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Production pragmatism

In Advertising, Communicate, Dubai, Marketing, Published journalism, Television on November 23, 2010 at 10:34 am

It’s an unlikely deviation from the usual plot, but Dubai Studio City is trying to give the industry what it requires, rather than telling it what it wants

Originally published in Communicate, February 2008

During the Dubai International Film Festival in December, Dubai Studio City (DSC) announced full occupancy of its 18 boutique studios. The project’s aim of bringing production to Dubai, it seems, is being achieved.

Dr. Amina Al Rustamani, executive director of media at Tecom Investments, the parent company of Dubai’s free zones, says there are four main reasons to attract the film and production industry to the emirate: tourism, the economic benefits of having a big budget industry in town, “building the knowledge economy,” and the creation of jobs.

Oh, and culture. “Nothing drives culture as much as production and film-making and TV,” she says.

Jamal Al Sharif, DSC’s director, can reel off the project’s attractions for stars and star-spotters. There will – of course – be hotels, but also a 25,000 capacity amphitheater, a 7,500-seat auditorium, restaurants, cinemas, sound stages, and a back lot.

But unusually for Dubai’s build-it-and-they-will-come mentality, DSC offers genuine practical advantages, rather than simply looking impressive.

TANKS A LOT. Al Sharif cites an example of modifying the sound stages for “one of the top Hollywood studios” which will be shooting in Dubai this year. “We had to delay it for a couple of months while we added water tanks,” he explains.

The UAE is already attracting big names to shoot here. In the past few years, it has been the location for Syriana with George Clooney, as well as The Kingdom.

The latter film, about compound bombings in Saudi Arabia, has been criticized for portraying Arabs in a bad light, which was one of the reasons why Dubai declined the opportunity for the film to be shot in the emirate. It ended up using Abu Dhabi as the local location.

“We always look for things that will add value to us and not harm us,” says Al Rustamani. She explains that they are eager to avoid Dubai coming to be seen as an easy way of setting a movie in Saudi Arabia.

Al Sharif acknowledges, though, that one of the benefits of filming in the emirate is that it can represent almost anywhere, East or West. “You could be shooting in a modern street to represent Dubai,” he says. “Or Australia, or some part of Europe. The same thing happens in some of the old or historical locations. They could be Saudi Arabia or Kuwait.”

That theory will be put to the test soon as a Kuwaiti TV series plans to shoot in the “historical” city in DSC’s back lot.

MATCHMAKING. Although it seems everyone wants to be in the movies, nearly half of the productions licensed by DSC’s Location Approval Services (LAS) division last year were television commercials. “If you look at TVCs, you get a lot from the region and a lot from South Africa,” says Al Rustamani. “Qatar Airways uses the landscape of Dubai, even though they are the national airline of Qatar.”

Last year, LAS issued 740 licenses. That represented more than 700 million dirhams worth of production, says Al Sharif, and included big name films from Egyptian and Bollywood studios: Andalib Al Dokee from the former, and Partner, Dhoom, and the yet-to-be-released The Race from the latter.

LAS was set up to provide a “one-stop-shop” for filming in Dubai. And DSC is selling itself as a cut-through-the-red-tape destination. It is cheaper than Europe, sure, but nobody expects it to undercut Lebanon. So the economic advantage is delivered by streamlining, says Al Sharif.

For example, he says DSC saved around a quarter of Andalib Al Dokee’s budget by negotiating good hotel rates, airline discounts, waived fees from shooting locations, and visa sponsorship. And shooting in Dubai, with LAS as in-situ fixers, meant production was finished weeks earlier than it would have been in Egypt.

Al Rustamani says LAS also works as a matchmaker – it will help introduce producers to potential sponsors, arrange meetings with people who might be interested in product placement, and generally make sure the right people speak to one another.

“Let’s just say it’s the Dubai way of giving incentives,” she says.

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