Dubai looks West for film shoots

Clooney's political thriller brings H'wood to Beirut

Lensing has just begun on Dubai Media City’s first big- budget Western film production. Warner Bros.’ “Syriana,” starring George Clooney and Matt Damon, marks a significant step forward for the regional media hub.

While the DMC already plays host to numerous Bollywood film productions, and has seen much of Beirut’s advertising production scene decamp to the tiny emirate, Western film studios have been slower to bring over their productions.

All this is set to change with Clooney’s political thriller, slated for a four-week shoot, his Section Eight coproducing with Warners.

Tim Smythe, CEO of Filmworks and who is handling the shoot for WB, says: “It’s going very well. Everything’s on schedule and running smoothly.”

Dubai is emerging as a serious rival to the existing centers of film production in the Middle East, namely Morocco and Tunisia. Both North African countries have seen a slew of big-budget productions in recent months, including Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Sahara,” starring Penelope Cruz and Matthew McConaughey.

Tunisia, in particular, has a long history of Western film production, dating back to the late 1970’s when Tunisian-born mogul Tarek Ben Ammar attracted the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to film “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” at his Cartago Studios. In fact, the name for Chewbacca in “Star Wars” was famously inspired by Chebika City in Tunisia.

Talking of Dubai’s growing attractiveness to Hollywood studios, Smythe says, “It is becoming a competitor to Morocco for big budget productions. It’s not been exposed yet, it’s got wonderful high-tech cityscapes, coastal regions and, of course, the desert, along with a first-world infrastructure.”

Aside from the customary logistical nightmare and 5 a.m. set calls of a film shoot, security has proved one of Smythe’s biggest concerns.

“Dubai is recognized as the most secure city in the Middle East but there are still serious security considerations.”

Such considerations even led to him not announcing publicly the date of the first day of shooting for fear of potential sabotage. “Syriana” follows on from last year’s Michael Winterbottom-helmed “Code 46,” which was the first Western production, albeit a much smaller budget, to film in the DMC.

Venetia Maunsell, general manager of Bareface who handled that shoot, says, “The politics of the region doesn’t affect everyday life but it does have a bearing on overseas clients, especially America. I know of three productions that were pulled during the Iraq war.”

Another problem remains the relative lack of local technical expertise in the city. Only 10% of the population are native Emiratis, which means productions often have to fly in their own crews, thereby raising production costs.

Smythe says, “Dubai’s still young so a lot of expertise does have to be brought over but it’s the same with lots of new locations, like Romania and Morocco. The whole industry is still probably smaller than the size of Syriana.” Despite the ongoing political instability in the Middle East, one thing does appear certain- that DMC is here to stay in terms of film production. The opening of a Kodak Laboratory in August to process film is likely to help boost Western film production in the free trade zone.

Neil Stephenson, CEO of the DIFF, says the festival is also keen to help: “We’re setting up a film commission and a film school to encourage film production.”

Abdulhamid Juma, CEO of the DMC, also reflects on the importance of DIFF in helping kick start film production in the region.

“We have to listen to the people who will be using the facilities,” Juma says. “By bringing them to the festival we will be able to talk to them and discuss what they need, what are their challenges and so on. We can specialize. What’s the point of building a film city if no one uses it.”

Now being developed by Dubai Land, itself part of the Dubai Development and Investment Authority, is Dubai’s Film City. An area of land has already been allocated for the development and building of facilities aimed at encouraging film production, both Western and regional. The long-term goal appears to be to encourage and facilitate Hollywood studios coming to Dubai as opposed to creating a stand alone film studio.

One major element going for DMC’s aspirations is the support that General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and the government are giving it.

“It really is a high priority for them to develop a film industry,” Smythe notes. “The good thing about Dubai is when they make their mind up about something they go for it in a big way. The industry is still very young and growing but I’m very positive for the future. The next three years are going to be amazing.”

While things are certainly looking up for Western film production, some commentators are dubious as to whether the city can ultimately attract enough Arab film production over from the traditional stronghold of Cairo and Beirut.

Gabriel Khoury, the managing director of Misr Films, the biggest production house in Egypt says, “All the talent is still in Cairo and Beirut.”

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