The reel deal from Homeland to homegrown talent

A UAE filmmaker looking for crowd-sourced funds for an upcoming film has already secured Navid Negahban of TV's Homeland as the star.

April 25, 2013, Dubai, UAE: 

Seen here, inside of Cafe Arabia, is Michelle NIckelson.
Ms. Nickelson is the Managing Director of MENA CineFinance. She is currently working on a project which will, hopefully, be the region's first film production that will mix local talent with their hollywood counterparts.
Lee Hoagland/The National
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Speaking parts with a Hollywood actor or an executive producer title in a film shot in the UAE are among enticements being offered through an attempt at crowd-funding a locally produced film. John Henzell reports

In Hollywood terms, Navid Negahban is hot property.

By playing the world's most wanted terrorist, Abu Nazir, in the television series Homeland, and before that as a regular in the political thriller series 24, people are paying attention to whatever project he will appear in next.

In June, that attention will be focused on the UAE, where Negahban is scheduled to appear in 51, a 20-minute thriller in which speaking parts for local actors are up for grabs.

For Michelle Nickelson, the film's scriptwriter and co-producer, recruiting Negahban instantly improved the prospects of raising the film's US$170,000 (Dh624,000) budget through the Arabic crowd-funding site, Aflamnah.

And his participation is already paying dividends for the Emirates' nascent movie industry by introducing local actors to a far wider audience even before the project has been confirmed.

"Having someone like Navid, who is right now very hot, raises everyone's profile. There's a curiosity factor and lots of people will be checking out the film," she says.

"It's also an opportunity for other actors who have been cast in 51, like [Dubai-based costar] Mylène Gomera. She's very beautiful and very talented and people are asking who she is. Nobody would know who she was otherwise."

One of the Emiratis who stands to benefit from 51's exposure internationally is model and photographer Omar Borkan Al Gala. He has already garnered a degree of global fame in the last two weeks by being named in social media to be of the three UAE men allegedly removed from a culture festival in Saudi Arabia by religious police, who it was said deemed them "too handsome" and a risk to women attending the festival.

Nickelson announced this week that Al Gala has joined the cast of 51 and his participation could help him develop his career in directions that would otherwise be stymied by living in the UAE.

"There is a lot of talent here in the UAE but it's a long way from Los Angeles and it's difficult for people to get to the next level, so this is an opportunity for people to showcase their talent," she said.

"The best way to get to the next level is to get involved in a project with someone that people are looking at. You can increase your profile."

Once 51 is made and screened at film festivals, she expects those on both sides of the camera to benefit.

Nickelson's day job is as chief executive of Mena CineFinance SPC, an entertainment investment fund located in the UAE that is involved in feature films for profit. The fund became involved in 51 through its corporate social responsibility goals rather than in the expectation of ever turning a profit.

As a film industry veteran, she knows how difficult it is to surmount the geographical challenges of being based in the Middle East when the epicentre of the western film industry is on the other side of the world in Los Angeles.

Negahban's involvement helped bridge that divide. Proof came this week, when 51 was mentioned in the Huffington Post as part of a package covering the Gulf Film Festival in Dubai.

"That's exactly what we planned to do because we wanted to showcase people to a different level," Nickelson adds.

"There hasn't been a short film with Hollywood and local talent in the Middle East before.

"Done well, it promotes everyone from the cast and crew to the location. That's the whole idea. It's a community project."

The major roles in the short film have already been cast, but others - including two speaking roles that interact with Negahban's character - are available to those who stump up money to help fund the film.

"If people want to be in the film, there are opportunities with Aflamnah," she says.

"There are actual speaking parts that someone can get involved with. We also have some walk-on parts, which people who don't have any acting ability can do."

The options to support the film through Aflamnah, the first crowdfunding site for Arab projects, vary widely.

"It can be $10 or $10,000," Nickelson adds.

There are a sliding scale of rewards based on the level of financial input. At the lowest end, $10 earns "special thanks", but greater involvement includes copies of the script, themed film paraphernalia and goes up to speaking parts for $5,000. A $10,000 pledge will be rewarded with being named as an executive producer.

The rewards include not just exposure in a short film with a well-known actor but also the experience of working with top-flight professionals.

"You get people in it who will work on a one to one basis. Everyone gets the chance to learn from people in the industry in a very personal sort of way, so they learn a lot more than they would," Nickelson says.

"This is like a United Nations of film making. I'm American, Navid is an Iranian-American. Our co-production company, Trucial States, is 100 per cent owned and operated by Emiratis. The rest of us are all international - the producer, director and talent are all from someplace else. It's a great example of what it is to be here in the UAE.

"It's all people and races and religions. It's part of the reason to make it here."

Nickelson purposefully talks only generalities about the script, other than to say 51 is a thriller based on numbers and is "kind of like The X-Files".

"We're kind of keeping the plot under wraps," she adds.

"It's one of those movies where the main actor has a secret and you're trying to work out what it is.

"The plot has to do with a number of algorithms. It's two purported strangers that meet in Dubai. You don't know until the very end what their connection is.

"In this one, Navid plays the good guy. It's good because we've got local actors playing other parts against him. This is driven by action and dialogue."

She says they deliberately went with Aflamnah because it is relatively new and supported local artists rather than a more mainstream crowdfunding site like Kickstarter, which is based in the US.

51 is Aflamnah's most ambitious project to date in terms of budget but the filmmakers hope they can recreate a tiny part of the success of other crowdfunded projects, such as the use of Kickstarter in producing a feature film version of the American teenage detective television series Veronica Mars.

The series' creator, Rob Thomas, and the titular actress, Kristin Bell, sought $2 million from fans of the cult series via Kickstarter to go towards making a feature film. That target was met within 10 hours of being posted and by the time fundraising ended, $5.7 million had been pledged.

51 has only just begun taking pledges and has not yet undertaken much publicity. The sum raised reflects that, with less than $500 pledged at midweek and just more than 35 days to go. Nickelson says she is confident the combination of crowdfunding pledges, product placement and corporate support will give her short film the green light.

"We're ready to go, depending on what support we get from sponsors. The script has been approved by the National Media Council and everything is ready."

It helps that the governments of the UAE's two biggest cities are supportive of film projects so the local movie industry can mature.

"Both the governments of Abu Dhabi and Dubai have put a lot of time and effort and finance into getting the region to the point where a lot of international productions come here. Both places have incentives now, and that drives production," she adds.

"We'd love to get support from the community, to raise the profile and to have people talking about it. Even if they can't contribute financially, they can talk about it."

Previously, novice filmmakers traditionally resorted to using their own social networks to get their early works into production.

"This will certainly help fledgling filmmakers, who usually go out and raise money from friends and family," she says.

"This will get more people making short films and from short films, you go into feature films."

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