Leading lights in Abu Dhabi’s nascent film sector have told Hollywood executives they are ramping up efforts to create a Middle East media and content hub as the region invests in sustainable alternatives to an oil-based economy.
CEO Noura Al Kaabi (pictured) of twofour54, the commercial arm of the Media Zone Authority-Abu Dhabi, and Image Nation chairman Mohamed Al Mubarak were speaking at a panel on Wednesday (11) as part of a promotional trip to Los Angeles.
“We want to reach a level where we’re the hub of creative content in the region,” said Al Kaabi, whose organisation operates on behalf of the Abu Dhabi Film Commission, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and Abu Dhabi Media Summit.
In recent years twofour54 and/or the Commission have enticed a number of high-profile productions with Abu Dhabi’s fresh 30% production incentive.
These include Disney and Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: Episode VII, which remained under a shroud of secrecy for months and was known only by the working title Avco until news got out recently that J J Abrams had shot footage in the locale.
Other projects include the upcoming Fast & Furious 7 from Universal and Sony’s Deliver Us From Evil.
It also emerged that the region’s facilities, suite of services and rules allowing foreign companies complete autonomy have prompted Warner Bros to consider breaking ground on a theme park.
“[We want to be] the leading content creator in the region,” said Image Nation chairman Mohamed Al Mubarak. “We have done three movies so far, two TV shows and a couple of documentaries. It’s not enough.”
The company launched in 2008 as a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi Media and Al Mubarak showed footage of DreamWorks’ The Hundred-Foot Journey starring Helen Mirren, one of two recent collaborations with Participant Media.
The other title is a documentary about Malala Yousafzai, the Afghan teenager who survived being shot by the Taliban as she went to school and has become a vocal advocate of female education.
In the case of the documentary, Participant approached Image Nation when they heard about the project. “We have content and IP to export to the US,” said Al Mubarak, whose company has previously partnered with Parkes/MacDonald Productions and Hyde Park Entertainment.
“These partnerships are not just seen as co-financing or production deals – they’re becoming educational partnerships.
“Four years ago when I joined Image Nation the number or writers and directors was scarce and they didn’t have tools to take things to the next level. We created these tools… we’re giving the UAE filmmakers the chance to create something at a fast pace.”
Al Mubarak added that the company was creating an Abu Dhabi version of L.A. Law and had been assembling a portfolio of animation and digital projects.
Panel moderator Walter Parkes, co-founder of Parkes/MacDonald Productions, said he first got to know the region while producing The Kite Runner for DreamWorks.
At that time Image Nation’s focus was investment. “Everything changed four or five years ago,” said Parkes, “and they moved into creation of a film culture in Abu Dhabi; the creation of an infrastructure.”
Ali Mostafa, an Emirati filmmaker who studied at the London Film School and made City Of Life, showed footage from his upcoming film From A To B, which is supported by twofour54 and Image Nation.
“An American film can have an American studio, French director and shoot in Brazil and it’s still an American film,” said Mostafa, who said he expected to see Abu Dhabi’s film sector continue to grow.
“We’re still trying to get our voices heard and I believe when we have an established industry, the likes of Image Nation can hire a French director and shoot in Brazil and it will remain an Emirati film.”
Assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs Charles Rivkin noted that the UAE had become the largest market for US exports in the Middle East, contributing to $27bn in bilateral trade in 2013.
“The UAE government recognises the importance of diversification and knows that growing in different directions doesn’t depend on oil and fossil fuels,” said Rivkin. He added that diversification accommodated the aspirations of the UAE and its young population.
Al Kaabi said twofour54 backed some 40 projects in 2013 including features, games and short films and she expected that number to grow in the next five years.
“We know a lot about you but you don’t know much about us and content will change that.”
The event, held at The London West Hollywood under the auspices of the Emirates-Aspen Partnership, coincided with the inaugural flight of Etihad Airway’s non-stop service between Abu Dhabi and Los Angeles.