By Claire Ferris Lay
Claire Ferris-Lay reports on Abu Dhabi's attempts to develop a film industry to rival that of Hollywood.
It made US$70m in its opening weekend and stars A-list actors Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner, but despite The Kingdom having all the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, the film was shot in Abu Dhabi.
And this isn't the first multimillion dollar Hollywood production to take advantage of the region's vast desert and Middle Eastern authenticity. The Oscar-winning 2005 film, Syriana, produced by and starring George Clooney, alongside Matt Damon and Chris Cooper, was also filmed in the region, in Dubai.
I see film representing what is great about our culture to the world.
While Dubai develops Dubai Studio City and attracts large Hollywood studios for its high-end theme parks, another emirate is focusing its attention on producing home-grown talent in this relatively new industry for the region. No longer content with its massive oil revenues, enchanting palaces and a life of luxury, Abu Dhabi is setting its sights on the brightest stars of them all - Hollywood icons.
In a bid to become the "cultural capital of the region" Abu Dhabi will be playing host to the Middle East International Film Festival (MEIFF) from 14-19th October. The festival will show a range of international and regional films as well as encourage the region's talent to step forward and share the limelight through the InCircle Pearl Grant, created to expose emerging film-makers to high-level industry decision makers and facilitate financing for talented film-makers from around the world.
The festival will also concentrate on one of the most important aspects of the film industry - finance - through The Film Financing Circle. Nashwa Al-Ruwaini, executive director of the MEIFF and CEO of production company, Pyramedia, describes the circle as an important industry initiative: "Western finance and industry executives will meet their counterparts here; relationships will be forged, ideas exchanged and deals made.
"This is an exciting time for culture and film in Abu Dhabi. Under the visionary leadership of the Abu Dhabi Royal family, culture reigns supreme. You read about the Louvre, the Guggenheim, the performing arts centre and many other museum projects that are happening in Abu Dhabi but in fact, I believe that this is the most grand, extensive proactive and aggressive cultural infrastructure building plan ever rolled out," she adds.
The circle is expected to attract top-level financiers and executives from the international and entertainment arena who will collaborate and participate in a number of programmes offering much-needed information on the film industry. Al-Ruwaini says, "Unlike many festival conferences, our goal is to offer more than information. Our mandate strives to provide industry insiders with fresh and innovative investment options, while allowing film-makers a one-of-a-kind opportunity to have their work brought to fruition."
As well as educating local investors and business executives, The Film Financing Circle is setting up its own fund in association with the government of Abu Dhabi, to support regional film-makers. "The Abu Dhabi Fund will act as the financial engine to attract filming in Abu Dhabi and to create co-production opportunities worldwide and contribute a slate of films for our festival. The fund is independent and looking to support film-makers from around the world with an emphasis on our local film-makers," says Al-Ruwaini.
The fund, which has no set amount, and will consider all projects from any budget range, aims to produce between four and six international projects every year and will focus on films from the region. While private investors will not be a part of the official fund, they will be able to partner projects which Al Ruwaini says will help balance the funding but will determine the profit-sharing structure.
Al-Ruwaini is optimistic on the future of the fund: "We are a public fund and anticipate being here for decades. We plan to establish the model for film funds in the Middle East and view the fund as a business venture - we want to make money. The fund will utilise the returns to fund local Emirati talent to give them grants to encourage and support them. We believe the return on the commercially viable projects will fund the grants for our local Emirati film-makers and that the success of our venture will pave the way for private investors to open up their own private funds."
Having a flourishing film industry will also lead to even more long-term investment in the region as well as further promote the cultural status that Abu Dhabi is so keen to achieve. "Of course, the expenditures for accommodation, food, equipment leases and property, transportation, wages and salaries paid to individuals in Abu Dhabi and expenditures for other goods and services as a result of motion picture production in Abu Dhabi would have direct and indirect economic benefits stimulating the economy," says Abed Awad, president of the Abu Dhabi Film Commission.
Investment from the local community is vital for a film industry to thrive.
Keen to focus on the cultural aspect of film, the festival is working closely with the Abu Dhabi Film Commission, whose aim is to promote Abu Dhabi as a unique film industry destination. The commission will adopt a worldwide approach and Awad tells Arabian Business it will eventually become "a one-stop shop film production facilitator".
This commission is only the second of its kind in the Arab world following Jordan's decision to establish its Royal Jordan Commission in 2003, a country which most filmgoers in the West and Eastern world believe has a thriving and successful film community.
Through the Film Commission, Awad also wants to promote an understanding of the Arab world: "I see film transforming our culture and becoming the genre of choice for change and innovation. It will also represent what is great about our culture to the world.
"The dehumanisation of the Arab originated in film and through the next great innovation generation of Arab film-makers they will change the perception of Arab through film. Film is nothing more than storytelling and we have a tradition of literature that is second to none. We will break the code of the film industry and get a seat on the global culture machine's executive table." As well as the commission, investment from the local community is imperative in order for a film industry to thrive.
Adrienne Briggs, the circle's director, confirms to Arabian Business that the event is almost up to full capacity with parties wanting to understand the world of film and finance. On the importance of local investors Al-Ruwaini says, "We cannot expect Western financiers to build our local industry. Foreign investors have one thing in mind - making money. If they make money they will come to Abu Dhabi. Otherwise, why should they come? We want to attract Hollywood investors and film-makers to come here by providing them with incentives and at the same time start to stimulate our indigenous talent and finance to invest in the infrastructure necessary to build a local industry."
But while investors in the region can see tried and tested results from more traditional industries such as real estate, the film industry is a new concept in this region and anyone wanting to invest in it is expected to be cautious. "I have never found financing from my films here ever - not a single dollar has come from this market, the GCC or Asia," says Dhruv Dhawan, a Dubai-based documentary and commercial film director.
"People here are safe investors and even when they do take risks they take it in things that are sort of known to them. In Hollywood your next-door neighbour may invest in two films a year and so does everyone else but in this region it has never been done before. If someone does get the financing from here and then investors see there is money to be made in films it will really take off but not until then," he continues.
Banks are also an important target for financing films but again this is a new concept for this region and even Al Ruwaini agrees that banks are a still a little cautious: "Banks are in the ‘I'm interested but let me think about it' stage. Fundamentally they want to make a return on their investments so it is our job to demonstrate to them that they can make money financing film and encourage them to do so."
Hollywood, however, has been reaping the benefits of the film industry since the 1920s, so it is up to initiatives like the film festival and Abu Dhabi Film Commission to provide investors with the information needed. "We are creating the Abu Dhabi Film Fund as an example of a public entity able to make a solid return on investments in films. We want to become an example for the private sector to get the idea and run with it," Ruwaini adds.
A new film school will no doubt confirm the region’s growing status by fostering film education.
Abu Dhabi may not be the first place an investor would consider a film industry to flourish but location, tax-free incentives, and studios already planned and the vast amount of money being pumped into its infrastructure, makes it ideal for this bourgeoning new industry. Tax-free incentives are one of the biggest factors enticing film-makers and studios to set up in the region. "The tax enticement makes a big difference when you consider the average Hollywood film costs US$10m. High budget films can cost anything up to US$250m which would be a huge tax break and incentive to film here when you are spending that type of money," says Dhawan.
Although many films are shot in a vast number of locations, the vast expanse of desert the region has to offer as well as authentic Middle Eastern architecture is an added incentive for film producers to flock to the region. "Syriana was filmed over here simply because of location," says Dhawan. "Directors are looking for the kind of locations this region has to offer. The huge numbers of projects that are coming up make great locations - it's even possible to film a Las Vegas casino scene here if you wanted to."
A new film school in association with the Abu Dhabi Authority for Cultural and Heritage and the New York Film Academy will no doubt confirm the region's growing status by fostering education in the film industry. News last month that Warner Bros Entertainment will set up a film and video production firm in association with Aldar Properties and Abu Dhabi Media Company is also likely to result in other Hollywood studios following suit.
At the time of the announcement, Warner Bros chairman and chief executive Barry Meyer, said that the major move to the Middle East was just the beginning for the company: "This is the region of the world we have looked at, thought about, but never participated in a meaningful way.
In some ways it's really only the beginning of what could be an even deeper relationship encompassing film and video distribution, both in the Gulf region and regionally." Al-Ruwaini adds, "The Warner deal is a major step to investing in the entertainment industry infrastructure necessary to achieve the government's aggressive plan to lay the foundation for a strong and vibrant entertainment industry."
Hollywood and Bollywood, two of the largest film industries in the world were built up over decades, but much like other aspects of this region, the future of film in the Gulf is bright, promising and being built at a record rate.
If the festival's organisers are anything to go by, we should be watching a home-grown movie at our new Warner Bros cinema very soon.