Boom in film training will boost reign

LONDON — With two-thirds of the Arab world’s population of some 300 million people under the age of 30, there has never been a shortage of young recruits eager to work in the film and TV industries.

What the region has traditionally been missing is the training for young people.

That may be about to change.

A slew of media schools opening across the region aim to lay the foundation for generations to come of aspiring filmmakers, TV execs and journos.

Dubai ruler Sheik Mohammed announced the creation of the Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Communications on July 16, in partnership with the U. of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication.

The college will eventually expand to offer journalism courses covering print, radio, TV and new media, in both English and Arabic languages, as well as a fiction storytelling program with ambitions of becoming a center for Arab screenwriters.

USC has also teamed up with the government of Jordan to open the Red Sea Institute for Cinematic Arts (RSICA) in the seaside resort of Aqaba, which will be the Mideast’s first full-fledged film school. The school will open in September with students from Jordan, Kuwait, Iran and Egypt.

Jordan also opened a branch of the SAE Institute media college in October, with courses on everything from filmmaking to 3-D animation and music production.

When put together with Abu Dhabi’s branch of the New York Film Academy, which opened in February, it marks the most significant attempt yet to create a world-class workforce of Mideast film and TV workers.

“This is the first time in the Arab world you have a school of communications teaching the indigenous population in their indigenous language how to work within their own countries,” says Dubai Media managing editor Ali Jaber about the Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Communications. “It is only when you tell your own stories to your own people that you’ll be able to tell them to others.”

Jaber, who was handpicked by Sheik Mohammed to revamp and relaunch Dubai’s TV network in 2004, has been tapped to become dean of the Dubai-based college, which will be located within the American U. of Dubai campus.

The ambitions are certainly impressive.

Walking around the campus of the SAE’s college, for example, one sees dozens of brand-new Macs loaded with the latest Final Cut and animation software, a recording studio with a $1 million sound mixer as well as two individual green and bluescreen soundstages designed especially to enable film students to incorporate CGI effects in their projects.

Red Sea school execs are planning for the college to become a major part of a bigger, 10-year, multimillion-dollar development plan for the coastal resort of Aqaba, with plans to build a film studio and soundstages there.

“I hope Aqaba becomes the Los Angeles of the Middle East,” says RSICA co-ordinator Rebecca Flores. “It’s not going to happen overnight, though. We’ll need to give it time.”

It’s still uncertain how many jobs will be available for graduates from these programs.

At the moment the Arab TV biz is booming, with more than 300 free-to-air satellite channels — the majority of which admittedly lose money — and steadily increasing production budgets, values and advertising revenues.

The Arab film industry, on the other hand, is still in its early days.

Moves to create a regional infrastructure, merging already established centers of production like in Egypt, emerging sources of financing in the Gulf, and a fully functioning pan-Arab distribution network, have yet to mature fully.

Both film and TV industries are sorely lacking experienced, developed writers. It’s an oft-repeated gripe made by execs in the region and the main reason why so many Arab films and skeins fail to travel internationally.

That’s one of the reasons why Bin Rashid’s dean Ali Jaber has already started talking to U.S. studios — Warners has been especially receptive — about internships and potential employment opportunities for his student scriptwriters so that they can learn how to write to studio level and apply that knowledge back home.

“We are going to recruit the brightest Arab students and go after them,” says Jaber.

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