For award-winning producer Michael Ryan Fletchall,
the UAE presents boundless creative opportunities. The talent, stories, scenery, history and business environment in the region have drawn him here to set up shop.
Michael Ryan Fletchall already has dozens of story ideas and is in the process of researching major film projects. I met him at the Middle East International Film Festival (MEIFF) in Abu Dhabi, which he said has given him an appreciation for the quality and diversity of the talent in the region. Jodie Foster once said that the hardest thing about making movies is finding the right script.
Fletchall believes that there are hundreds of stories with international appeal in the UAE just waiting to make it to the big screen and he is here to make it happen.
"One of my first priorities was to visit all seven emirates as a significant part of my research for setting up a business here in the UAE. It will be a branch of Mediusphere, my company
in the USA."
I really appreciate Abu Dhabi for its city life and its commitment to maintaining cultural and historical aspects of the Arabic lifestyle. I like Abu Dhabi and Dubai a lot. Everywhere I go in the UAE, I am inspired with some great story ideas.
I believe that you can travel to a place and get an initial feel for it. I learned early on to pay attention to and trust my instincts about people and places.
My mother, Marcy Fletchall, has always had a great instinct when it comes to sizing up people. Her first impressions are usually spot on and she listens to her gut feel. This skill has helped her succeed in her life. She has done very well for herself as a result. I have been pitching film projects here.
I really believe that before you can tell stories about this region, you need to investigate them in depth and experience them. Many writers don't take the time to fully understand a culture or history that is not similar to their own and this results in less depth and quality in filmmaking.
Consider how Hollywood depicts Dubai's growth: lots of buildings and skyscrapers and beaches, but not the culture beneath it all. There doesn't seem to be any attempt to reach beyond the surface.
I want to be empathic to what I write about. I want to know what the people's perspective is and to relay a unique message pertaining to that. This place has some great stories just waiting to be put on the big screen.
I want to share the stories of old Bedouins and relay what they think about modernisation through their stories.
A lot of people here seem worried about holding on to culture and heritage. I think that the modernisation of a traditional society is an interesting dynamic, particularly from a film perspective.
A lot of people talk about different film initiatives. However, I have found that there is not a lot of money channelled into filmmaking for cultural films made by Arab filmmakers.
I think that people should be able to make movies here and export them to other countries. Success in this industry can only be achieved if you fund it, build it and export it to other countries. You can change perceptions, make people think, inform people and entertain them simultaneously. The visual elements of cinema are a very powerful global communication tool.
I believe that films can appeal to people and
make them understand the message I am trying
I came to the UAE for many reasons. On the personal side, I am seeking more meaning in my own life. I want to be a part of this growing market and to help shape an industry from its beginnings. In the UAE, it is not really being built from scratch, but there is enormous potential for growth in this industry.
I admire His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai because he has the leadership qualities that motivate people to get things done. I have not experienced big bureaucracies and committees that take their time making decisions.
I really admire his commitment to environmental sustainability. Buildings now have to meet environmental standards.
In my free time, I am a private pilot. I love to keep up with the new developments in aviation. I can't wait to fly on the new Airbus A380. I waited a long time for that airplane to come out.
I think that stories are easy to come by – it is putting them in the correct context that is challenging. The film Body of Lies, which just premiered at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival addresses issues in the region. It challenges stereotypes. There are good guys and bad guys everywhere. The producer did a good job of making that point.
Me and discovering filmmaking
I was born in San Angelo, Texas, in 1976. I grew up moving between Houston in Texas and Colorado Springs.
When I was one year old, I moved to Colorado Springs and went to school there. I was eight years old when I got my first camcorder and I started making little movies with it.
I taught myself various camera effects and used my imagination to try to put stories together. At that age, I really wanted to be an actor, so I began acting in my own movies.
Most of the movies included my best friend Tony Schneider. We were cops trying to take down bad guys or fighter pilots taking out some bogies (enemy jet fighter pilots) with jets.
We produced our own props out of construction paper, put fans in front of the airplanes and used cotton balls for clouds. In one movie our clouds got stuck in the airplane propeller.
I learned at that time to expect the unexpected when making films. Being the star of the movie, I would rescue my best friend from enemies or criminals. As a kid, I had ideas in my head that needed to be channelled in a creative way. I needed to get these ideas out of my head and onto film.
Me and theatre acting
At the age of 12 I returned to Texas. It was there that I got involved in theatre as an actor. I really enjoyed theatre acting. I was in a play called The Gift and another called The War of the Roses. I stayed in Texas for four years.
One of the main things I learnt from that was that acting was difficult. Good actors make it look easy. It really is a talent to be in a scene and to be wholly involved in it.
One of my early experiences was in a play that I improvised in. The audience loved it but the director was really angry. He told me, "You have to give the writer and director the respect of doing the script as it was written." I never forgot that lesson.
I then decided that I wanted to direct.
I did an internship with the Colorado Springs School District. This provided me with everything I needed to propel my career forwards. I learnt about equipment, stages and was taught how to do video production. We did corporate and education videos.
They taught me how to film and edit professionally. It was a great opportunity to learn as I had access to everything needed to excel at the craft.
I started creating projects as quickly as I could. I just wanted to create. I won an award that year for an eco-video that I did. I was 16 years old at the time. It was a 30-second public service announcement about protecting our environment from air pollution.
By the age of 16, I had started building up a long resume of videos. This caught the attention of a local TV station and they recruited me as cameraman for the station part-time while I was still in school. That was my first media job.
I began working full-time as a technical director and control room switcher. I operated equipment on live shows as tech director. It was a hectic schedule as I was working flat out for the station and was still attending school full-time too.
Me and the daily news
I was then recruited to go to Seattle, Washington as a member of a launch team to start a new TV station. That was in 1995 and we were setting up non-linear editing systems using satellite technology. No other station did this back then. We built Northwest Cable News serving five states in the USA and parts of Canada.
At the time this was the most technologically advanced TV station in the world. It was a crowning achievement for me and I was recruited out of high school for it. Helping to launch this station was an incredible opportunity and a huge learning experience. I was trained in the most high-tech methods in the industry.
I was playing with equipment that people with 30 years experience couldn't touch! I did a lot of commercial work and live shows. It was an exciting time.
However, there was a negative aspect to the experience. I was getting to the point where I would only see killing, violence and destruction in the news. After a while, this
is a real drag on your overall perspective. I had both technical knowledge and creative drive, but I was not able to tell stories that were not stories of death and misery for the news.
It was depressing. I saw things in video footage that people shouldn't see. There was shocking material that we couldn't put on TV. These images are ingrained in my brain and remain with me today.
I arrived in Hollywood in 1997 at the age of 21 and started working with sound designers to edit movie previews. I did that for a while, but my goal was to get into film production as opposed to post-production. The most high-profile movies that I worked on were Seabiscuit and The Perfect Storm.
In Hollywood there is a studio system. This is where you produce a movie for the big studios such as Warner Bros., Paramount, Sony and Fox. Everything is geared towards studios. If you don't want to work for a studio then you have to find your own financing. Most independently financed films cost between five and $25 million.
Studio-financed films are typically between $100 to $150 million. There are also rating systems in place. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rates US movies. Often for political reasons, independent movies are unfairly rated and this reduces their impact at the box office. It is generally understood that studios and the MPAA work together to minimise the market for independents.
Talent includes all people associated with making films. Talent is managed by agencies that are tied to the studio system. Studios are big in Hollywood and they do not like competition. Warner Bros and Universal are coming to Dubai because it is getting too expensive to do business in California. Laws that govern the industry were set up prior to TV and the internet and have made movie making in California implausible.
This affects producers. If as a producer I have financing of $5 million to make a movie, I can stretch that $5 million a lot further in New Zealand, Canada, New Orleans or Dubai. Local and federal governments are trying to stimulate the industry through subsidies, free zones and less prohibitive legal environments. Hollywood now has to compete with this.
Great talent is increasingly willing to get on an airplane and work abroad. They want to perform in gripping stories.
Big studios that make movies for $150 million are now competing with YouTube, which offers free entertainment.
There is some really interesting stuff being offered. In order to stay afloat, they must keep up with technology developments and access to media around the world.
Me and producing movies
Since 1997, I worked to learn all the ropes of making a movie. I learned from the producing masters such as Kathleen Kennedy who produced ET, Sea Biscuit, and Indiana Jones. She is Stephen Spielberg's producer.
I worked through all positions in production in various productions. I learned how to do everything from the ground up. I am grateful for the years I spent in Hollywood learning from the best in the business. I had access to the best cameramen, best producers, best production designers and I learned from filmmaking masters.
Once I had gained production experience from big budget movies and post-production in TV editing and technology, I still felt that there was something missing. When I first arrived in Hollywood, my goal was to produce rather than direct.
I am a big picture guy and I had gained the experience of knowing what the various jobs entailed, what could and couldn't be done, how long it would take for delivery of each piece and so on because I had done all of it at one
time or another. I liked to find talented directors and supporting directors and wanted to give them space to let them fly.
In order to be successful, I needed to concentrate on th business aspect of the industry. So in 2002, I decided to go back to school. I enrolled at the Hollywood Film Institute and learned how to produce movies while working at the same time. At the institute, I learned the business of movie making, financing, structuring products, distribution, and putting deals together. I learned the business of the business, such as putting a budget together and how to lead a team of people, I think that is what sets me apart. I didn't go to school and then decide to be a producer.
I learned the nuts and bolts and then went back to school. I think I gained more from the educational experience that way.
Me and my films
The first major film that I produced was called Intelligence. It won five awards at film festivals. It was about the issue of torturing for information.
It focused on Guantanamo Bay and drew a correlation between what the Nazis did to prisoners in the Second World War and Guantanamo Bay today.
A big part of being a successful producer is about getting the financing and turning the funds into a quality product. You take the money and spend it on the talent, the best cameras, location, sets, costumes, director, actors, and cameraman.
That is what creates production value. You have three things to work with: price, quality and design. I can't adjust the price but what I can work on is the quality. Managing the finances you have in order to create something of quality
is the key. Anyone can get financing. However, if a movie ticket costs you Dh30, I can't say I want to charge you Dh50 for it. What I can do is to change the design, emotional appeal and aesthetics of the film cover the costs.
What is really challenging for producers is that they have to reconcile the creative with the financial responsibilities of a budget. We have to come up with creative solutions. The best solution more often than not is putting the director in a position where he or she can be the most creative and resourceful. They often come up with the best solution to the problem so there is no need to spend more money coming up with a great idea.
I really admire Cameron Crowe as a writer and director. He wrote and directed Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky.
I think Francis Lawrence is a very talented director. He did Constantine and I am Legend. I also admire Ron Howard, the director and producer of Apollo 13, Back Draft and Ed TV. Another I have great respect for is Michael Bay who produced and directed the Transformers, Pearl Harbor, and Armageddon.
My idol is a man who recognised talent from a young age, Bernie Brillstein. He was really someone who could understand and recognise talent.
I studied him and I tried to emulate his philosophy and style.
I am here in the UAE building a production company. I am very committed to being a part of the development of the industry here. My family will be settling here soon.
My plan is to make movies that will be exported worldwide. I am in the process of building the network necessary to accomplish this. I also want to teach and mentor filmmakers in the region. There is a lot to do. I am financing scripts, developing projects that can be produced and preparing for production.
The stories of this region provide a huge opportunity for filmmakers and they need to be told in the most eloquent, creative and visually appealing manner.
What are the differences between the film-making environment in the UAE and that of Hollywood?
On the business side, large Hollywood studios got themselves into a position where they invest in movies that are financially low-risk. They do what works. It makes sense financially, but it doesn't provide much variety for the audience. The world is constantly changing and it makes sense to reflect that in film.
With most Hollywood films, at the end of the movie the audience is no better or worse off. It is just entertainment. Many want only that from a film. They need an emotional or psychological release and a temporary escape.
I want to entertain and make people think at the same time. There are so many new and fresh story ideas here.
I have been here a short time and already have 32 new pitch ideas. I don't really have much interest in producing documentaries. I prefer to inspire people through content.
I like TV shows in the US such as West Wing. It shows the complexities of leading a country and making decisions on a daily basis in an interesting way. I would love to take real issues and put them into a script and create the context, both to entertain and provoke thought.
The stories that are currently being told here in the movie format lack variety. I find that this region provides almost a blank slate or a blank canvas for creative content.
I am currently reading about the history of the region and finding great content for period-based movies.
Something I recognised early on is that there is a gap between the investment in culture and heritage of the country and investment in movies. Films reflect culture and affect culture at the same time.
If you can make films entertaining, you can ensure that people will remember them and benefit from
new knowledge and expanded perspectives.
I think that there is enormous potential for filmmakers to go back into history and tell stories of families from 50 years ago through a movie that covers a span of 50 years. Add to this context emotion as the brain works much better with stories rather than a series of facts. You have to be able to relate to the audience. When Hollywood does a film here, it usually has a short-term impact on the region. You have to make movies to make a long-term impact.
For example, when Syriana was partly filmed here in the UAE, they rented equipment, hired talent, stayed in hotels and made a positive economic impact on the country.
That is not where real economic growth is though. Real economic impact occurs when you as a company bring the UAE gross box office receipts worldwide. That is how an industry is built. An Emirati can learn the craft and compete
The UAE has the equipment, trades, infrastructure, talent, stories and now they need filmmakers. There are not many seasoned filmmakers in the region who make huge worldwide films. The time is now.
For more information contact: Michaelryan@mediusphere.com.
–Sara Sayed is an Abu Dhabi-based freelancer.