Emerging Player: Abu Dhabi

New film commission has streamlined the permitting process

With Abu Dhabi now firmly established as a presence in Hollywood, the emirate is turning its attention to its home turf, which it hopes to make into a hot spot for international shoots and an incubator for the local film industry.

The Abu Dhabi Film Commission, set up last year by the government, represented Abu Dhabi and the UAE for the first time at the AFCI Location Trade Show in Santa Monica in April, where it showed off its newly compiled online database of locations.

“It’s about educating the film world that we are not just an oil-rich Arab state that is throwing money into the film industry,” says commission topper David Shepheard. “We are actually building a film industry ourselves.”

This industry probably got its largest single boost of the past year from Abu Dhabi’s hosting of the final race of the Formula One season, which brought more than 600 film crews to town. The film commission, as the permitting authority in Abu Dhabi, turned itself into a round-the-clock service shop, helping the crews to slice through the bureaucracy.

“We have changed how the government looks at the issue of film licenses in Abu Dhabi,” Shepheard says. “Instead of the film crew having to find its way through the municipality, or the police, they just come to us. We have all those contacts, and issue the license very quickly.”

The commission has been issuing about 30 permits a month since its inception, mostly for commercials, short films and documentaries. It has yet to repeat the success that brought “The Kingdom,” the Peter Berg-helmed tale of a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia, to film in Abu Dhabi in 2006, but Shepheard emphasizes that the emirate’s film industry is still quite young.

Plans for some kind of incentive structure are in the works. “Incentives programs are an option,” says Shepheard. “Something we are looking at with the film commission is how we can put together a sustainable model to encourage productions to take place here.”

In the meantime, the commission is focusing on supporting local filmmakers. It recently announced that its $100,000 Sasha Grant Screenwriting Competition, awarded at the Circle confab in October, would begin accepting scripts in Arabic. And its documentary program for emerging local filmmakers, “New Voices,” is planning to have three half-hour films ready this month.

But until financing programs are in place, argues Filmworks topper Tim Smythe, the man behind bringing Warner Bros.’ “Syriana” to film in Dubai and Universal’s “The Kingdom” to Abu Dhabi, the UAE cannot hope to have a truly functioning film industry — every single producer is looking at soft money.

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