For years, the Gulf’s film industry has underperformed its counterparts in the rest of the region. Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iran all have a long and successful movie-making heritage. This may be a concern for film buffs, but it’s also affecting the Gulf’s bottom line as well.
A recent report from Oliver Wyman, commissioned by the Dubai Film and TV Commission (DFTC) report found that there is certainly a lot of room for improvement in this part of the world: between 2005 and 2010, the Middle East accounted for just 0.72 percent of the films produced globally. In terms of dollar values, Arabic film and TV production represents just 0.03 percent of GDP in the Middle East and North Africa. The DFTC report says a ‘typical’ country’s revenues from its media industry equates to 1.2-1.4 percent of total GDP.
In Saudi Arabia, where cinemas are banned, the job is — naturally — going to be tough. Abdullah Al Eyaf’s 2006 documentary Cinema 500km neatly encapsulated the problems that the country’s budding filmmakers have. The film follows Tareq Al Hussein, a 21-year-old Saudi movie buff, who secures himself a passport and travels across the kingdom to Bahrain, where he is able to watch his first film in a cinema. “If you factor in the cost of the trip to Bahrain, Saudis pay close to 250 riyals ($67) per film. It’s the most expensive ticket in the world,” Al Eyaf said in an interview at the time.
Still, that hasn’t stopped the likes of Haifa Al Mansour, the director of Wadjda, the first full feature film to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. But the fact that the film’s funding was sourced from outside the kingdom means until Saudi Arabia’s conservative stance towards the industry is relaxed, any further movies are expected to be few and far between.
In the rest of the Gulf, film production remains limited. Kuwait produced what is believed to be the first film made in the region — Khalid Al Siddiq’s The Cruel Sea — in 1972, but little has emerged since. Bahrain’s Bassam Al Thawadi produced The Barrier in 1990, and the baton has more recently been taken up by Mohammed Rashed Bu Ali, whose latest film, The Sleeping Tree, is expected to be released this year. Qatar’s Doha Film Institute has been trying to galvanise the local film-making industry, although recent reports that the agency has laid off a third of its staff, as well as the cancellation of a new film festival, suggest that all is not entirely going to plan.
That leaves the UAE, which has played host to big-name productions in the past; Mission Impossible 4 showcased the Burj Khalifa to a worldwide audience in 2011, and the seventh installment of The Fast and the Furious franchise will be shot in Abu Dhabi in April. It has also seen a smattering of home-grown filmmaking talent, such as Ali Mostafa, Nayla Al Khaja and Abdulla Khalifa Al Kaabi. The plan is to encourage more movie producers to come and shoot in the UAE through a rebate being offered by Abu Dhabi’s twofour54. The rebate will ensure that a production company will get back 30 percent of the cash they’ve spent on making the film in the country.
But the key to making a success of the industry here in the GCC lies with local talent. The facilities here in the UAE may be great, but there are still not enough support staff available. If producers need to fly in their own staff to complete the film, then the value of that 30 percent rebate is quickly wiped out. While twofour54 is in the process of training that talent, it will still take some time for the Gulf’s Hollywood dreams to become a reality.
Ed Attwood, Group Editor of Arabian Business.