Dubai surfaces as regional film hub

Hurdles (and one touchy question) barely slow country's emergence as fertile film territory

WHAT: Dubai Intl. Film Festival
WHEN: Dec. 10-17
WHERE: Dubai, United Arab Emirates
ONSCREEN: 111 features, docus and shorts
WEB: dubaifilmfest.com

LONDON — Dubai has declared itself open for business to the world’s film biz. Some dozen Bollywood pics have shot in Dubai in 2006 alone. With a slew of Mideast-related films on the slate of many Hollywood shingles, Dubai aims to turn itself into a regional filmmaking hub — providing everything from locations to pre- and post-production services — thanks to the long-awaited advent of Dubai Studio City, set to open its first soundstages this month.

“People are aware of Dubai now, and they’re aware of the government’s investment in Studio City,” says Tim Smythe, CEO of Filmworks, which provides infrastructure support for shoots in the region. “The level of expertise has increased across the board, although there’s still a long way to go.”

Smythe repped the United Arab Emirates shoots for 2005’s “Syriana” as well as “The Kingdom,” which recently wrapped its eight-day U.A.E. sojourn. For those helmers wishing to lend authenticity to such projects, the country offers unmatched services.

“I decided early on it was important that we not fake it in Arizona but actually go to the Persian Gulf, take an American film crew and just on the most basic level have a cultural exchange,” says “Syriana” helmer Stephen Gaghan. “I had to have the light of the Persian Gulf, which you can’t fake anywhere because of the 100% humidity, dust from the construction, the heat and the sunlight.”

“Kingdom,” helmed by Peter Berg from a Michael Mann story and starring Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner, follows a team of U.S. government agents sent to investigate the bombing of an American facility in the Middle East. With cinemas and filmmaking still banned in Saudi Arabia, where sections of the pic are set, producers used U.A.E. locations to double for the conservative kingdom.

While Dubai’s emergence as a regional hub has been nothing short of sensational, whether it can replicate the success of Dubai Media City with the new Studio City remains to be seen. Dubai Media City has successfully attracted international heavy-hitters (such as Showtime, CNN, Reuters and BBC World, as well as regional players MBC and Dubai Media Inc.) with its tax-free zone, high-tech infrastructure and relative stability in a region more commonly associated with political strife.

Studio City is busy trying to complete work on its three soundstages by fall 2007, at which point the facility will be able to offer local and international filmmakers a total soundstage capacity of 60,000 square feet. The first of these should open before the end of the year.

“It will be able to accept both Hollywood and Bollywood projects,” Studio City manager Jamal Al Sharif says. “Warner Bros. and the big boys are ready to come. Dubai has everything they need.”

Execs from Studio City returned from November’s American Film Market having inked seven deals with upcoming Hollywood projects to scout in the emirate. The Studio City complex, which will also include production offices and hotels for visiting film crews, hopes to become a one-stop shop for filmmakers around the region and beyond with post-production facilities that will allow helmers to shoot and complete their projects within the same site.

As important as attracting international filmmakers, however, is the creation of a local film industry. The U.A.E. produced its first feature in recent months, “Hilm” (Dream), and a growing number of young Emiratis making their own short films, all with the support of Studio City.

The debut of Saudi Arabia’s first-ever feature, “Keif Al Hal” this year, which shot in Dubai due to Saudi restrictions, also bodes well for the nascent film industry in the U.A.E. Saudi Arabia is the richest player on the pan-Arab TV scene, and a seeming willingness to shoot more features in neighboring Dubai should provide steady cash flow and opportunity for Emirati technicians and crews.

The rulers of Dubai have been unwavering in their commitment to create a vibrant film industry and culture in the territory by sponsoring events such as the Dubai Intl. Film Festival and Studio City. Plans are under way to launch a film commission next year and a film academy for aspiring students.

It is mainly the touchy subject of politics that clouds the horizon.

When “Syriana” finally bowed in the U.A.E. earlier this year, sensitive scenes of Pakistani workers being beaten by Emirati police were cut from the final prints, even though the script received official clearance to film the scenes in Dubai. That kind of inconsistency may prove troublesome in the long run, particularly if the territory hopes to establish a homegrown film biz.

While there are few limits to what foreign shingles can actually shoot in Dubai and its Studio City — scenes of a sexual nature and anything deemed blasphemous remain off-limits — a bigger question remains over how one can build a genuinely creative industry when doubts over censorship persist.

“I know a lot of film students here who have a lot of passion and talent,” says one U.A.E. distrib who insists on anonymity. “They’ve got great ideas, but they try to make their films and they never get released because it deals with political and religious subjects. They just end up working in an editing room for a TV company. A lot of them feel they’re going nowhere.”

Finding a resolution to this issue would make Dubai’s future as a genuine player in the local and international film industry even more filled with possibilities.