Best boy

Thanks to its canny approach to financing, an outstanding local infrastructure and some impressive home-grown talent, Dubai is turning heads across the international film scene

A mere two years ago, Dubai’s vision of becoming a global media hub was bleak. Thanks to a global financial crisis that was threatening to topple some of the world’s most established economies, the 24-hour-a-day construction that had rapidly built up Dubai’s elaborate hotels and gleaming office buildings ground to a halt. Tourism declined and business deals were ‘re-evaluated’.

The international press, after producing several years of glowing, awe-struck headlines marvelling at the emirate’s optimism and ambition, declared the glittering dream that was Dubai all but dead.

But as it turns out, tales of Dubai’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, the emirate has not only weathered the punishing economic storm, it is now thriving.

Nowhere is this clearer than the burgeoning entertainment sector, a major part of Dubai’s decade-long expansion strategy that includes everything from content creation for both film and TV, to location facilities (at time of writing Tom Cruise had concluded filming parts of Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, the latest in the film franchise, in Dubai) and studio space, animation, gaming, film financing and international co-productions.

Building an industry from scratch was never going to be easy, but in the last year alone a number of developments suggest Dubai’s entertainment industry is perhaps even stronger now than it was four years ago.

The Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), which takes place in December, has posted record attendance every year since its first edition in 2003.

After years of speculation about whether Dubai could support its own indigenous film-making culture, 28-year-old Ali Mostafa’s recent release, City of Life, became the first big-budget feature shot and financed entirely in Dubai. The film screened throughout the region and managed to surpass expectations while going head-to-head with Hollywood blockbusters.

American TV giant Time Warner-owned Turner Broadcasting System recently struck deals with local production shingles the Rubicon Group and Lammtara Pictures to generate localised children’s content for the vast Arab TV audience. Elsewhere, the Arab Media Corporation has announced plans to deliver six new channels to the region.

Dubai now has infrastructure in place to support its local industry and host offshore shoots thanks to Dubai Studio City, the largest facility of its kind in the region.

So it appears that, after flirting with disaster, Dubai’s entertainment and media sectors now offer potentially greater opportunities than they did a mere five years ago. In fact, the survival of Dubai’s nascent film sector in the aftermath of the financial crisis has become something the industry can promote to the world, especially given the fact that a number of more mature global film markets have yet to truly recover.

For PR purposes alone, Dubai’s ability to bounce back so quickly looks very good to Hollywood and beyond.

“Opportunity exists in the Middle East for a variety of reasons – the main one being that there are 400m people living in the Middle East and those 400m people, almost all of them, are starving for content, starving for entertainment,” says David Pritchard, President of LA-based GigaPix Studios, which co-produced, along with Jordan’s Paper & Pen Films, the hit local release Captain Abu Raed.

Even though Abu Raed failed to make much noise abroad, the local response to the film only strengthened Pritchard’s belief that Dubai and the Middle East present a golden opportunity to content creators such as himself.

“We won almost every award that we could win in those markets,” he says. “For a small Arab-language film, the [local] response was terrific.”

Similar to Pritchard, Iranian-American producer Mahyad Tousi sees Dubai as a major player in a region primed to consume localised content thanks to a generational shift that has changed traditional attitudes towards entertainment.

Tousi, along with business partner (and frequent CNN contributor) Reza Aslan, named their production shingle BoomGen Studios as a nod to the young-yet-powerful consumer force emerging in the Middle Eastern market.

“We’ve built an entire company based on the fact that we think there’s an opportunity,” says Tousi, who was recently promoting a Middle East-set espionage thriller at the Toronto International Film Festival. “Seventy-five per cent of the region is under the age of 35, and is going to define storytelling. It’s also going to define the market value of the region.”

Tousi believes the entertainment sector in Dubai and the region is even stronger now thanks to some extremely prescient restraint shown during the financial crisis.

Looking back, Tousi says that without Dubai’s measured approach to film financing the local industry may have died before it ever got off the ground.

“Everyone was complaining: ‘Well, they’re all talk and no action’,” he recalls. “But in hindsight now, we know that the deals were not good deals, and there was way too much product for the market, and everybody lost their shirt.

“What surprised me most about Dubai and the rest of the region,” he adds, “is that they’ve been very, very smart about investing their money. That’s the reason why they were so unaffected by the [financial crisis].”

“It’s gone back into a growth stage,” comments prominent local producer Tim Smythe. As CEO of Filmworks, Smythe – who has lived and worked in Dubai for 11 years – helped facilitate location shoots for big-budget Hollywood releases such as Syriana and The Kingdom, and was one of the key backers of Mostafa’s City of Life.

Going forward, however, Smythe and others see challenges that will need to be resolved if the local film sector is to continue its expansion. Foremost among these is a dearth of movie screens in the region, thus creating a chicken and egg scenario: without enough screens, recouping investment is hard, but without enough films, the demand for local releases remains low.

“The lack of screens basically hinders completely the opportunity of developing the industry, and especially your local industry,” Smythe says. “Realistically there are 800 screens in the Middle East, [but] 400 of those are in Egypt. If you’re a non-Egyptian film, you can only release on eight of those screens. So in other words, there are 408 screens in the Middle East, not 800.”

For Tousi, this is an opportunity in itself, but the key is to start with the product, then deal with demand. He cites City of Life as an example.

“It was our first feature film, and that’s huge,” he says enthusiastically. “You look at the parts of the world where there’s a thriving film industry and it’s those parts of the world where they consume their own products. If you consume your own products, then you have a future.”

Another possible hindrance going forward will be the obvious cultural differences between the film sector in Dubai and those in the West. Despite all the local support, Arab filmmakers still have to be mindful of taboos.

“I still think we have a very long way to go before we are able to make films directly on a par with the West,” says City of Life director Mostafa.

“Unfortunately, the grittier the film, the more successful it becomes internationally. We can’t do this here now and I personally don’t think we need to. We are still starting so we don’t want to do too much too quickly.”

The future of Dubai’s film industry is certainly brighter than anyone would have imagined a mere two years ago, and optimism, thanks to so many encouraging recent developments, may very well be at an all-time high.