Abu Dhabi gets backlot boost to reputation as prime film location

Abu Dhabi now has a dedicated outdoor area to serve as a backlot for film production, furthering the UAE's potential as a global centre of movie-making.

Maryam Al Mheiri, twofour54’s acting CEO, and Fadi Ismail, general manager of O3 Productions, at the 4,000 square-metre outdoor set for film production at Khalifa Industrial Zone. Courtesy twofour54
Powered by automated translation

Abu Dhabi now has another of the specialist studio facilities it needs to turn the city into a true global filming destination – a dedicated backlot.

For those unfamiliar with cinematic terms, a backlot is simply an outdoor area close to a movie studio with specially designed permanent buildings that can be used to shoot exterior scenes for films and television shows.

This is a facility that did not previously exist in the capital, but that has changed thanks to a collaboration between twofour54, Abu Dhabi's media production hub (which was responsible for bringing movies such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Furious 7 to the capital for filming) Abu Dhabi Ports, which owns the land in Khalifa Industrial Zone (Kizad) on which the set is built; broadcaster MBC; and its production arm O3 Productions.

There had been rumours for some time that MBC, the region’s biggest broadcaster, was building a backlot in the city, where it already occupies a number of studios operated by twofour54.

There have been complaints by filmmakers, locally and internationally, about a lack of traditional-looking Middle Eastern cities that are safe to film in. This seems to have been at least partly addressed with confirmation from twofour54 that the Khalifa site is indeed the site of MBC’s new backlot.

“The 4,000 square-metre outdoor set is located at Khalifa Industrial Zone and takes the shape of a neighbourhood in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in the late 19th century, centred around a piazza with shops, a mosque and houses,” twofour54 said yesterday.

"O3 Productions will use the backlot to film the 30-episode drama, Haret El Sheikh, which is written by Bandar Bajbaa and directed by Al-Mothanna Sobah.

“The production has more than 60 stars from the Gulf, including Mohamad Bakhsh, Jamil Ali, Abdelmosen Al Nemer and many more famous names of Hijazi drama.”

"It was amazing to build," a source close to the construction work told The National.

“Abu Dhabi is so shiny and new and we were trying to build something that looked more than 100 years old. That was probably the hardest thing – just making this brand new construction look old.

“With so many international films wanting to shoot in the Middle East, this could last for years.”

As Abu Dhabi seeks to solidify its role as a global filming destination, a backlot is essential to sit alongside the emirate’s existing world-class studio and post-production facilities, which have been developing steadily since the hub was launched eight years ago.

It might not sound particularly significant, but convincing exterior sets can raise movie production to a whole new level for a location. The New York backdrops of Captain America and Alfie? They were actually filmed in Manchester, in the United Kingdom, as were scenes from many productions featuring the Houses of Parliament and the Baker Street home of Sherlock Holmes, both of which are in London.

Universal Studios’ Hollywood backlot, meanwhile, lists New York, Mexico and “Little Europe” among its faux exteriors.

Abu Dhabi is starting small with a historic Khaleeji village, but with the current lack of viable regional filming locations it could prove to be a wise and hugely successful investment for the future.

Twofour54’s acting chief executive, Maryam Al Mheiri, has already confirmed that further productions are planned for the backlot later in the year, and sources close to the organisation say extensions could be on the cards as Abu Dhabi continues its mission to become a major player in the global movie industry.