Wealthy emirate seeks to become production destination

Film boom looming? | Fests spur production, build new partnerships | Pro scouts emirate’s highways, byways

If you build it they will come. This motto appears to have worked in a number of ways for Dubai, a city synonymous with growth and prosperity. The population rose by 7.6% in 2009. It’s soaring skyline is the envy of cities everywhere. And, in media, the emirate’s vibrant broadcast industry has formed the nucleus for what the region hopes will be a key driver in attracting feature film production.

Cinema-related activities are on the upswing both on the consumer and professional fronts. An increase in the number of multiplexes has helped push admissions up 15% over four years, while several post-production facilities and distribs have set up camp in the neighborhood. These developments are sending the film world a “come hither” vibe.

Even with neighboring Abu Dhabi fast on the heels of Dubai — the former’s $1 billion production arm Imagenation has invested in a slew of major studio pics such as “Fair Game” and an upcoming thriller with “Casino Royale” scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade — the latter’s media sector seems to be weathering the downturn still plaguing other parts of its economy.

“It’s certainly accelerating now,” says Anthony Smythe, managing director at equipment and crew supplier Filmquip Media. “It’s taken us a long time to get to where we are now, but the base of our film industry is finally starting to develop.”

Smythe, brother to producer Tim Smythe (who’s known in Hollywood as Dubai’s go-to feature guy and facilitated bringing Warner Bros.’ “Syriana” to shoot in the region and Universal’s “The Kingdom” to Abu Dhabi) argues that the recent world recession should actually help attract more productions to the region as it has pushed the cost of local lodging down by 10% over the past year.

“Cost of accommodation has always been a prohibiting factor, but now that it’s changing and workload is increasing, attracting work is more viable,” he says.

He adds that equipment rental prices in the region are around 25% lower than in the U.S.

The government doesn’t have any formal film incentives in place, but all expenditures are tax-free, which is an attractive incentive in and of itself to foreign producers. Also, Dubai Studio City’s Location Approval Service department acts like a de facto film commission.

Following payment of a $130 application fee, teams are in place to facilitate shoots on location, promising to eliminate the red tape associated with filming in many other regions in the world.

“Our locations are the No. 1 key,” says Jamal al Sharif, executive director of Studio City, part of global media hub Dubai Media City. “We have 360 days of blue sky, modern infrastructure and desert just moments away from the city.”

Plus, Studio City is currently in the final phase of building three soundstages for television and film production. One taps in at 15,000 square feet, two at 25,000 square feet each. The $400 million project, funded through private business partners, will house the largest stages in the Middle East and should be completed by early 2011.

“Infrastructure is something we provide, and the soundstages will complete what is necessary in Dubai,” says al Sharif.

Georgia Kacandes, who produced “Syriana” (the first major Hollywood production to lense in the region) in 2004 with Jennifer Fox and Michael Nozik, says that even then, shooting in Dubai was relatively painless.

“One of the reasons we were keen to shoot there is because it’s not a Third World country,” she says. “We needed pristine worlds for our shoot, and when we got the OK, it saved us. Rental cars, accommodations, everything we needed was right there.”

Shane Martin, topper at Boomtown Prods., believes the region’s finesse with facilitating location shoots is paramount to a successful business. “Studio City will give attractive hotel rates, waive location fees, make sure there’s instant access to good locations,” he says. “They will help with airlines on reasonably priced travel.”

Martin, who is currently in development on a $30 million-$50 million local production, “Captain Shakespeare,” a prequel to “Lawrence of Arabia,” adds that a recent boom in post-production facilities in Dubai has pushed growth.

“You used to have to go back to London to do post, but now there are fantastic post houses here,” he says.

But it’s not all roses. It’s no secret that Dubai is very particular about content, given its Islamic roots, and a number of studio deals have fallen through as a result of a rigid script policy.

“There’s a very stereotypical image of the Arab world,” says Shivani Pandya, managing director of the Dubai Intl. Film Festival, which has been a catalyst for the regional cinema industry since its inception in 2004. “We want to steer away from this with a concentrated effort not to promote the negativity that exists. We want to build cultural bridges.”

But all bridges need governmental support, which waivers at times because of the strict content rules. For example, “Sex and the City 2″ was skedded to lense in Abu Dhabi but notoriously had to move to Morocco after officials declined it permission to shoot upon reviewing the script. Producers of Fox’s “The A-Team” and Warner Bros.’ “Body of Lies” also had to look elsewhere after negotiations to shoot in the region fell through.

Richard Klein, managing director at McLarty Associates, who advises film studios on how to navigate access to new locations like Dubai, suggests the trick is to align high levels of interest with Dubai’s still-developing infrastructure.

“There have been disconnects in the past, sometimes over content and sometimes over business culture,” he says. “But it’s still an evolving process, as with any emerging market. The key is, you have a location that wants to be film friendly and incubate a real industry, and you have studios that really do appreciate what Dubai has to offer. Everyone is pointed in the right direction.”

Hollywood is a small community, and perhaps it will take just one success to encourage more producers to lense in the region. “Dubai needs one big, glossy action-packed production,” says Klein.

And now may be the time. At press time, Paramount execs were in Dubai discussing a possible shoot for the next “Mission Impossible” pic, starring Tom Cruise. The studio is looking to lense for around three weeks of the five-month shoot in Dubai in October or November this year.

Sources in Dubai said the studio had been scouting locations for the movie “on and off for some time,” adding that “serious discussions” between the major and Dubai Studio City were under way. Par execs declined to comment, as did Sharif.

“If you have a big, fat movie with the right content and you want to break out, go to Dubai and the doors would swing wide open,” says Kacandes. “Portray everyone in a positive light and they will bend over backwards for you. The problem is right now we all want to go there to shoot politically difficult films.”

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