Resource-rich UAE looks to conjure film business

Goal is content by Arabs for Arabs, but future is uncertain

Let’s say you have unlimited cash, established Hollywood connections, an educated populace and the government greasing the skids at every turn. Would that be enough?

It may not. We’re in the process of finding out.

As my flight begins its bumpy descent into Los Angeles from the United Arab Emirates, where I spent a week at the Abu Dhabi Media Summit and its adjacent film festival, I’m still trying to get my head around what I’d just seen and experienced: an ambitious, coordinated effort to build a content-creation engine that runs on oil.

It’s part of the UAE’s larger effort to rapidly diversify its economy some 30 years after the discovery of crude. There are similar attempts afoot to branch into science, biomedical, technology and aerospace industries, but none are as risky or potentially transformative as this one. In a region where schlocky YouTube trailers can spark deadly riots and filmmakers watch their six, is it possible?

On the one hand, you have enormous resources, both human and fiscal, aligning in a way that’s impressive for its clarity of mission, its linear organization, its will to succeed. (As I told my colleague several times during our time in Abu Dhabi, in particular after appearances by Bill Gates and Ari Emanuel, “Wow, these people are not f — ing around.”)

On the other, hel-LO? This is showbiz! Losing your shirt is a rite of passage! Are they out of their minds?

Lucky for anyone who just might be, there’s twofour54, the state-backed org whose mission is to “enable the development of world class Arabic media and entertainment content, by Arabs for Arabs, and to position Abu Dhabi as a regional center of excellence in content creation.”

For Hollywood, the key words here are “by Arabs for Arabs.” Though companies like Image Nation Abu Dhabi have co-financed Hollywood films from “Men in Black 3” to “The Help,” don’t mistake what’s going on for Tinseltown dabbling. They’re interested in Hollywood’s opportunities and expertise but won’t be its ATM.

“This region, since time immemorial, has been importing culture. It has been importing Turkish and American TV. There is production in the region, but the quality is not high enough to export. We have proven it is doable,” Naif Al Mutawa, founder of Teshkeel Media Group, said to local English-language newspaper the National.

I’m not so sure that’s been proven just yet, and the nascent effort has already suffered setbacks. Comedy Central set up a development academy in Abu Dhabi that yielded nothing and folded; a massive videogame launch fell flat; and there’s no single film, TV show or digital property that one can point to and say, “See? We did it! It’s working!”

Not that they much care at this early stage. The system was set up to engage, train and nurture Gulf region natives and expats who will be the foundation of a permanent industry, not churn out instant hit properties. The many aspiring young Arab producers and directors I spoke with are grateful for that.

They want to make content that will resonate in the region, but their goals are loftier; they want to change the world’s perception of the Middle East. One of twofour54’s early accomplishments, they told me, was to make a media career feel like a noble pursuit — to their parents, to their friends, to their countrymen.

Mohammed Al Turki, the executive producer who backed the Abu Dhabi Film Festival opener “Arbitrage,” hinted that beneath what may look to us like a playboy move burns a desire for that change.

“Since I started my film career, it wasn’t just my dream to make an impression in Hollywood but to bring Hollywood home,” Al Turki said. “In the Gulf region, where we can tend to be conservative, film can be taboo. We are changing that.”

When Al Turki finished and the house went dark, dozens of men in thawbs and keffiyehs stood to leave. Maybe they’d already seen it. More likely is that they had no such intention. In the latter scenario, it’s clear that an uphill battle awaits, no matter the resources at hand.