The Gulf continues to cement its reputation as a film-making hub, but the growing presence of big budget international shoots serves to highlight the lack of local production, says Colin Brown.

When Fast & Furious 6 smashed the box office record for an opening weekend in the UAE this June, the decision over where to shoot the seventh instalment in the franchise was made that much easier for Universal.

But what really tipped the balance in the Gulf’s favour for a sequel that had once considered locations in Egypt was Abu Dhabi’s 30% production rebate launched in September 2012.

This is the third production to officially take advantage of the generous incentives in Abu Dhabi. The location had already won Hollywood’s seal of approval when producer Jerry Bruckheimer agreed to shoot Beware The Night, his forthcoming supernatural thriller for Sony’s Screen Gems, on locations that included a farm in the Liwa Oasis and at twofour54 intaj’s studio facilities.

‘What is really missing, in my view, is direct government support’

Khalid Al Mahmood, film-maker

That this story, starring Eric Bana, revolves around a cop investigating a series of occult-related crimes is yet another sign of progress in international film eyes: demonic and witchcraft themes have troubled regional sensitivities in the past, especially in Kuwait. Also progressing nicely is the level of local film-making know-how.

“Abu Dhabi seemed like the natural choice for this feature because of its unique desert landscape, the 30% production rebate and because of the competitively priced production services and facilities on offer here,” Beware The Night’s executive producer Glenn Gainor told Middle East news website Arabian Business.

“The Abu Dhabi Film Commission assisted with location scouting and we’ve been able to limit the size of our travelling crew due to the quality of crew available locally through our UAE producer twofour54 intaj,” he added.

Also helping to seal the deal for international producers has been Abu Dhabi’s embrace of neighbouring city Dubai as a complementary, rather than competitive, production resource. Indeed, Fast & Furious 7 has also been openly scouting locations in that Emirate, home to iconic structures and also the region’s largest production facility in Dubai Media City, which has 15,000 square feet of studio space, with two more 25,000 square-foot facilities due to open later this year.

Dubai established its own film and TV commission last year but has steered clear of instituting a fixed-percentage film incentive of its own, preferring instead to operate an informal and fully customisable programme with rebates of up to 20%.

Taken together, the entire UAE can double for many Middle Eastern and Asian cities, a factor that has steered a number of Bollywood productions its way.

Increasingly, however, the regional landmarks themselves are the draw. The latest Shah Rukh Khan film, Happy New Year, has recently been shooting at Dubai’s Atlantis The Palm resort and The Dubai Mall - a recognition too of the UAE’s ascendance as Bollywood’s most lucrative export market.

The local dimension

The presence of so many commercially oriented international productions serves to point out the absence of corresponding Arabic-language films filming in the city streets and deserts. For all the mechanisms in place to foster local film-making voices, particularly those making short films, there is still no industrial infrastructure in place for financing audience-driven entertainment.

‘None of the local films have provided a return, and investors are not interested’

Michelle Nickelson, MENA CineFinance

“What is really missing, in my view, is direct government support,” says UAE film-maker Khalid Al Mahmood, who would like to see a local film fund, independent from private equity, which could be drawn from a levy on movie tickets. “If the regional government is not yet supporting feature-making in a direct way, it’s hard to see many financial institutions or wealthy investors taking similar steps.”

Michelle Nickelson, Dubai-based founder of what she believes is the Gulf Cooperation Council’s first film investment fund, MENA CineFinance, agrees that private capital is not attracted yet to regional film-making - but she cites different reasons. “Investors are concerned with two things: use of proceeds and return on investment. None of the local films made here so far have provided a return, and investors are not interested.

“The goal should not be to strive for local films; the goal should be to make good films,” says Nickelson, who would like to see content with international appeal being developed from the region, in association with US and UK film companies. “Once the local film-making industry is on a par with major international ones, then it will provide a return, and investors will take it seriously.”