Dubai looks to nurture film business

Foreigners flock to country to make fortunes

Driving in late at night from Dubai airport, the most striking aspect is its similarity to Los Angeles. With a warm desert breeze, endless highways and towering buildings, Dubai hopes it can also build a Hollywood-style film center.

While other Middle East countries struggle with war and economic strife, in recent years, Arabs — and increasingly Asians, Europeans and some Americans — have flocked to Dubai to make their fortunes.

 At the forefront of its efforts has been the Dubai Film Fest, now in its third year. Weeklong fest wrapped Dec. 17 following its starriest edition yet, with Oliver Stone, Richard Gere and Laurence Fishburne among those attending. For all the excitement of seeing the city’s transformation however, big questions remain over the city’s ability to attract those willing to buy into the long-term potential of a Dubai film industry.

While the opening night party suffered from over-enthusiastic doormen who embarrassingly turned away employees of Dubai’s government-owned channel, who had earlier been covering the event, fest officials made a strong effort this year to push the business end of showbiz at the fest.

Fest’s first-ever industry office, along with networking events and script workshops for aspiring Emirati helmers, suggests a genuine desire to lay the foundations for a sustainable film biz in Dubai.

Execs from France’s promotional film body Unifrance were in town to introduce young Gulf helmers to European sales agents, financiers and producers. “We want to see them progress from local filmmaking to international deals,” says Unifrance’s Antoine Khalifa. “There’s no reason why they can’t make the jump in time and with the right support.”

 Similarly, the fest’s inaugural Muhr prize awarding excellence in Arab filmmaking — the region’s richest with a total kitty of $325,000 — is a commendable introduction. In a surprise to many, Algerian road movie “Barakat!” helmed by Djamila Sahraoui, took home the top prize for best feature, leaving the Weinstein Co.’s “Days of Glory” and “WWW — What a Wonderful World” walking away empty-handed.

 Ironically, Dubai’s attempts to replicate the L.A. film scene have resulted in its picking up many of Los Angeles’ worst aspects, including epic traffic jams exacerbated by a shortage of public transportation. More troubling, however, could be the complete lack of film culture that existed in the city as recently as a decade ago. “The UAE itself is only 30 years old. They don’t have a film culture,” says Gianluca Chacra of Dubai-based indie film distrib Front Row Entertainment. “Everything is imported from outside. The attitude here is, we’ve got money, let’s just import the talent in.”

“Dubai is a big real estate operation, and they’ve succeeded fantastically well at that,” says producer Tarak Ben Ammar, a board member of the Weinstein Co. “For Dubai to be competitive, they’re going to have to do more than just build a media city. Will investors in Dubai put their money into making people’s movies? That’s the dilemma. I don’t think people are going to go to Dubai just for the locations.”

 No one does building like Dubai. Whether it’s the world’s biggest mall, first indoor ski slope in the middle of the desert — or as a bridge between East and West — the region is constantly striving to outdo other cities. Whether it fulfills its promise of building a successful film biz, however, remains to be seen.