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Fri 21 Mar 2014 10:42 AM

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Bringing Hollywood to the desert

The seventh instalment of Fast and Furious — one of the biggest film franchises in Hollywood — is set to start production in the UAE in April. Local film authorities hope it will finally put the UAE on the movie map but what are the challenges to making this ambition a reality?

Bringing Hollywood to the desert

A red Porsche sports car speeds down a California street known to be popular for drifting cars. Driven at around 160kmh and with a former professional racer at the wheel, it eventually loses control, crashes into a concrete pole and bursts in flames.

While the scene was caught on film and the passenger in the car was actor Paul Walker, famous as the Hollywood star of the high-adrenalin, billion-dollar Fast and Furious film franchise, this was no film set.

A few hours later, Noura Al Kaabi, chief executive of twofour54, Abu Dhabi’s film and media production free zone, takes a call telling her that plans to shoot Fast and Furious 7 in the UAE may have to be put on hold as one of the franchise’s biggest stars has been killed in a tragic motor accident.

“It was a shock,” Al Kaabi recalls when we meet up a few weeks after the incident. “I received the news early in the morning at the time when Paul passed away. Even when they were shooting in the United States and when they came to look at sites here we were already part of the scene. Now, we just wait.”

The waiting is now over and, after much speculation and initial confusion, the Abu Dhabi Film Commission (ADFC) and Universal Pictures this month confirmed that filming for Fast and Furious 7 will still take place in the UAE and will start next month.

The emirate was already an intricate part of the shoot as crew had travelled to the country in November 2013, when a visual effects team captured helicopter shots, stunt footage and a variety of visual effects scenes at some of Abu Dhabi’s most iconic landmarks.

In April, actor/producer Vin Diesel, as well as actors Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, will join the crew in the UAE, with twofour54 serving as production partner.

“We look forward to welcoming the stars and crew. This is a great opportunity to not only generate international exposure for Abu Dhabi, but to also provide young Emiratis with work experience, which could help them to become the region’s future filmmakers,” Al Kaabi says, her mood a little lighter after the initial cloud which hung over the production.

For the producers sat in Los Angeles at Universal Pictures, one of the main attractions of Abu Dhabi is, of course, the 30 percent financial incentive the emirate is now offering to help draw more big-name producers to the country.

The pool of potential revenue is certainly one which is worth tapping into. Recent figures showed the global media and entertainment industry generating nearly $1.6 trillion in revenues in 2012, with the United States accounting for around 30 percent of this.

While the US is the epicentre for the industry, major regional ecosystems in London, Berlin, Toronto and Mumbai have successfully deflected some of the Hollywood dollars overseas as the big studios look to reduce spiralling budgets for their lavish summer blockbusters.

While she won’t speak about how big her particular rebate budget is, Al Kaabi says the Fast and Furious 7 shoot will generate “millions” for the Abu Dhabi economy. “We did a study with PwC and for every AED1 spent in Abu Dhabi there is AED4.5 that comes back in hotels, ancillary services etc,” she claims.

With the 30 percent rebate as the carrot, Al Kaabi is hoping the film will do for Abu Dhabi what Tom Cruise scaling down the Burj Khalifa in Mission Impossible IV did for Dubai in 2011, what Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand and what Braveheart did for Ireland and Scotland’s fledgling movie sectors.

The figures certainly add up, especially when it comes to tourism dollars. A white paper commissioned by the Dubai Film and TV Commission (DFTC) and undertaken by consultancy firm Oliver Wyman looked at many studies and compared the benefits of film-generated tourism, comparing the annual tourism rates before and after the release of a major blockbuster. For films including lavish landscape and scenery shots the benefits are especially high.

Braveheart resulted in a 300 percent rise in tourism revenue for Scotland, the Brad Pitt epic Troy boosted Turkish tourism by 73 percent and the Harry Potter series helped revenue rise by 50 percent or more for locations featured in the films. The report also found that an estimated 10 percent of annual foreign tourism into the United Kingdom — around $3.2bn — is a result of the UK film industry.

However, the 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 UAE is a new market and it already has major competitors in Jordan and Morocco, which jumped on the movie bandwagon decades ago. “They have already established themselves but they don’t have the rebate,” says Al Kaabi.

“The incentive was launched in 2012 [and] our team is already in talks with production studios and we have scouts out. We had the Formula 1 in Abu Dhabi and used that to invite key movie executives to come from Europe, the States and India and they came in, attended the Formula 1 and looked at the [movie] facilities and when we took them around, they felt very comfortable,” she explains.

So how does the rebate system work on a basic level? “You choose Abu Dhabi as a location and the locations which will be used and the services that are provided and post production,” she explains. “We get back the invoices and there is an auditing process and in less than two months you get your 30 percent rebate.”

While the locations are available, the best equipment on offer and the most modern facilities already in place, the DFTC white paper highlighted some key steps that need to take place in order for the sector to move up to the next level. One glaring deficit is the lack of people on the ground and a need for a larger pool of skilled industry figures to call upon at short notice.

For example, a medium-sized production might need around 90 staff and while production companies typically fly in above-the-line talent, such as directors, producers and top stars, freelance and support staff are usually sourced locally. If this talent is not available locally, costs and complexities begin to pile up. If half of the staff needed have to be flown in, it increases costs by up to $850,000, the DFTC report estimated.

The lack of local resources is something which is an issue for local producers says Nayla Al Khaja, an award-winning female Emirati director. “For instance if you go to Morocco or a European city the infrastructure is way more advanced, so producers can choose not to fly a lot of crew in, which costs a lot of money,” she says. “That is a big advantage for developed film industries. The UAE is super tiny... there are a lot of equipment companies but when it comes to people there is a lack of that.”

When these extra costs are taken into place, this eats into the rebate on offer. “The 30 percent is attractive but it is 30 percent at the end of the day as you are probably flying in way more people than if they went to a country where they don’t have to fly in everyone... Specifically people who have extensive feature film experience. That is a big hurdle.

“It is an excellent move and it is a start... At the end of the day, it is still worth coming over here. The government is very hospitable to feature films and, unlike other markets like Morocco, we don’t have the disadvantage of the setting. This is a country where you can drive to the ocean in five minutes, you have skyscrapers and you can shoot in the mountains. The country has a lot of to offer in terms of landscape and setting,” Al Khaja explains.

The local government is certainly taking the findings of the Oliver Wyman white paper seriously. “Dubai has become the regional trailblazer for the media industry in recent years, benefitting both the emirate and the UAE at large. The opening of the sound stages at Dubai Studio City and the inauguration of DFTC have been major achievements in recent years,” says Jamal Al Sharif, chairman of DFTC.

“But we must always look to the future and to what comes next. Where successes have been achieved, it’s important to understand how they can be built on. We acknowledge that gaps remain in areas such as the production of Arabic content [and] providing access to talent... and steps are already being taken to improve these.”

With 245 companies in twofour54, Abu Dhabi’s media production free zone, Al Kaabi points out that thousands of delegates are training to become the next generation of filmmakers and follow in the footsteps of entrepreneurs like Al Khaja.

“We are training more than 6,000 delegates and producing even more hours from our studios. Our post production studios in November were used 100 percent,” Al Kaabi says. “At weekends we see guys working in the workshops and enjoying the collaborative process and working on projects and volunteering. We also see an increase and in the members of our creative lab, where more than 1,000 are Emirati.

“Educating the youth is important... [The film industry] is not like the government where you get your coffee made; you will make the coffee... Someone will shout at you... It is getting their hands dirty and getting to understand the industry,” she explains.

While talent is an important, financing is, as always, another big issue, but Philip Alberstat, a partner at Omelet, a Los Angeles-based branding, marketing and entertainment company and an advisor to DFTC, says new models are emerging.

An entertainment lawyer by trade, he represented Dubai when it was negotiating the incentives and deal involved in bringing Mission Impossible IV to the emirate. While the movie was a perfect exercise in highlighting ‘Brand Dubai’, he is currently setting about devising alternative models for financing films. A clear example is his most recent film, a remake of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which was part funded by Swarovski Entertainment, the new film financing arm of the international diamond producer.

“Advertising doesn’t work so much any more so people want more brand loyalty and creating communities around their brand,” Alberstat explains. “I am an advisor to the film commission and I have been an advisor to Tecom [Dubai’s media free zone operator] since 2009... I am at looking at potential ways of building the industry here,” he says, but refuses to divulge what the future plans or financing models may look like.

One positive step is the fact that cinema is certainly taking off in the UAE and the wider Middle East. Al Khaja set up film clubs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi a few years ago. While they originally only had a few dozen members, the numbers have rocked to over 6,000 and members must now book in advance to get to see the exclusive screenings.

Even at the box office, technology is moving fast. Dubai conglomerate Majid Al Futtaim has announced plans to spend $200m on 12 new state-of-the-art cinemas in the region. The investment will see the company’s subsidiary VOX Cinemas operate more than 250 screens across the Middle East and North Africa region — a fourfold increase since it bought rights to the brand less than four years ago — and many of the new auditoriums will be some of the biggest in their respective countries.

“Middle Eastern box offices have enjoyed double-digit annual growth in recent years, owing in many cases to the expanding network of cinemas that have been developed across the Middle East,” says Ahmed Galal Ismail, CEO of Majid Al Futtaim Ventures.

“Our investment in cinema in the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Egypt will see these expanding territories also enjoy modern and innovative cinemas that exceed international standards.”

As Alberstat points out, the UAE is now just waiting for its Braveheart moment and it is hoping that Fast and Furious 7 will be the catalyst to help bring this about.

“It’s how to shine a positive light on a sector,” he says. “Let’s hope this is a shining light and not a moth to a flame.”