Abu Dhabi — which recently lured shoots of the new “Fast & Furious” and “Star Wars” installments and Bollywood’s “Bang Bang,” while also spawning road movie “From A to B” — the first Emirati pic ever to open the Abu Dhabi Film Festival — is fast becoming a textbook case in how to build a film and TV industry from scratch.
In less than a decade, a concerted effort has fostered what Abu Dhabi fest topper Ali Al Jabri calls the “Abu Dhabi system,” in which separate but synergic government-backed entities are laying the foundations of a nascent film and TV industry, now starting to gain traction. In this process, a key socio-economic function is being fulfilled, as the young nation strives to reduce its reliance on oil and fortify its future economy and self-identity.
One building block is Twofour54, Abu Dhabi’s media zone, which now hosts more than 300 media companies, including CNN, the BBC, Fox Intl. Channels and Cartoon Network. It also runs training programs, state-of-the art studio and post facilities, oversees the film fest and operates the Abu Dhabi Film Commission, which has launched a 30% production rebate that is proving to be a game changer.
The other is Image Nation, the production shingle with close Hollywood ties and smart local projects including Emirati helmer Ali F. Mostafa sophomore pic “A to B,” about three Western-educated Arab youths who travel 1,500 miles from Abu Dhabi to Beirut, passing through Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria, to mourn a deceased friend, and “Abu Dhabi Judicial,” a local adaptation of “L.A. Law,” now in the works, with U.S. scribe William Finklestein and a local team transposing Sharia, or Quranic law, into the storylines.
“Image Nation and Twofour54 are complementary. We work hand-in-glove, almost as though we are a single organization,” says U.S. exec Michael Garin, who is Image Nation’s CEO.
“The media zone’s primary responsibility is to ensure that there is critical mass in infrastructure and human and organizational resources to support a sustainable industry. Our job is to utilize those resources and create content.”
Production in Abu Dhabi has seen a major growth spurt since the 2012 launch of a 30% rebate, applicable to below-the-line-spend, the first of its kind in the region and which is proving a magnet for producers.
Since 2013, some 14 productions have been lured to Abu Dhabi, including several high-profile pics, like “Fast & Furious 7” and “Star Wars: Episode VII.”
“The biggest movies that shot in 2014 shot in Abu Dhabi, which is not a bad start,” boasts Paul Baker, exec director of Twofour54’s Intaj unit, which is dedicated to production services.
Perhaps even more importantly, half these shoots have been regional. “We love Hollywood shows coming here and continue to support that,” says Baker. But “nurturing the growth of Arabic production, that’s the primary sector for us.”
Baker says due to the civil war in Syria, Abu Dhabi has become a prime destination for displaced Syrian production, with a number of Syrian companies now based at Twofour54, including prominent Syrian TV outfit Clacket Prods., maker of hit Ramadan drama “Al Ikhwa” (“The Brothers”), which features stars from Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Algeria in tales about a businessman’s five adopted sons fighting over their father’s empire.
“These guys are shooting 30 half-hour episodes for $2 million,” Baker says. “If our market can sustain that, it’s a great sign for the industry that we are competitive, particularly on the Arab side, against our traditional competitors.”
Twofour54 also provided services for “A to B,” which was mostly shot in Abu Dhabi, besides Beirut and Jordan (which doubled for the Syrian leg of the travelogue). Image Nation funded and executive-produced the pic, which has possible export potential. It marks the first time the two entities joined forces in a project.
Mostafa’s debut feature, “City of Life,” a multilingual depiction of the contempo social fabric of neighboring Dubai, had a good local box office run. His followup is expected to take him to the next level.
“After five years of developing a media and entertainment hub and nurturing local talent, it was only a matter of time before someone like Ali Mostafa burst on the local film scene,” says Twofour54 CEO Noura Al Kaabi. “He is one of the UAE’s biggest success stories.”
“Our relationship with Ali is going to broaden beyond this film,” vows Garin. “We see in him a talent which at the moment is unique in Abu Dhabi, and he sees in us the means to achieve a level of professionalism that until we came along he couldn’t obtain in the UAE.”
While from its outset Image Nation has been a strong Hollywood investor, with strategic partnerships currently in place with Parkes/MacDonald Prods. and Ashok Amritraj’s Hyde Park — whose “99 Homes” will screen at the Abu Dhabi fest — the outfit now has what Garin calls “a robust pipeline of local feature films,” including autism docu “As One” by Yemeni-Brit filmmaker Hana Makki, also set to unspool at the fest, and other pics soon to be announced in what may become the start of a systematic cinematic output flow from the Persian Gulf.