Reel deals

China and the UAE are joining the US and India as centres of big-budget movie-making

At last year’s Emmy Awards, Michael Douglas thanked his then-estranged wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, as he collected his acting trophy, but she wasn’t in the LA theatre. She was halfway across the world, with Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicole Kidman, Christoph Waltz, Ewan McGregor, Harvey Weinstein and a host of other Hollywood and Chinese superstars at the launch of the enormous new US$5bn film production studio, the Oriental Movie Metropolis.

The studio occupies an area of 5.4 million square metres in Qingdao, a booming port town in eastern China. The studio and production facilities in Qingdao are expected to be fully operational by 2017.

While India currently makes more films than any other country – 1,602 last year alone – the US still has the largest film industry in terms of revenue: American and Canadian moviegoers together spent almost US$10.8bn at the box office in 2010, compared with China, in second place with US$2.7bn. Hollywood knows it, and is cutting deals accordingly.

In 2013, Rian Johnson’s sci-fi thriller Looper was reported as the first American film to make more money in China than the US during its first weekend, and many of the film’s locations were switched from Paris to Shanghai to appeal to Eastern viewers.

While Hollywood directors such as Johnson have been flying to cities such as Shanghai to shoot scenes, Chinese and Indian filmmakers in turn have been enticed to the UAE in order to use its spectacular architecture as backdrops for explosive action sequences. The US$20m Chinese film Switch, starring megastar Andy Lau, includes key scenes that take place at the Burj Khalifa, Burj Al Arab and plush hotel Atlantis, The Palm, where a high-speed car chase tears through the opulent lobby.

On its Chinese release in July, Switch had the third-highest opening day ever for a local film, and when it hit screens in the UAE during Eid, it pulled in unusually big crowds for a foreign-language movie. The Indian romance Unforgettable was also filmed in the UAE, in just 49 days – and was the first Bollywood product to be fully made abroad, possibly paving the way for a flourishing Bollywood industry in the Emirates.

The Help Octavia Spencer and Emma Stone
Abu Dhabi's Image Nation gave financial support to films including The Help, which starred Octavia Spencer and Emma Stone

American filmmakers have been increasingly choosing to shoot in the Emirates, too, drawn not only by the impressive range of cityscapes, deserts and mountains, but also by state-of-the-art production facilities, infrastructure and “rebates and incentives”. That’s according to Julie Smythe, a development producer for Filmworks Dubai, who facilitated Switch’s scenes in the UAE as well as working on Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, The Bourne Legacy and Syriana.

The UAE also helps fund Hollywood movies: Abu Dhabi’s Image Nation gave financial support to films including Contagion, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Help.

What’s helped this international cooperation, according to the consultant, producer and founder of Pacific Bridge Pictures, Robert Cain, is the rise of prominent film festivals in places such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where filmmakers and financiers from around the world can meet, mingle and come up with ways of collaborating.

So does this shifting, globalised movie landscape mean that Anglophone movie- goers will be queuing up on opening weekend for the latest Chinese block-buster in 10 years’ time? Not quite, Cain says, but he predicts that in the near future “the kind of [American] films that get made are going to be the ones that cater to a Chinese audience and to the Chinese film administration”.