High-profile international productions are starting to make use of Dubai’s burgeoning facilities and bespoke financing options. But where are the Arab feature film-makers? Colin Brown reports.

Here’s a teaser for you: what does China’s superstar Andy Lau have in common with one of Bollywood’s own screen icons, Shah Rukh Khan? Both actors headlined lavishly endowed international films that were filmed recently in Dubai to take advantage of its architectural landmarks and its escalating production support apparatus.

A 300-strong crew was stationed in Dubai in 2012 for Switch, China’s $20m state-produced globe-trotting heist thriller that saw Lau plunge from the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, and drive a speeding car through the lobby of Atlantis, The Palm, the hotel resort on the emirate’s famed palm-shaped island. In case those tourist-baiting attractions were lost on the affluent Asian consumer, there is even a scene on an Emirates A380 aircraft.

Khan’s latest ensemble comedy, the $12m Happy New Year, in which he stars opposite Deepika Padukone and Abhishek Bachchan, marked an even bigger challenge to Dubai’s nascent film-making infrastructure. As the first international film to be shot almost entirely within the desert city-state, it provided a full test for the new Dubai Film & TV Commission even before shooting began this September.

“We had to learn the logistics,” the commission’s chairman Jamal Al Sharif told UAE newspaper The National. “Normally we’ve only dealt with a maximum of 40 people who come to do a dance scene in two to five days.”

For Happy New Year, as many as 180 rooms had to be booked for cast and crew at Atlantis, The Palm, where the climatic scenes also take place, in order to accommodate 25 shooting days in Dubai - roughly 80%-90% of a production schedule that culminated in Mumbai. Working with Khan’s Red Chillies production outfit for almost a year, the commission smoothed the way for incentives from Dubai International Airport, Emirates Airlines and the immigration authorities. It also facilitated elaborate scenes that include a song-and-dance skating number on the Olympic-sized ice rink in the world’s largest mall - yes, only in Dubai.

“It is not just the shopping capital of the Middle East,” enthused an appreciative Khan at a press conference during filming, “but a perfect location for a film shoot” - one where he and other high-wattage Bollywood stars are not subjected to nearly the same level of public hysteria they receive back home.

Initial estimates from the commission suggest Happy New Year will return the favour by injecting $5m back into the UAE economy. The hope is that many more Bollywood films will now be encouraged to shoot in the Gulf region, already one of India’s top film export markets and now also a potential magnet for the sub-continent’s rapidly growing tourism and shopping rupee. Indeed, several Indian films including Ramaiya Vastavaiya, Ladies And Gentleman and Mental starring Salman Khan, have all shot scenes in Dubai this year.

Customised incentives

Unlike neighbouring Abu Dhabi, with its 30% cashback rebate, Dubai does not offer a formal production incentive. Instead, Dubai tries to leverage its status as a tax-free destination and puts together customisable packages of soft and hard incentives, glamorous perks and rebates of up to 20% that are individually geared to the scale of the production needs in Dubai. The enticements include a fixed rate of $4,100 (aed15,000) per day for shooting in all of Dubai’s private venues - such as the Burj Khalifa or Burj Al Arab - and the commission’s help in securing the relevant shooting permissions.

Dubai also boasts the UAE’s most extensive production facilities. Al Sharif says Dubai has invested close to $270m (aed1bn) building an abundant film-making infrastructure that includes sound stages, boutique studios and production office spaces that revolve around Dubai Studio City. Here you will find as many as 342 companies, of which 190 are production houses.

Nearing completion within that sprawling complex is 65,000 sq ft of stage area. Two stages, each of 25,000 sq ft and boasting water tanks for underwater shoots, will be separated by a large ‘elephant door’ that will allow them to be used jointly as one giant column-free sound-proofed structure unmatched as yet in the Middle East and North Africa.

The first completed stage - encompassing 15,000 sq ft and boasting Stargate Studios’ visual effects and virtual production technologies - is reportedly already in use by MBC Arab satellite broadcast network for a local-language drama series set in an entirely re-created world.

How soon Arab-language feature-film productions will also flow to Dubai Studio City alongside those TV dramas and commercials depends on how quickly the region’s film-making community can build on the developmental foundations that have been put in place over the past decade by government-sponsored festival organisations in the UAE and Qatar.

Certainly, the signs are positive. Where once Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha all pursued overlapping and seemingly competitive agendas, there is now greater harmony across the Gulf - and the wider Arab-speaking world. The three power-players now perform to their respective strengths and where necessary will recommend one another in pursuit of common goals.

Tellingly, this year’s Abu Dhabi Film Festival featured a panel on which Image Nation creative executive Jason Mirch shared the stage with Dubai Film Market manager Samr Al Marzooqi and Doha Film Institute film-financing grants manager Khalil Benkirane to discuss Arab cinema’s money issues. In this newfound spirit of co-ordination, Benkirane went so far as to propose these festivals’ gatekeepers stop demanding regional premieres from films as a pre-condition for tapping into their various funding initiatives.

Regional choice

Already a growing succession of films have drawn on enough Arab financing sources to complicate the choice of Arab premiere. Annemarie Jacir’s When I Saw You benefited from grants by both Abu Dhabi’s Sanad and DIFF’s Dubai Film Connection, as well as $10,100 from the local crowd-donation platform Aflamnah. For her film Wadjda, director Haifaa Al Mansour combined money from German broadcasters and regional film funds with early backing from Rotana, the Royal Film Commission Jordan, a script award from Abu Dhabi Film Festival, Sundance Institute and Dubai Film Market’s Enjaaz fund.

DIFF opener, Hany Abu Assad’s Omar, winner of the Jury Prize at Un Certain Regard in Cannes this year, received 5% of its $2m budget from Enjaaz during pre-production, with the rest coming from various Palestinian business sources that included two brothers of co-star Waleed Zuaiter who happen to be investment bankers.

While pointing to a pan-regional Arab future, such financing patchworks stop short of the fully fledged cross-border partnerships familiar to European film-makers that open their door to wider commercial distribution beyond the festival circuit.

“The big three Arab festivals have certainly helped Arab films, regardless of their origin, come to fruition in what could be called a form of co-production,” observes Emirati film-maker Khalid Al Mahmood, who is also a DIFF programmer. “But if you talk about co-productions in terms of big production companies from different countries working together to make a film, we’re still a long way off from that since those companies don’t exist to begin with.

“Meanwhile, distribution is a concerning issue right now since almost 90% of Arab films screened in those festivals never reach a regular audience. It would be great if the major Arab festivals tackled this problem but in the end it lies in the hands of cinema owners and distribution sales companies.”

A lesson learned from Europe’s past puddings is that forced partnerships are rarely conducive to building an international audience. Co-productions need to feel organic to the story, rather than designed around overtly financial imperatives.

Hoping to prove that case will be A To B, a road movie by Dubai-based film-maker Ali F Mostafa, set to shoot in January. As a tale about three Western-educated Arab youths who travel from Abu Dhabi to Beirut in memory of their deceased friend, the film practically invited multi-national partners. Sure enough, with backing from Abu Dhabi’s twofour54, A To B unites three fast-rising producers from across the Arab-speaking world: Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Al Turki, Lebanon’s Paul Baboudjian and Egypt’s Mohamed Hefzy. The cast includes Saudi stand-up comic Fahad Albutairi and two hip-hop artists, Iraqi-Canadian The Narcicyst and Syrian-American Omar Offendum.

While helpful in terms of marketing hooks, such a polyglot stew of edgy talents did not arise out of commercial contrivance. Nor did the film-making team. “My decision to produce an Emirati film wasn’t driven by business or market needs, it was simply the natural way to set up the production, being a story that unravels in the Gulf, and also one directed by an Emirati film-maker,” explains Hefzy, who helped write the screenplay based on Mostafa’s storyline. “That doesn’t mean to say I don’t intend to seek out more projects in that part of the world. I don’t see film production in the UAE reaching the levels of Egypt or Morocco within the next few years, but the region will certainly make progress in terms of getting more films made and more exposure for their films regionally and hopefully internationally.”

And, as a happy by-product of such international recognition, the UAE’s own natural and unnatural wonders will enjoy more of their own exposure in front of the world’s itinerant thrill-seekers and impulse-buyers.