the planned production of Deepwater Horizon, CEO Mark Garin said:
Our partnership with Participant Media, and by extension Summit, continues to generate movies which raise awareness of issues and inspire social change. This powerful account truly represents the ideal aims of storytelling, where the search for the truth uncovers everyday heroism in the face of adversity, and so is destined to be an important film appealing to international audiences all over the world.
If past is prologue, Promised Land fans can expect to be invited to join an online campaign to lobby Congress or sign a fiery letter to New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who is now considering how fracking should be regulated in his state.
Matt Damon, of course, ardently opposes fracking, and TakePart has already generated Internet letters opposing it, along with oil-sands drilling and government programs to produce corn ethanol in a campaign tied to the movie Food, Inc.
The TakePart website links viewers to nonprofits and environmental groups that lobby and take political stands on aspects of the Farm Bill and other food and energy issues. One of those groups, Food and Water Watch, for example, raised $9.5 million in 2010, its latest public tax records show, and uses it to produce advertising and reports intended to galvanize additional grassroots lobbying. Like many foundations and nonprofits, it does not disclose all its donors.
Oil royals have been investing in media outlets in the West and their own countries, where they have control over content. Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal is amassing a news and entertainment media empire based in Bahrain, holds major stakes in Twitter and News Corporation, and is teaming up with Bloomberg on a twenty-four-hour television news operation for the Arab world.
But funding Hollywood movies? The Emiratis are more Westernized than most foreign investors. They seem to know the value of public opinion in this country—and maybe the best way to buy it.
Susan Schmidt is a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former longtime reporter for the Washington Post.