Jon Fitzgerald's career has taken him from Park City to Santa Barbara via the Bahamas and Florida - and now to the Gulf, where he has been appointed director of Abu Dhabi's inaugural Middle East International Film Festival (Meiff).

Invited by the Abu Dhabi Film Commission's Abed Awad, Fitzgerald was initially attracted by the government's strong level of support (festival insiders say the budget is around $8m). "They're ramping up the arts in a way never seen before - look at the museum developments," Fitzgerald says, referring to the emirate's planned branches of the Guggenheim and the Louvre.

Fitzgerald also cites the festival's commitment to emerging talent - the Black Pearl awards for features, documentaries and shorts include production grants for winning directors. "When I was at Slamdance (as co-founder and executive director), we showed Marc Forster's first film Loungers and launched the Russo brothers (Joe and Anthony). In Abu Dhabi, I thought, 'What can we do to give exposure and make a difference''"

Fitzgerald's production company Right Angle Pictures, to be launched at the AFM in November, also focuses on emerging directors. Its slate of "socially relevant films" includes DNA, written by Ron Vignone, and global warming thriller The Last Gasp based on a novel by Trevor Hoyle. At Slamdance in 1997, Fitzgerald introduced the Russos to Steven Soderbergh who then produced their first feature, Welcome To Collinwood. Along with financier Craig Hagelin, Soderbergh is now an investor in Right Angle Pictures.

Fitzgerald moved on from Slamdance to become director of festivals at the American Film Institute and in 2002 took over the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. He then went into consultancy, in 2003 launching Right Angle Studios which specialises in developing 'blueprints' for new events - clients have included the Bahamas International Film Festival and Florida's Gasparilla.

Nevertheless, Fitzgerald's new task is certainly a challenge: hurriedly put together, Meiff is scheduled for October 12-17 (during the Eid religious holiday, comparable to the West's Christmas break), and coincides with a crowded autumn Arab festival calendar. And while the emirate's film-making culture is embryonic, the city also lacks the mass tourism and international profile of neighbouring Dubai.

Fitzgerald emphasises the importance of the festival's film finance summit, described by Meiff executive director Nashwa Al Ruwaini, a popular local TV producer and host, as "(potentially) the Davos of the film industry". Run by Adrienne Briggs, who worked with Fitzgerald at the AFI, the forum aims to bring together international industry players with regional talent and financiers.

"It's a great opportunity to go to people we know and invite them to bring their ideas to this region. We're confident Abu Dhabi will become a significant annual stop for key players."


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