Abu Dhabi still waiting for its big break

The potential economic benefits for the Emirates are huge, but executives complain the industry is being driven away by prohibitive costs and a lack of financial incentives.

Film Title: The Kingdom
JAMIE FOXX as FBI team leader Ronald Fleury in a timely thriller that tracks a powder-keg criminal investigation shared by two cultures chasing a deadly enemy ready to strike again: "The Kingdom".
Photo Credit: Frank Connor
Copyright: © 2007 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
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For many in the film industry, attracting big-budget productions to the UAE often seems like its very own Mission: Impossible. The high cost of living, limited production infrastructure and talent, and the lack of government incentives means only a handful of major movies have been made in the UAE, the most notable being the Hollywood blockbusters Syriana and The Kingdom.

But after a recent visit by Hollywood executives to Dubai for discussions on filming the Tom Cruise action film Mission: Impossible IV in the emirate, industry executives are keen to point out what must change to attract such big-ticket productions to the country. Negotiations to shoot other films in the UAE, including Sex and the City 2, Body of Lies and The A-Team, have been unsuccessful for a variety of reasons. One of the main stumbling blocks is the lack of government incentives, which are common in other countries, executives say.

Tim Smythe, the chief executive of the Dubai production house Filmworks, which worked on The Kingdom and Syriana locally, says lack of financial support was a factor behind the filming of The A-Team being ruled out in the UAE. "There's a possibility it would have come if the incentives were there," Mr Smythe says. "Incentives, rebates and subsidies are the critical backbone of the industry. If they do not exist, then the industry does not develop."

But such an incentive scheme could be introduced if high-level talks are successful. David Shepheard, the director of the Abu Dhabi Film Commission (ADFC), says the organisation has been in discussions over a "framework for our various government partners to discuss" such incentives. "A number of larger movies could have come to Abu Dhabi, but because the incentives weren't there, they couldn't offset the extra cost of coming here," says Mr Shepheard.

"If we had an incentive scheme that made sense for the UAE we'd have a lot more productions coming in." The advantages of such an incentive scheme are more than clear to Ali Mostafa, the director of City of Life, the UAE's first major "home-grown" movie. "I believe that, if we had shot the film in another city that did have these incentives, it would probably have been 30 per cent cheaper. [Dubai] is a very expensive city in which to shoot," Mostafa says.

"We tried to push the idea of incentives and what we received felt like it was the beginning of incentives being given. We did manage to get discounted hotel rooms and airline tickets. But there's a lot more you can give." The issue of how such an incentive scheme may be offered is still under discussion. Government incentives are common in other markets but often in the form of tax breaks, which are not relevant in the UAE, and funding from national lotteries, which is not possible locally because gambling is illegal.

"What I think needs to happen as an incentive is that things need to become cheaper generally," Mostafa says. "When it comes to government locations we shouldn't have to pay for shooting. "In some locations it costs a maximum of between Dh70,000 (US$19,059) to Dh100,000 a day to shoot. There should be incentives in many directions. There needs to be more of a study as to what they could give back."

Mr Shepheard says possible ways of encouraging film-makers to shoot here include "sponsorships, barter deals and potentially an incentive fund". Stefan Brunner, the chief operating officer at Imagenation Abu Dhabi, which is developing a number of Emirati films, says a "package" of discounted or free hotel rooms and air tickets could form part of an effective incentive programme. "I guess every producer would prefer cash but cities like Abu Dhabi and Dubai are in a position in which they could put together a package which could combine in-kind benefits," says Mr Brunner.

"A combination of both could be workable." Imagenation is a subsidiary of the Abu Dhabi Media Company, which also owns and publishes The National. Mr Brunner says there are economic and cultural advantages to encouraging the production of movies in the UAE. "I personally think it should be indisputable that any incentive triggers a lot of additional economic activity," he says. "I always like the models they run in France and Germany, where any incentive links with nationality and cultural identity. The cultural aspects of it should not be underestimated."

Mostafa, who is developing another film to be shot in the UAE along with other locations, says there are clear economic benefits for the government in providing such incentives. "Big productions tend to have a lot of crew - up to 200, 300 people," he says. "A lot of those people could be employed locally, and so it helps employment. And they all need to use [local services]. You're practically advertising locations you're shooting in, which helps tourism."

Mr Smythe says that while incentive schemes offer a solid economic benefit, it is not a case of a direct return on investment. "It's not a direct tangible - it's in economic development and growth," he says. "It doesn't translate back to the government coffers, it translates back to the wider economy. It's not something where you can say, 'I'll put $1 million aside and I'll get a return on investment'."

Many insiders acknowledge the industry is still very young. Jamal al Sharif, the executive director of Dubai Studio City, says there will hopefully be some kind of incentive scheme in the future. But Mr al Sharif adds the industry has already grown in a short space of time. "There is no film commission in Dubai but we do have the Location Approval Services (LAS) department, which is under Dubai Studio City," he says.

"So far we have approved over 3,500 location shoots in Dubai. "We provide all necessary services for a shoot - we help them get better airline rates, we provide locations and access to government departments, and help them find crew and get visas. It's a one-stop shop. "Before the LAS, you needed to go to six or seven government departments to get an approval to shoot, and it used to take about two to three weeks. We have dropped that down to one government department. You come to us and you have to wait two to three days maximum.

"We're taking every step very carefully. The industry itself is very new. When you plant a seed, it takes time to grow." But it remains to be seen whether this growth and the associated financial benefits will be enough to make Tom Cruise's forthcoming Mission: Impossible a real possibility for the UAE. @Email:bflanagan@thenational.ae