Tarak Ben Ammar, Ed Pressman and others gave the UAE states plenty to think about at the Circle Conference last week in Abu Dhabi.
The Circle Conference in Abu Dhabi held its fourth edition last week and the programme reflected a decided shift away from the Hollywood business and the attendance of Hollywood bigwigs to focus on building a local industry infrastructure in the Gulf.
Opening keynote speaker Tarak Ben Ammar set the tone by urging Emirati leadership “not to put too much focus on Hollywood films.”
“If you are to invest in Hollywood films, think strategically,” he said. “Be smarter than the investors who came to Los Angeles before you with their chequebooks open only to leave years later with a hole where their money used to be. You wouldn’t be the first. The only ones who have succeeded are those who gave as much importance to their own region as they did the glittering lights of Hollywood.”
Therein lies the new thinking in the wealthiest of the UAE states Abu Dhabi. Think regional. Even film production and financing outfit Imagenation (pronounced Image Nation) which has co-financed US films such as Fair Game, The Way Back and Furry Vengeance started production last week on its first local production Sea Shadow directed by Nawaf Al-Janahi.
It’s fascinating to be in the UAE and witness the systematic seeding of a new film culture. Talent is being discovered and encouraged, stories being developed, studio facilities being created and well-funded film festivals working to raise the international profile of the region.
But you can’t necessarily create a film industry overnight.
In one panel I chaired at Abu Dhabi on the role of the sales agent, the issue arose of a local market for regional films. To make these films work internationally, it would help if they worked at home first. But the UAE is dominated by US product and is rife with DVD and online piracy.
Between them, the seven emirates have a population of just 5 million people, 83% of which are non-Arab, leaving a small number of local audiences to respond to the authentic Arabic experience on screen.
And one area that has perhaps been overlooked in the development of the industry is the role of the producer. Ironically the closing keynote was with one of the world’s most prolific independent producers Ed Pressman who discussed his extraordinary 75-film career in front of a rapt audience. Without a producer like Pressman, many of the great American films of the last 40 years wouldn’t have been made and many great film-makers would have remained undiscovered. The art of creative producing is not easy to teach nor a unique skillset like Pressman’s easy to duplicate, yet a culture of enterprising producers is a function which needs a role in the UAE.
Hollywood, itself suffering the biggest sea change it has experienced in decades, felt somewhat irrelevant in the discussions which also covered inter-regional cooperation and local technological expertise.
Ben Ammar added in his keynote that the Middle East should only really interact with the US system if it had grander ambitions.
“If you want to play that game, then play the big boys’ game,” he advised. “Buy companies. Acquire a studio. That’s where the real power lies. That is what will really grab the attention of corporate America, particularly in these economic times.”