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Business From India Fuels Growth of Film Biz in Abu Dhabi

Tom Cruise in March tweeted a picture of himself jumping out of a plane over the Abu Dhabi desert to thank the Film Commission of the UAE capital for its “amazing help and cooperation” on a portion of the shoot for “Mission: Impossible — Fallout.” Naturally, the commission was thrilled.

But one film — or one scene from a film — does not an industry make. As Maryam Eid AlMheiri, who is CEO of Abu Dhabi’s Media Zone Authority, puts it: “If we want to build a sustainable economy around film production … it’s not about one movie a year.”

Nor, ultimately, is it merely about Hollywood stopovers of varying lengths, such as those made by productions like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” or “Furious 7.”

Which is why AlMheiri calls luring the 65-day shoot of 2017 Bollywood hit “Tiger Zinda Hai,” toplining Indian superstar Salman Khan, a turning point. Thanks to its 30% rebate on production spending and other perks, Abu Dhabi is becoming a prime destination to shoot Bollywood blockbusters.

Khan was back again last month for 35 days of work on action thriller “Race 3.” And AlMheiri says the actor, who is also a producer, has committed to returning with a third pic. Thanks to Bollywood productions, which are based in Mumbai, a less than three-hour flight away, Abu Dhabi is booked solid this year, and new facilities will soon be expanding.

“Tiger Zinda Hai,” a rescue-mission thriller that became Khan’s biggest hit last December, marks the longest feature ever shot in the UAE capital. Production company Yash Raj Films and twofour54 Abu Dhabi, a Media Zone subsidiary, re-created Iraq on location by building a nearly five-acre set over five months.

The film’s 300-strong production team from India, the U.S. and the MENA region got whatever military support it needed because the Media Zone Authority is directly connected with the government, says “Tiger Zinda” associate producer Aashish Singh, who is VP of Yash Raj Films. “This is an action film that could not be shot in the actual locations because it wasn’t practical to bring in choppers …  and stuff like that,” he adds.

UAE military support for “Race 3” includes providing a Blackhawk helicopter, Oshkosh trucks, NIMR military vehicles and Humvees.

Singh says the experience of previous Bollywood shoots such as “Dishoom,” “Baby” and “Bang Bang” gave him “the confidence to bring the entire film to Abu Dhabi and put up one of the biggest sets for any Indian film, not just one that was shot internationally.” He also points out the synergy of filming in an area with a large Indian diaspora that’s turning the Persian Gulf into the biggest box office market for Bollywood outside India.

Meanwhile, AlMheiri announced in March that to take fuller advantage of the production growth in Abu Dhabi, plans are under way to build a twofour54 Studio City complex with a 74-acre backlot in the city’s Mina Zayed waterfront area. “We can build permanent sets” and water tanks to boot, she says. By converting existing warehouses rather than building from scratch, she intends to have Abu Dhabi’s new facility operational within a year.

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