Dubai bids for serious media play with fest and facilities

Middle East interest in filmmaking and TV production is booming, and the inaugural Dubai Intl. Film Festival (DIFF) reflects this newfound interest in showbiz with an aggressive leadership hoping to firmly establish this new festival as a top stop on an already packed calendar.

Dubai is one of the most prosperous and stable countries in the Arab region benefiting from the long reigns of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum and his son General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Both leaders implemented strong policies of economic freedom combined with a passion to promote Dubai.

The emirate is not new to events, it has hosted world-class tennis tournaments, boat races, horse races and one of the biggest air shows in the world. It is one of the few emirates that can boast that tourism is as important as oil to the country’s burgeoning economy.

From the outset it took the film festival seriously enlisting the help of a host of fest professionals.

Alberto Barbera, ex-Venice topper; Piers Handling, Toronto Intl. Film Festival topper; film critic Roger Ebert; and Subhash Ghai, chairman of the National Entertainment Committee of the Confederation of Indian Industries, make up the fest’s advisory board.

Neil Stephenson, festival director and CEO, insists the timing of the festival is perfect with Dubai’s forward-looking thrust already being noted by international filmmakers.

Dubai is eagerly anticipating the visit by Matt Damon and George Clooney for key scenes for Warner’s high-profile CIA drama “Syriana,” while Brit helmer Michael Winterbottom filmed part of his the arthouse entry “Code 46,” with Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton, in the country.

It is this growing relationship with the West that is the core mission of DIFF.

It sees the fest as a chance to build bridges that were damaged during the recent conflicts in the Middle East.

Local filmmakers will not be ignored. There is a regional sidebar, Arabian Nights, that showcases the best of local cinema and actor Omar Sharif will be in attendance for a special tribute.

CEO of Dubai Media City, which is presenting the $6 million event, Abdulhamid Juma also agrees that the fest’s timing is right: ‘The festival’s theme of cultural understanding has touched a chord with filmmakers and artists across the globe at a time when it is more crucial than ever to build cultural bridges.”

Of course, there are other important annual Arab film and programming festivals, not least in Cairo and Marrakech. But while these focus entirely on Arab output, Dubai sees itself as the crossover point between the West, Arabia and the Indian sub-continent, which will be highlighted by a Bollywood sidebar. The sidebar, which will be overseen by Ghai, will include sub-continent hits such as “Hari om” by helmer Bharat Bala.

“Our objective is that our efforts will raise awareness not just about the festival but also about the potential of Dubai in the eyes of the international film industry,” Juma adds.

Another key difference with the Dubai fest is its strong links with TV. While Dubai has some luxury cinemas, there are simply none in next-door Saudi Arabia and precious few elsewhere in the rich Gulf states, but everyone has TV which is Dubai’s main thrust.

Dubai’s impressive Media City already has 20,000 people working within 850-odd media-related businesses all of which enjoy tax-free status. Typical is pay TV platform Showtime, which opened its 50-plus channel HQ in Dubai in March 2004, and is a high-status resident. But on an adjacent lot is Taj TV (a sports channel) while a few yards away is market-leading Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) and its four television networks.

Business news channel CNBC Arabiya is located on the site as is ARY Digital (targeting the U.K.), Moon TV (Iraqi), Quanaty (kids) and dozens of others including outfits actively involved in film and TV post-production.

Abdullatif Al Sayegh, joint-CEO at local Dubai Radio & Television, which has recently relaunched itself into a four-channel system, says Dubai’s Media City has been the catalyst for change as well as the thrust behind the DIFF.

“Suddenly it was noticeable that the (TV) quality improved in terms of content, and management changed dramatically. The skills are here, and we have the enthusiasm and resources to win viewers over.”

While undoubtedly Dubai’s tax-free status and relaxed life-style is a tangible welcome, its skilled workers expect matching western salaries. Not so in Cairo. Cairo’s Media Production City (MPC) is simply massive, extending over 35 million square yards of desert, near the famous Giza pyramids, a few miles southwest of Cairo.

Producers will find outdoor stages with standing sets featuring just about everything a filmmaker might need: a 60,000 square-foot Islamic village, a Pharonic city, a modern city district as well as underwater shooting tank. The air-conditioned soundstages are just as impressive, and have recently been extended to include the Mubarak Intl. Studio Complex of 114 studios suitable for film and TV production.

According to Hassan Hamed, chairman and CEO of Egypt’s public broadcaster, the Radio & Television Union (ERTU), and a 40% investor in the MPC, studio occupancy has been significantly higher than expected and an extra extension phase is now planned with thoughts toward three or four extra giant stages.

“We are fully booked, and there have been times when we have had to abdicate use of our own studios for external clients,” Hamed says. “We are turning out five or six full-length movies a year. We still favor 35mm, but we are looking to start experimenting with high-definition in readiness for the future. We are also using MPC for drama series and soaps.”

Hamed says the shift toward HD production could be interesting. “The difference between us and our friends at Dubai is that their pockets are full of money. It is tough for us to think of expansion into HDTV when we are sometimes struggling to maintain and deliver basic services. I believe HD will start, and the sooner the better. There’s a market for it here. There are plenty of rich people in the Arab world who would watch HD and pay for it. The problem will be production, and finding enough Arab HD production to fill new channels.”

To date, Cairo has been the production powerhouse, while Dubai has frequently provided the cash. The Dubai Film Festival may be the first stage in a tipping point, with the tiny emirate muscling in on new production.

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