As the Dubai International Film Festival crossed its midway point, the inaugural Dubai Film Market (DFM) reported its first deals. The first sale of the market was Alchemy Films taking on Middle East rights to South African comedy Mr Bones 2, already a box-office hit at home. Gray Hofmeyr directs the Videovision Entertainment project starring Leon Schuster.

And DFM director Ziad Yaghi has revealed to that Iranian state TV is now bidding on deals for 20 feature films. 'They are independent world cinema titles,' Yaghi said, although specific titles aren't yet confirmed.

Several other distributors are entering in negotiations for DFM titles as well, Yaghi said. The market's state-of-the-art Cinetech platform has tracked 410 screenings as of Sunday morning, with the top five titles being Casanegra (Sigma Technologies), Mia And The Migoo (Celluloid Dreams), Black Nation (Herrlander Pictures), Masquerades (Umedia) and Freej (Lammtara Pictures).

The festival opened with Oliver Stone's W, continued its parade of stars with an amFAR benefit welcoming Goldie Hawn, Casey Affleck and Salma Hayek.

So far, the festival has lived up to its reputation as a luxurious networking destination for the international film industry yet organisers hope more business could be done before DIFF closes on Thursday. The co-production programme, Dubai Film Connection, kicked off its first meetings on Sunday.

At several panel discussions, local film-makers expressed their frustration at the slow growth of a regional film infrastructure. Nayla Al Khaja, a fledgling producer now planning her first features - including a murder thriller set in Dubai, notes that film-making by United Arab Emirates film-makers telling local stories is 'a huge challenge, we are pioneers.

We need a couple of years to see good feature films come out of this region. We need government funding in the next few years, we don't have that business here with sales companies or actors. We've got a long way to go.'

At an Arab film finance panel, the experts bemoaned the lack of distribution structures in the region (outside of established territories like Egypt). Vincenzo Bugno from Berlin's World Cinema Fund said: 'Distribution is probably the next step. And training for producers would be extremely important in this region.'

Talent base

US-based Joslyn Barnes, who is Danny Glover's producing partner in Louverture Films, added: 'It's important to create a talent base, star power can start to help driving financing, as we've seen in Indian and China.'

Gabriel Khoury, the famed Egyptian producer, summed up the frustrations of many when he called for more government support in the region, such as coproduction treaties or tax incentives. 'If there is not government intervention I don't think the cinema industry will be sustainable,' Khouri said. 'It is their duty. Without government intervention we have a big problem. We see $500m and $600m funds being established for US films but there's no money for Arabic film, it's a farce.'

Yet Steffen Aumueller of Sherezade Film Development argued that the private sector should lead the way and inspire government involvement. 'It always starts off with private funding to creat some success and then the government can jump in as a second step,' he said.

Sheherezade, based in Bahrain, has recently added new investors including Dubai-based Desert Doorts and Kuwait-based Cable Vision and has plans to set up a new P&A fund as well. 'It's definitely tough to find funding,' he said of the company's network of mostly high-net-worth individuals. 'But it's not impossible.'

Italian initiative

Earlier in the festival, Italian officials were discussing an in-the-works co-production treaty between Italy and the UAE. Francesco Maria Giro, Under-secretary of State to the Minister of Culture and Cultural Heritage, said: 'We've been working for a few months for this initiative to act as a bridge between Italy and the UAE.

'We want to share a commitment related to music, film, literature and publishing, theatre and music. The Italian government is strongly ingaged in this initiative and will soon sign a protocol.' Italian ministers will be in Abu Dhabi next week for futher meetings and to 'strike together some deals and initiatives.'

Certainly one step toward more infrastructure, in terms of facilities, comes from the growing Dubai Studio City. Executive director Jamal Alsharif has announced full occupancy at the 18 boutique studios at the complex which were finshed in early 2008. In 2009, Dubai Studio City hopes to open some of its larger spaces -- including a 15,000-square-foot studio, two connecting 25,000-square-foot studios, and two water tanks. In all, up to 14 soundstages are planned, along with workshops, standard and luxury hotels, retail outlets, restaurants, cinemas, amphitheatres and lower-cost housing for visiting crews. The facilities also include a 3-million-square-foot backlot.

Alsharif also oversees Dubai's locations approvals, what he calls 'a seed to becoming a film commission,' and he notes that approved shooting applications in 2008 (as of early December) were at 1,100, up from 900 in 2007. Most of those are TV commercials, but he hopes to see an increase in feature films shot here. Currently, most are Bollywood projects. 'We predict next year another 20-30% increase in production,' Alsharif said. International producers should take note, however, that filming rules require scripts to be submitted first - which has driven several shoots elsewhere if content is deemed inappropriate.

City Of Angels, Three Kings and The Dark Knight producer Charles 'Chuck' Roven, in town from Los Angeles to receive the festival's filmmaker of the year honour, was suitably impressed with the area and said he'd definitely consider shooting in the UAE in the future: 'I'd love to shoot a film here in Dubai, or in the region.

This is a very very exciting place, and hasn't been mined for its potential on the world stage. I'm sure that as the area grows we'll see more films shot here. There's so much cultural and political and economic stimulus here, there will be contstantly developing stories to tell out of here.'