Abu Dhabi 's inaugural Middle East International Film Festival (MEIFF) got off to an extravagant start on Sunday evening with a ceremony that included an Academy Awards-style opening number choreographed by Broadway veteran Otis Sallid. A lavish party at the opulent festival centre, Emirates Palace, followed the screening of opening film Atonement, which met with modest applause from the 1,000-strong, mainly local audience.

Glitches with over-ticketing meant that proceedings began over an hour late, but otherwise this fledging festival appears determined to find its niche on the international stage, with Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan confidently welcoming guests to the 'cultural capital of the Middle East '.

The 'talent' at MEIFF are industry executives attending the accompanying Film Finance Circle (FFC), which kicked off Monday morning with a keynote speech from Harvey Weinstein. Sessions on film finance and co-productions included Relativity Media's Ryan Kavanaugh, Eden Rock's Thomas Augsberger, Foresight's Mark Damon and Summit Entertainment's Robert Hayward, among others.

Delegates expressed disappointment that few regional investors were in attendance, although conference director Adrienne Briggs told ScreenDaily.com that international executives were in talks with local government and private investors on the sidelines of the festival.

Mark Damon told ScreenDaily.com that he had just signed a letter of intent with Steven Saxton of Dubai-based Hollywood Studios International to develop an umbrella company that 'matches talent with production and sales'. They are in talks with potential investor Prince Faisal bin Sultan bin Mohammed Al Saud of Saudi Arabia.

Given the festival's focus on the business of filmmaking, much of its reputation rides on its ability to facilitate further deals between producers and local financiers.

Festival director Jon Fitzgerald and FFC director Adrienne Briggs previously worked together at the American Film Institute (AFI), and together with executive director Nashwa Al Ruwaini, have managed to draw some high-calibre Hollywood players to Abu Dhabi.

Many are in town out of curiosity, tempted by news of Abu Dhabi 's recent co-finance and theme park deal with Warner Bros and its plans to build branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim. 'Any town that has Frank Gehry and Robert Stern as its architects is A-OK with me,' said Weinstein.

Executives had spent the past two days exploring locations in the emirate and attending brainstorming sessions aimed at developing ideas for the Abu Dhabi Film Fund (ADFF).

'We have a commitment to our local filmmakers and will be giving out direct grants to them,' Abed Awad, president of the Abu Dhabi Film Fund told ScreenDaily.com. 'We're also looking into a number of options regarding incentives for foreign shoots, taking the advice of our visitors into account. This is likely to include rebates for international productions as well as direct investment - decided on a case by case basis.'

Harvey Weinstein called on local filmmakers to make locally relevant yet exportable cinema, namechecking Emirati film-maker Fadel Al Muhairi's A Corsair's Tale, one of six projects included in the festival's pitching programme, the InCircle Pearl. Describing 2004 production Bride and Prejudice - distributed by Miramax in the US -- as 'an attempt to Americanise Bollywood which didn't work', Weinstein speculated that the UAE could be the place to 'take Bollywood and make it international'.

The line-up of films at the festival includes an emphasis on the Iraq war as seen through Hollywood, with Special Presentations including Redacted, Rendition, Grace is Gone and closing film In the Valley of the Elah, presented by director Paul Haggis.