With so much production activity in the UAE in the coming months, how is the UAE’s fledgling industry managing to keep up with the growing demand?
Star Trek Beyond alone is thought to be using 1,000 extras for its Dubai shoot next month, around the same time as Brad Pitt is due to arrive to film the military satire War Machine.
Jackie Chan arrived in the country yesterday, with filming of his martial-arts movie Kung Fu Yoga set to take place in Dubai in the coming weeks, while John Abraham, Varun Dhawan and Jacqueline Fernandez will soon be visiting Abu Dhabi to film the action-thriller Dishoom.
Dubai Film and TV Commission and twofour 54 Abu Dhabi have been gradually building their databases of freelance film professionals in recent years, since early trailblazers such as 2005's Syriana starring George Clooney, began to put the UAE on the map as an international location. So although an influx of several movies at the same time doubtless presents challenges both of the local organisations seem to be coping with the upsurge in demand.
It is perhaps casting the extras and smaller acting roles that create the biggest challenge. The sheer scale of numbers required for a major production such as Star Trek is daunting, all the more so when coupled with the fact that the majority of UAE residents are here on work or study visas and so are not free to take time off at will to shoot a movie. The lack of a local culture of acting as a profession also creates a challenge for local casting agencies.
Adam Ridgeway does not seem too concerned, however. He is the founder of Dotcasting, which provided more than a thousand extras for 2011's Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol when it filmed in Dubai.
“We have a database of 9,300 extras, actors and so on,” he says. “When I go through it, the level of talent is amazing. We have people who’ve been in Hollywood, Filipino and Bollywood movies. The problem isn’t the lack of talent, but the lack of work. Some of these people are potentially full-time actors, but we need more consistency. We can’t just rely on the occasional big productions to create opportunities. We need a constant flow of smaller-scale TV work and the like.”
Miranda Davidson is the founder of Miranda Davidson Studios, which offers acting classes at twofour54 and was in charge of the local casting for Furious 7. It also recently held a three-day casting session in Dubai Studio City for Star Trek Beyond. Davidson shares Ridgeway's optimism, with a few reservations.
“The industry is heading in a direction where there is enough work here to be full time,” she says. “There’s still some way to go for actors, but certainly for crew I think we’re there. We’re not just looking at Hollywood – there’s Bollywood, adverts, corporate films, loads of stuff.”
The outlook is a little less rosy for actors, however. “It saddens me,” she says. “It’s not that the talent isn’t there, but the willingness to learn. There is a craft to be learnt here, and there is work there if people are prepared to learn it. Too often, though, there’s a sense of entitlement and a sense that just being an extra isn’t important enough. Either that, or a sense that it’s just a bit of fun, or a fanboy thing.
“It is a fun job, but people need to understand it’s a hard job, with long hours. People need to educate themselves. It’s a craft that can be taught.”
Australian actor and writer Alex Broun, who has appeared on screen alongside the likes of Kylie Minogue and Nicole Kidman, is a relative newcomer to the UAE actor-training scene. His company, Constellation, offers screen-acting and presenting courses in Dubai, and is extending its casting operations. He shares many of Davidson’s concerns.
“Get in touch with casting agencies and production companies, by all means, but do it professionally – ‘Hello, here’s my photo, measurements, experience.’ Don’t bombard them with phone calls and emails,” he says. “Enthusiasm alone isn’t enough. You need professionalism, and not to come across as a nutcase who they don’t want on set or at auditions. Get the stars out of your eyes and be realistic about how a film set works. No one will turn up on set and whisk you off to Hollywood.”
Broun adds that the government has a role to play in improving prospects for local aspiring actors.
“We need a visa for actors, writers and directors,” he says. “We have actors who could go to auditions or shoots, but can’t get time off work. Everyone has to be on a visa linked with education or employment. If there was a visa that could work for actors who may work irregular hours, I think the work is there, especially for Arabic speakers.”
• To learn more about acting classes and working as an extra, visit www.mirandadavidsonstudios.com, www.constellationdubai.com and www.dotcasting.com