What the success of ‘Dune’ at the Oscars means for Abu Dhabi

Hans Fraikin, Abu Dhabi's film commissioner, says the industry and viewers will take note that the emirate has entered the big league in supporting major global productions

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With an impressive six Oscars won at this year's Academy Awards, including the technical "big guns" of Best Editing and Cinematography — more than any other film at the event — Denis Villeneuve’s Abu Dhabi-shot Dune would, in any other year, be dominating the headlines from Hollywood to Hatta.

Of course, 2022 was no ordinary year. Like other notable Oscar achievements this year, such as Troy Kotsur’s groundbreaking win for a deaf actor, it was a historic night for women courtesy of Jane Campion and Sian Heider’s collective haul of Best Director, Picture and Adapted Screenplay. Huge strides for Muslim filmmakers were made thanks to Riz Ahmed’s win for The Long Goodbye. And then there was the potentially era-defining first Best Picture win for a streaming service by Apple TV+ film Coda.

Dune’s achievements, therefore, may have been largely overshadowed by the hysteria surrounding Will Smith and slapgate, but one man who hasn’t overlooked its success, is the man who was in large part responsible for bringing the shoot to Abu Dhabi — Hans Fraikin, Abu Dhabi film commissioner.

Fraikin is confident that the global film industry will see past the celebrity headlines, too, and take note of the fact that, having played such a key role in a multi-Oscar-winning triumph, Abu Dhabi has landed in the big league when it comes to supporting major international productions.

“It sends the message to Hollywood producers, location managers, the studios, the streamers, that Abu Dhabi is no longer this town that produces oil in the Middle East — it has a lot more going on to pull off the Arrakis scenes in an epic blockbuster like Dune,” he says.

Timothee Chalametand Rebecca Ferguson in a scene from 'Dune'. Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

“There's probably over an hour of footage on this planet, maybe over half the movie. That sends a message that our crew are no longer just second unit or TV commercial crew. Anybody in the industry knows that shooting outside a studio is not easy, and location shooting outside the urban area is even harder.”

Indeed, while much has been made in the Hollywood press of Villeneuve’s insistence on keeping his crew for the challenging, 11-day, Liwa desert shoot down to just 15 people, it should be noted that this number merely refers to the crew members the Canadian director brought with him to Abu Dhabi, and not the 100-plus local crew who made it possible.

“When you're shooting in a foreign location, you're very dependent on your production service providers, Epic Films in this case, and on the critical mass of equipment and infrastructure. Pull it off on budget and on time and it elevates that whole sector of the industry to a new level,” Fraikin says.

“That sends a message across Hollywood and other production centres in the world that Abu Dhabi is now a force to be reckoned with, and it's a place we have to consider.”

Denis Villeneuve in the Liwa desert filming 'Dune'. Photo: Abu Dhabi Film Commission

He says this will be helped by the fact that the awards Dune claimed were largely in the technical and craft categories.

“The cinematographer was Greig Fraser, but he doesn't do all this stuff alone. He is surrounded by help — focus puller, second camera unit. The same for the production designer, Patrice Vermette. A lot of that expertise they relied on is local," he explains.

But Fraikin is also convinced that Abu Dhabi will have registered in the minds of the viewing public on the back of Dune’s success, just as it did with Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015, and just as Dubai’s Burj Khalifa improved on an already impressive global profile after Mission: Impossible ― Ghost Protocol in 2011.

This time, though, there’s the added global acclaim brought by the six Oscar wins. The commissioner cites The Lord of the Rings as an example of what can happen when a blockbuster film franchise brings a location to the attention of global movie audiences — Tourism New Zealand “conservatively” estimated that tourists who had visited the country solely to visit the sets of that film had brought $620million to the economy in the 20 years to December 2021. And Fraikin predicts similar benefits for Abu Dhabi.

JJ Abrams, the director of 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens', at the movie's set in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Lucasfilm Ltd

“The real success stories of film tourism are actually where they're not set where they were filmed. Like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, where Middle Earth and Westeros don't exist,” he says. “With a bit of marketing, press, awareness and word of mouth, you create that association with the fictional place in the public domain.

"We're working on that, alongside the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi. We're talking about how we can exploit what just happened in terms of engaging film tourism and promoting it.”

It's still early days to predict how much of a draw Dune may prove, but Fraikin already has a celebrity-sprinkled example of the Dune effect at work. When comic Russell Peters, a friend of his from his native Canada, performed at Etihad Arena late last year, his brother and manager Clayton revealed himself as “the world’s biggest [Dune author] Frank Herbert fan” and begged for instructions on how to see the site of the shoot.

Fraikin says he was happy to oblige by providing Peters with the co-ordinates, but given the three-plus hour drive to Liwa and the fact that the Peters brothers were due to fly out the next evening, he didn’t expect to hear any more about it.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - July 30, 2019: Hans Fraikin, CEO. The worldÕs first private democratised and tokenised green utility, Libra Project develops, funds, maintains, and operates renewable energy plants across nearly two dozen countries in Southeast Asia and East Africa that meet LibraÕs impact investment and operational performance requirements. Tuesday the 30th of July 2019. DIFC, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“The next evening, not only did he send me maybe 50 pictures of him standing in the dunes at exactly the co-ordinates I sent him, but he also told me that he’d cancelled his flight so he could attend the premiere two days later."

With the success of Dune now assured on every level — commercial, critical and in terms of silverware with big wins at both the Baftas and the Oscars — attention turns to the film’s sequel, which is due to begin shooting this summer. With negotiations believed to be ongoing about bringing the film back to Abu Dhabi, Fraikin can’t give us too much in the way of reportable facts, but he turns to more celebrity anecdotes to suggest that we can expect to find Liwa standing in for Arrakis once more.

The version of Dune that finally landed in cinemas last October, Fraikin says, had been in development for well over a decade, and had been through a series of different producers, prior to Warner Bros finally releasing it in 2021. In one earlier incarnation of the movie, Pierre Morel was attached as director. Morel, fans of Emirati cinema will know, directed 2021’s Al Kameen, which released at almost the same time as Dune, and has spent much of the past few months smashing box office records across the UAE.

“Warners didn’t keep him on Dune, and that’s fine as I don’t think anyone could have done a better job than Denis,” Fraikin says. “But [Morel] ended up in Abu Dhabi, anyway, shooting the biggest Arabic film of all time.”

Once Abu Dhabi has got you, the commissioner says, there’s no escaping, and he doesn’t stop with Morel. Rebecca Ferguson, who plays Lady Jessica in Dune, he says, is also something of an Abu Dhabi veteran having shot here previously in her role as Ilsa Faust in the Mission: Impossible franchise.

“People just keep coming back," Fraikin says. Everything converges here in Abu Dhabi.”

Updated: April 01, 2022, 6:31 PM