Life & Style | General

Mission possible: Putting Dubai on film map

Jamal Al Sharif worked tirelessly to bring the filming of Mission: Impossible 4 to our shores. As managing director of Dubai Media City and Dubai Studio City, he is determined the emirate will make an emphatic mark on the international film scene

  • By Vasanti Sundaram
  • Published: 00:00 September 23, 2011
  • Friday

Jamal Al Sharif
  • Image Credit: Silvia Baron/ANM
  • Jamal Al Sharif and his team had to be painstakingly thorough to ensure filming of Mission: Impossible 4 went smoothly.
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The contact list on his phone runs to over 1,800 numbers and includes high school friends, colleagues and acquaintances in almost every part of the world. So important are people to him, that he dislikes being alone. In fact, he would rather skip lunch than eat alone. That said, facebook and twitter are not his options to stay in touch and he prefers instead to pick up the phone to have a more personal connection.

Jamal Al Sharif, 36, is the managing director of Dubai Media City and Dubai Studio City.

Credited for successfully leading Dubai's engagement with Paramount Pictures for the filming of Mission: Impossible 4 (MI4) last year, he and his team look forward to its worldwide release on December 16 with an enormous sense of anticipation and fulfilment. "It will be another moment in the sun for Dubai when the world will watch its myriad moods being played out on the big screen," he says.

Chatting with Al Sharif has a familiarity about it, as if catching up with a high school friend. Born and brought up in Deira, one of the oldest neighbourhoods of Dubai, Al Sharif's early lessons about managing expectations came in California, where as an undergraduate student he was expected to find his way around in a new country.

After graduating in 1999 from the University of San Diego, Al Sharif was all set to return to Dubai with a degree in business studies when his father recommended that he stay on in the US to complete his masters. "At first I had doubts about this decision as a few of my friends had already returned to the UAE, some even before completing their education, and were well entrenched in the corporate landscape. I felt I was missing out on being a part of the dramatic growth that Dubai was witnessing then. But I decided to stay on, sure that my father knew better."

Around this time, Al Sharif did a four-month real-estate course through Anthony Schools in San Diego to become a licensed real-estate broker in the US. While negotiating successful deals as an agent, he also did a six-month internship with Merrill Lynch to gain the mandatory work experience prior to enrolling into a masters programme in international business administration.

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December 2001 saw Al Sharif returning to the UAE, just when landmark projects such as Dubai Internet City, Dubai Media City and Dubai Knowledge Village were beginning to take shape. Wasting little time, he immediately applied for a job in Dubai Internet City (DIC). "My friends dissuaded me, saying DIC would shut down in six months as the internet boom was over and many people had lost money in stocks. I was instead advised to join an oil company, which my father endorsed as we had family members working in the oil giants."

Remaining resolute in his decision, Al Sharif began a career with Dubai Internet City in April 2002 as partner relations manager. Hard work and dedication paid off, and soon he was given the responsibility of overseeing nearly 220 companies within the ICT free zone. In 2005, when Dubai Studio City (DSC) was born, Al Sharif's career steered into a new direction when he was invited to be a media manager in this free zone for film and broadcast media. "I asked for a better title but was immediately told to earn it! This was enough to convince me to put in my best effort."

His first project was to organise a ten-day visit for a team of eight members to review the film studios in seven countries. "I wondered why I was being given a secretarial job. Little did I know that the assignment demanded extraordinary project-management skills. Fortunately, the visits went well and I realised no job is too small for anyone. During this trip, we visited film cities, production houses... Wherever we went, we perceived a sense of excitement in people about Dubai's concept of setting up a film city. Everyone wanted to be a part of it."

In early 2008, Al Sharif was named director of the DSC and the free zone was ready to welcome new tenants. Starting out with15 clients, the DSC achieved full occupancy by the end of 2008. 

Work

A truly major project I was involved in began in December 2009 when I received a call from a friend and Hollywood media adviser Richard Klein in Washington. I was informed about plans for a "big film" to be shot in Dubai although the name couldn't be revealed at that stage.

A month later, the New Year brought with it good tidings in an email that would catapult Dubai into the league of Prague, Toronto and the US as one of the four locations identified for the MI4 shoots. Although Dubai had earlier provided a setting for films like Syriana and The Kingdom, MI4 will be the first full-fledged movie to be filmed in the city. A series of one-on-ones with producer Tom Cruise, director Brad Bird, and the teams from Paramount Pictures followed. From facilitating a meeting with His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, to taking the teams around Dubai at the peak of summer in July last year, all of us at the DSC had to get it right.

We rented buses from FilmWorks, thanks to Tim Smythe, whose support can never be quantified. We were received with enthusiasm by everyone from Dubai Police to the Roads and Transport Authority, Dubai Municipality, to numerous ministries, you name it.

As a way of comprehending what it took to host a 400-member film crew onsite, I flew to Prague to witness the shoot there. It was at this time that I was appointed managing director of Dubai Media City and Dubai Studio City. This meant additional responsibility. So here I was, charged with overseeing DMC, DSC and a huge project, MI4, on hand.

Ramadan 2010 brought in a whirlpool of discussions with Hollywood every single night after iftar. For all of us, it was ‘mission possible'. Every minute detail was looked into, from arrivals to organising chartered aircrafts for the equipment. We would send helicopters three or four times a day to monitor Burj Khalifa, and secured permission to film in the desert and fly over areas that are otherwise off-limits.

The first day of the shoot in November 2010 was a crazy day, with high media glare. The crew started setting up the cameras from five in the morning. The creek by the dhows in the big parking area near Baniyas Square had been shut down. With Tom Cruise walking down, the cameras started rolling. It all felt like a dream.

All credit to my team, we did everything possible to ensure Dubai delivered on its promises. We closed one section of the Dubai ports for almost three days to position a whole set of camera and crew for the shoot and stop dhows from coming in, probably breaking news in any other country.

It helped that Tom Cruise is so down to earth. A happy guy and extremely talkative, he always enquired about my family, kids and about how I worked. He was quite surprised to know that I had watched more than half of the 40 or so movies that he has done to date.

The day the crew left, happy, after a 45-day shoot, I sat in my room alone and felt a relief that I had never experienced before.

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I come from a very strong and progressive-minded family. Nothing came easily for my grandfather or father, a reason I tell myself not to get carried away with what I have. Keeping yourself grounded isn't easy. But it's even more important to keep it simple and know who you are.

I am a regular at the gym and cycle three times a week on the track in the Khawaneej park. I take my kids when I go cycling and hope one of them will turn into a professional cyclist although I am open to the choices they would like to make. I am into water sports too and enjoy jet skiing.

I look forward to travelling and am generally not fastidious about the destination as I believe there is some learning no matter where you go. I have travelled widely in Europe and Asia. I have not done Africa and would like to take my children along on a safari.

I have a fascination with cars. I remember during my student years, my father paid for my masters and I took care of my day-to-day expenses, which included an indulgence in fancy cars. I still feel my pulse race when I see a fascinating car. I call them ‘poetry in motion'.

We have a large library at home that includes a vast collection of fiction and classic literature. My wife is a voracious reader and I am glad she encourages our children to read. Personally, I enjoy rereading Shaikh Mohammad's My Vision. Graeme Wilson's Rashid's Legacy is another favourite that gives a profound insight into the history of Dubai. Right now, I am reading The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene and Joost Elffers.

Dream

I am passionate about Dubai and the UAE, and like any other Emirati, or for that matter even expatriates who have lived here for a long time, there is something about this city that charms you.

Had it not been for the Ruler's vision, I would not have had the courage to lead ambitious projects. I salute and thank him for the inspiration. It is, therefore, only natural for me to take his vision forward and grow the cinema industry in Dubai and the region.

I'm aware it's not something that will happen overnight. But with a platform like Dubai Studio City, talent in the form of Ali Mostafa, Nayla Al Khaja, Mohammad Al Hareb and Haider Mohammad and a bridge such as the Dubai International Film Festival, I am confident we will make an emphatic international mark in the next ten years when cinemas worldwide will play made-in-Dubai films.

I would like to improve my education level and do a PhD in strategy management. Fortunately, for us in Dubai, we do not have to travel far and have some of the best academic institutions on our doorstep.

I would also like to hone my management skills. I am very flexible and open with my team but I need to learn to draw the line between being friendly and firm. I neither want to be feared or loved too much!

I am a people's person and enjoy helping others' dreams come true. Recently I met an acquaintance from India who set up a 300-square-foot software business at the DIC in 2003. His company has grown several times over, catering to markets as far as the US. It felt good to know that we had given him a head-start in business. I would like to continue being one of the reasons for such success stories.

Vasanti Sundaram is a Dubai-based freelancer

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