Making films in the UAE

There is undeniably a concerted effort to establish an international film industry in the Gulf, says Cameron Crawford.
Making films in the UAE
By Cameron Crawford
Sat 05 Apr 2008 04:00 AM

There is undeniably a concerted effort to establish an international film industry in the Middle East: the recent US action thriller The Kingdom, featuring Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner, was shot partly in Abu Dhabi and the Middle East International Film Festival (MEIFF) was attended by leading names including legendary Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and Paul Haggis.

In contrast to the longer-running Dubai International Film Festival, MEIFF did not place an emphasis on the glamour of world premieres and photo-ops of stars on red carpets, but focused upon a number of discussion groups and lectures on how to move towards establishing a fully-functioning movie business.

However, is it all just romantic fiction or will there be some real action?

Abu Dhabi authorities seem to be backing up these aspirations and good intentions with what really matters most in the movie business: money.

In parallel with the film fest, there has been a great deal of media attention on a film fund backed by the Abu Dhabi government in conjunction with Warner Brothers Entertainment, which is currently estimated at half US $500 million but has also been described by MEIFF's director of operations, Nashwa al Ruweini as ‘unlimited for the right project'.

With such levels of support, the prospect of an Arab-controlled ‘Hollywood in the Middle East' seems a tangible reality, but funding alone will not be enough to sustain a film industry on a long-term basis.

The key will be to establish profitability so that both local and international investors see Abu Dhabi as a viable option compared not only to other media production markets but also as an alternative to allocating funds to other commercial sectors.

In the UAE, particularly Dubai, the vast majority of investment is reportedly in the more established local industries such as energy and construction, with only a tiny fraction of start-up capital being devoted to technology and even less to media.

While Dubai's media and internet cities have been undoubted successes in developing this field in the UAE, it would take a film industry to put the country on the map, driving numerous spin-off businesses and industries on an unprecedented scale.

Music, TV, advertising and publishing would benefit hugely from the emergence of a local movie industry but to achieve this will require more than writing a cheque.

With current oil prices resulting in even more petrodollars coming into the Emirates, the financial resources could be available to not only finance overseas productions to come to the Emirates but also to nurture local projects with an emphasis on promoting the culture of the region, largely ignored by international cinema.

Funding tends to take two different forms: firstly, funding of an individual production because it has particular commercial or cultural merit.

Including specifically-commissioned works, this method of investment often allows the investor a degree of creative control over the project and allows him to test the water before more substantial commitment. An interesting script by a local writer might elicit funds in this manner.

Secondly, there is the option of slate-based funding, where a number of productions are bundled into one package. The advantage of slates is that they spread the investors' risk across the various productions: if one does not perform, the others can absorb any losses made, amortising loss.

This is more common for parties wishing to invest for purely commercial reasons as the likelihood of ROI is greater, although, as always, the quality of the end products and the manner in which they are marketed remain the two most important determining factors.

Film slates of overseas productions such as the Emirati-Australian ‘Dubai Worx' venture allow local investors opportunity to invest in commercially viable projects with a view to profit.

Eventually, it is hoped that such slates will include local producers and scripts by UAE nationals such as Fadel al Muhairi, whose idea for the historical epic A Corsair's Tale was well-received at MEIFF as was Ali Mostafa's City of Life, which is set in contemporary Dubai.

In addition to the considerable local wealth available for investment, the Emirates also have the potential to be one of the top venues for on-location film shoots.

As identified by Weinstein at MEIFF in October, in order to make Abu Dhabi a top prospect for producers, there has to be an infrastructure in place throughout the year with personnel in the locality to fill the roles of technical and support staff as well as adequate human resources to provide ‘extras', the non-speaking actors in the background of the film.

So, whilst one can build great sound stages and provide financial incentives for productions, having to import skilled technicians to ensure the required standards of lighting and sound will significantly lessen the appeal of the Emirates to productions looking for a location in which to shoot.

In addition, when compared with other successful filming locations such as Romania and Morocco, the costs of feeding and accommodating a cast and crew of hundreds in the UAE may be prohibitive.

These are issues which can only be addressed at a governmental level to ensure that cultural aspirations are realised in conjunction with the more bricks-and-mortar aspects of government.

The prospect of enticing big-name international productions to the Emirates to shoot their movies is an appealing one, and one that has already been realised with The Kingdom and Syriana, which was not without controversy.

While authorities in Dubai have been more cautious about the kind of films shot in Dubai following Syriana, Abu Dhabi has been realatively more open in this regard.

In the longer term, this rivalry may well have a positive influence on the local movie industry, creating competition and giving producers further options, but it must be anticipated that rival locations may well lack the same sensitivities as the GCC region.

The ultimate goal has to be to establish an environment in which a project can be devised, funded and produced by local entities without reliance on talent from overseas. As well as funding, this will take time, just as the emergence of sports talent has over the past few years in the Middle East.

Having a pool of local scriptwriters, directors and other creative talent in place will create a competitive market and thus provide added incentives for established entities in the international business to spend time and money.

Steps have been taken in this direction and Abu Dhabi will soon host a branch of the leading film and acting school, the New York Film Academy, which will offer a one-year programme for aspiring producer and scriptwriters.

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