Magazine article Screen International

Blooming in the Desert

Magazine article Screen International

Blooming in the Desert

Article excerpt

The introduction in 2012 of Abu Dhabi's generous production rebate underlines the region's ambition as an international production hub.

Where the Gulf region's power players once seemed fixated on building expensive sandcastles for others around the world to play in, their concern now is with shoring up the foundations of a self-sufficient local film-making ecosystem that won't blow away the moment another region becomes a global hotspot.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), in particular, has been investing in facilities and Abu Dhabi this year introduced a new 30% production incentive. The aim is to attract international shoots and provide infrastructure for the growing band of regional film-makers who are finding their voices.

The strategy appears to be working; the region is attracting international production from the US and other territories, and the fact Emirati film-maker Mansour Al Dhaheri was able to make Sarab.com, a film about child pornography and online sexual exploitation that recently shot entirely in Abu Dhabi, speaks volumes about the region's growing confidence.

Standing in the way of development, however, are financial considerations familiar to anyone who has thought of moving to the UAE. "The question will always be, can this really be the hub for the region since the average cost of living is much higher than most Arab countries?" says Alaa Karkouti, who spends considerable time in both the UAE and Cairo on behalf of his film marketing company MAD Solutions. "This will make it harder for some talents to go to Abu Dhabi."

'Can the UAE be the hub for the region since the average cost of living is much higher than most Arab countries?'Alaa Karkouti, MAD Solutions

In an effort to offset that cost, the Abu Dhabi Film Commission has introduced the region's first production incentive. In effect since September 1, the subsidy comes in the form of a rebate of up to 30% of qualifying spend in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Available for feature film, TV, documentary, advertising and music video production, the rebate relates to goods and services sourced from Abu Dhabi and expenditure on location and studio filming, as well as post-production. Hotel costs and flights booked on Etihad Airways are also included.

"I think the 30% is just about the right amount needed to attract films and grow the market," says Tim Smythe, CEO of Dubai-based production house Filmworks. "It is slightly higher than competing locations such as London, where it is also less expensive to accommodate crews. This is not a very cheap place to shoot."

Smythe should know. Filmworks has facilitated major international productions that have come to the Gulf region including Syriana, The Kingdom, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol and The Bourne Legacy. The work is not just for US studio films. Under Smythe's watch earlier this year was also Sun Jianjun's Switch, China's big-budget answer to James Bond that stars Andy Lau as a special agent. It incorporated Dubai's iconic landmarks - the Burj Al Arab, Burj Khalifa, Atlantis and Emirates Towers - underscoring how the rapidly urbanising Arabian peninsula has more to offer than just desert landscapes.

By the time the next Chinese film comes knocking, a Dubai incentive to match Abu Dhabi's may also be in place. Together, they will help defray the expense of bringing in overseas crews that can account for 40%-60% of the production on high-end Hollywood spectacles.

There are a range of facilities across the Gulf, with more to follow in the coming years. For example, the ambitious Dubai Studio City development has already seen the opening of one sound stage of 15,000 sq ft, with two more to follow as part of phase one, while a host of production service providers operate out of Dubai Media City. Meanwhile, twofour54 and Digital Domain Media Group announced plans earlier this year to establish a media school and a 150,000 sq ft purpose-built production complex in Abu Dhabi, expected to be operational by the end of 2015. …

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