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Why ‘Star Wars: Episode VII’ Decided to Shoot in Abu Dhabi (EXCLUSIVE)

Paul Baker (right), exec director of Abu Dhabi's twofour54 intaj, speaks to Variety's Leo Barraclough (left) in Cannes

CANNESAbu Dhabi’s twofour54 has been picked by Disney to line-produce the United Arab Emirates portion of the “Star Wars: Episode VII” shoot, currently filming in the Emirates, Paul Baker, exec director of twofour54 intaj, revealed Wednesday in Cannes.

Speaking to Variety, Baker said that the “Star Wars” shoot was a great shot in the arm for the nascent UAE film biz: “It’s the film, isn’t it? If you are trying to build an industry and you manage to attract that film then it’s a great start.”

Director J.J. Abrams and the cast flew to Abu Dhabi in early May, with the support of the Abu Dhabi Film Commission and twofour54 intaj. There are more than 600 cast and crew — including a significant amount of local crew — working on the production in Abu Dhabi, with key production staff working closely with twofour54 intaj since January. The production is set to be in Abu Dhabi for two to three weeks.

“There’s a wide number of reasons why ‘Star Wars’ chose to shoot in Abu Dhabi. Obviously, straight off the bat, you’ve got to get the creative right,” said Baker, who was previously exec VP of Pinewood USA. “We have a great selection of locations that appeal to those guys. Then, there is everything else that falls into place: production infrastructure, crew, equipment suppliers, and obviously a big one in the rebate.”

The 30% production rebate, which was launched two years ago, has proved popular with international producers. twofour54 and the Abu Dhabi Film Commission in the past 12 months have attracted several international productions, including Sony’s paranormal thriller “Deliver Us from Evil,” Universal Pictures’ “Fast & Furious 7” and Bollywood movie “Bang Bang” from Fox Star Studios.

“We really started ramping up last year,” Baker said. “We wanted to create a production environment that was of international standards. So a producer can say: ‘If I spend $1 million on the ground in Abu Dhabi, I am going to get $300,000 back.’ So we launched the rebate, and I think that’s had a big impact on the decision-making process now, because producers are able to see what they can spend in Abu Dhabi and work out immediately what they are going to get back.”

In the case of “Star Wars,” the rebate was only part of the equation. “The rebate is an important part of that, but if you have a rebate and no infrastructure then that rebate just gets drained anyway by the cost of travelling to that destination, or whatever it might be,” he said.

The rebate applies to the below-the-line local spend. “The structure of our rebate is, effectively, a below-the-line rebate. The reason that it is structured like that at the moment is that we are building our infrastructure,” he said. “And when we get to a stage where we’ve got a much bigger machine to feed — i.e. thousands of crew and suppliers — then we may adjust the tax, and turn on the above-the-line element.”

However, the Abu Dhabi rebate has a significant advantage over similar incentives, which is particularly relevant to Hollywood productions.

“Where it is interesting and different compared with other territories: your flights qualify, and your international crew,” he said. “So whilst we are busy building our crew base (which we do have), and you are having to bring people in — because, let’s face it, big Hollywood productions move with their crews — we wanted to incentivize that. Having that expertise in Abu Dhabi allows for the international transfer of skills, and helps us build that industry going forward.”

Six UAE nationals from twofour54’s Creative Lab program are working as interns with the “Star Wars” crew, both in Abu Dhabi and at the U.K.’s Pinewood Studios, where the production is based.

Above-the-line talent from the Middle East also qualifies for the rebate.

A recent report by a firm of consultants found that for every $1 delivered to a production in rebate, $4.50 is injected into the local economy, Baker said.

Another benefit that attracting a pic like “Star Wars” delivers to Abu Dhabi is the boost to tourism and “the impact on brand Abu Dhabi,” he said. The “Lord of the Rings” franchise resulted in a 40%
increase in tourism to New Zealand, for example. “We are doing exactly the same to drive that level of tourism,” he said. “So there is a huge impact, and the opportunity for this industry to pay back to Abu Dhabi, and that also serves well for the infrastructure we have. We have a huge amount of (world-class) hotels. It’s a nice place to go and work.”

Nick Vivarelli contributed to this report.

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