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There’s a booming business behind the camera in the UAE film industry. Not only big foreign production companies are racing into Abu Dhabi and Dubai for amazing locations, the economic impact of hosting foreign crews is having a tangible multiplier effect on the domestic business and economy benefitting many in the value chain, ranging from the local film servicing companies, equipment suppliers, local production companies, transport providers, hotels, airlines, tourism, retail and catering sectors to cinema theatres.
Take the case of Abu Dhabi Film Commission’s (ADFC) production incentive in the form of a 30% rebate on qualifying spend in Abu Dhabi. According to estimates by PwC in a study commissioned by ADFC, for every AED 1 invested in the production rebate programme, AED 4.5 of GDP will be generated within Abu Dhabi.
Abu Dhabi played host to the latest Hollywood blockbuster Fast & Furious 7 (FF7). The jaw-dropping action sequences in the movie are stretched out over several locations, but the ones shot in the breathtaking locations of Abu Dhabi are simply exhilarating.
Behind all that surreal world of cutting-edge, hyper-realistic special effects and, above all, the high-speed car chase exceeding 120-miles per hour, there were two striking elements: the movie showcased the capital as a filming hub in the Middle East region, and secondly, it put the UAE at the forefront of world cinema.
Back in November 2013, when the shooting of FF7 began in the capital when a visual effects crew captured helicopter shots, stunt footage and a variety of visual effects scenes, there were three main attractions for the major Hollywood production to film in Abu Dhabi — the emirate’s unique locations, the experienced crew of twofour54 intaj’s (the film and television services arm of twofour54) and Abu Dhabi Film Commission’s (ADFC) production incentive in the form of a 30% rebate on qualifying spend in Abu Dhabi.
Take another instance of the gravity-defying stunts of Tom Cruise in ‘M:I Ghost Protocol’ climbing and walking on the mirrored glass exterior of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. The scene, shot on IMAX cameras to give that vertigo-inducing effect, still remains fresh in the minds of movie buffs.
There are too many movies shot in Dubai and Abu Dhabi over the last few years, in addition to FF7 and Ghost Protocol. This includes Star Wars: Episode VII, Bang Bang, George Clooney-starrer Syriana, The Bourne Legacy, Deliver Us from Evil, Happy New Year, Welcome, Dabangg and Dabangg 2, Do Knot Disturb, and the list goes on. Besides, global television programmes such as The Bold and the Beautiful and BBC’s Top Gear have also been filmed in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi are scripting a new growth story for blockbuster cinemas globally, and the growing number of Hollywood and Bollywood production companies opting UAE for filming is testament to the country’s growing importance as a key part of the film production value chain. So far Dubai alone has seen over 7,000 productions filmed in the emirate across a variety of genres and from all corners of the globe.
Bollywood’s icon Shah Rukh Khan’s film production house — Red Chillies Entertainments — that produced Happy New Year, was largely filmed in Dubai at a variety of locations including The Palm Jumeirah, Dubai Airport, Dubai Mall and The Atlantis, as well as a series of aerial shots of Dubai. The filming was facilitated by Dubai Film and TV Commission (DFTC), the key organisation for establishing Dubai and the UAE as a premier filming destination for local and international productions.
Happy New Year is just a tip of the iceberg. Dubai is increasingly becoming a sought-after destination for many Bollywood productions, which include the recent filming of ‘Welcome Back’ and upcoming film ‘Hamari Adhuri Kahani’. Bollywood production teams are increasingly looking to Dubai as a budding filmmaking hub, within close proximity to India, which can support all of their filmmaking needs.
So what makes Dubai Bollywood’s favourite?
The reasons are obvious. Dubai offers a serious competitive advantage to production companies, with its robust and advanced infrastructure, facilitation of entry and exit for large crews, as well as its understanding of the importance of a diversified economy.
“The UAE is one of the safest countries to shoot feature films and its strategic location within eight hours flying time of most major cities gives it the premium advantage. In 2002-3, when the business environment started picking up in Dubai and the UAE, there wasn’t much of crew, equipment, production facilities and talent here to work around. However, if you compare that with now there is a big difference, as you have got 90% of all your film production facilities in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and you don’t need to fly anywhere else,” says Ammar Al Khrisat, CEO of Alkatraz Production, Dubai, who’s been involved for years in the production of various home-grown as well as international film productions, including films such as Syriana, Mission Impossible 4 to City of Life. His firm was also involved in FF7 in terms of supplying the entire aerial photography services.
Race to the Top
The direct benefits generated by the core film and TV production industry are substantial. The impact of these benefits is underscored by the creation of significant employment opportunities spanning preproduction, production, post-production, distribution, and exhibition, according to a white paper ‘Opportunities and Challenges in the Middle East and North Africa Media Production Market’ by Oliver Wyman and commissioned by DFTC.
The benefits of film-generated tourism are substantial and a vibrant film and TV production ecosystem generates significant benefits to the country. Films that rely heavily on a country’s scenery, landscape, and culture may contribute to its positive image. In addition, the storyline, themes and characters can elicit associations and emotions toward a place, thereby enhancing its potential as a future travel destination. For instance, The Lord of the Rings trilogy generated a 40% rise in the number of visitors to New Zealand. The Harry Potter series drove an increase of 50% or more in each of its filmed locations, the report adds.
Promoting Arabic Films
Although the UAE remains a location of choice for many blockbuster movies, the home-grown cinema industry is hardly 10 years old. Arabic movie-making is still in its beginning stage in the country, unlike mature markets such as Egypt and Lebanon. Also, majority of productions in the UAE are of low budget, say, in the range of AED 1 million to 10 million. Nevertheless, there is a lot of potential in the UAE and production companies need to dig deeper here before going outside. People need to come forward with right film scripts and ideas here, believe industry experts.
The UAE premiered its first feature film ‘City of Life’ in 2009, directed by Emirati director Ali Mostafa. Although momentum has been generated in recent years, the volume of Arabic film content is still tiny compared to the international volume.
“With Arabic content production still in its infancy, the emphasis in the region has been primarily on leveraging the historical and natural backdrops these countries have to offer for international film production,” notes the Oliver Wyman report.
Nevertheless, Dubai is now moving beyond just being a destination for foreign film shoots to a place providing the full spectrum of production shooting needs. The emirate is home to the most advanced soundstages in the Middle East and North Africa. Located in Dubai Studio City, one of the soundstages is 15,000 square feet, and the other two are 25,000 square feet each in area. Each stage has a water tank for underwater shoots and attached production office space of 25,000 square feet each. These soundstages have attached office area for make-up, dressing rooms, editing suites, rehearsal rooms, suites for actors and production support services.
This means, now a Hollywood or a Bollywood film producer can move to Dubai and produce the entire movie including post-production here, thereby reducing cost greatly. This kind of facility is not available in the neighbourhood.
Financing an Issue
Although the government is supporting film production in the UAE in a great way by giving discounts on air tickets and hotels, grants, etc. For instance, Enjaaz, the Dubai Film Market’s post-production and production support programme provides financial support to film projects led by Arab film-makers. The Dubai Film Market (DFM) is the industry arm of the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF).
Similarly, SANAD, the development and post-production fund of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, provides support to talented filmmakers from the Arab world in terms of the development or completion of their narrative and documentary feature-length films. For development, it makes grant up to $20,000 per project, while for post-production the limit could go up to $60,000 per project, as per the information on its website.
Further, the ADFC offers the Middle East’s first international production incentive, providing access to a generous 30% cash-back rebate on productions, including feature films, TV dramas, commercials, etc. shot in Abu Dhabi.
However, there needs to be more direct financial support for production companies from government as well as from local banks, say experts.
“While film incentives are not unfamiliar to the region, they are still relatively new. Existing film funds for local Arabic production, such as Dubai Film Connection (DFC) and Doha Film Institute (DFI), are still limited in scale and scope, which makes financing of local films difficult. Financing for the Emirati film, City of Life (2009), for example, proved challenging to obtain, even with a strong script in hand,” the report by Oliver Wyman notes.
Adds Ammar of Alkatraz Production, “It’s a good step to attract film production to Dubai but equally important is to have more mechanism for financial support to movie producers. Banks also need to get involved in it, as they are wary to lend for film production business. If there is more financial support extended by government to film production that would encourage private banks, financial institutions as well as local film financiers to come forward and see film financing as a lucrative business area.”
Lack of experienced actors and director is another issue. The UAE has good theatre actors who are good on the stage but are uncomfortable in front of the camera.
As Ammar puts it, “We need to have more creative talents, i.e. more talented directors/producers, who can think more creatively and have good ideas. Lack of producers and experienced directors is a challenge. Most of the directors coming out of film schools are youngsters.”
Summing up, while there are many opportunities to tap in the UAE’s movie industry, there are also unique differences and challenges. Home-grown creative content and innovative marketing techniques need to get improved and pioneering directors need to come forward.