Dubai: Dubai has always had ambition. But, unlike many who focus on what could be, the Emirate has seized the day and made dreams a reality.
Twenty years and the skyline has transformed into a city that celluloid dreams are made of - a city that Isaac Asimov envisioned and Wakanda built. So, it is but natural that Dubai would get into the business of filmmaking.
Lights, camera, action... in Dubai
“We were officially established in 2012 - the one-stop shop for all filmmakers or any content maker in Dubai,” explained Jamal Al Sharif, Chairman of the Dubai Film and TV Commission (DFTC) and Chief Commercial Officer of Dubai Creative Cluster Authority, Dubai Government.
The commission was set up under the patronage of Shaikh Hamdan bin Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of the Dubai Executive Council.
“It was set up to ease the business of content makers in Dubai and in the UAE as well.” But, it was not an overnight decision. Activities related to the commission existed since 2008 as part of Studio City.
We were officially established in 2012 - the one-stop shop for all filmmakers or any content maker in Dubai”
- Jamal Al Sharif | Chairman of the Dubai Film and TV Commission (DFTC) and Chief Commercial Officer of Dubai Creative Cluster Authority, Dubai Government
“Dubai Media City was set up in early 2000 to attract investors from all over the world... from 2000 to 2005, the total number of companies reached to 700 media companies. Today we celebrate over 2,000 media companies in Dubai. However, somewhere in between 2004 and 2005 we noticed a demand for production facilities. It continued to grow within the Media City clusters. So strategically, the Tecom group thought of developing a new city that caters into the back office of these media companies, which is the production ...Studio City, to be the support business of these media companies.
Millions earned with filmmaking
“The project started after long research with the companies that existed in Media City, some of which expanded, there are big studios here, so they have asked to expand the structure, add more value to it, give them the facilities that were missing.
“Dubai has always been the pioneer of business hubs in entrepreneurial industries and media was one of them. ...here, now, we have one of the largest sound stages ever built in the Middle East and North Africa. It could be the largest if you look at Europe even... although those are not considered sound stages, they’re warehouses. These are properly designed sound stages for television, film, multi-use, with offices ... plus we have boutique studios and other facilities.
“At the end of the day you are here to make money, to be secure, to have a stable establishment of business. That’s where we’ve brought in the commission, films are a money making industry ...this plays a big role in economics. In 2017, the total budget spend in Dubai of filmmaking reached Dh150 million, in 2015 it was over 200 million because of Star Trek [Beyond]. So, that tells you ... these numbers are important for the GDP.
The multiplying effect of filmmaking is big in a city. Star Trek [Beyond] spent a little over Dh110 million in Dubai over the course of three months. I don’t think any other industry can spend in your city more than a Dh100 million in three months. They hired more than 1,500 people, consumed a lot of goods, consumed a lot of food, rented a lot of room nights, rented our studios, they used Emirates airline for long hauls. Over 150 people came from Canada and US. These all add up. They discovered new people, we registered three new companies.”
The need for speed
Nothing is too much. “When Mission Impossible; Ghost Protocol was filming here - every night we had to send the film roll on a seat on Emirates airline. We bought a seat for it to reach US the next morning - that was very important. They would shoot it here. Send it to post production ... then immediately to the US to make sure the content is 100 per cent pure. We did that every day.”
Dubai Studio City today houses soundstages, studios, warehouses, workshops, dressing rooms, office spaces, indoor water tanks for underwater shooting and a 3 million square feet backlot, along with the DFTC.
To use the facilities, “All what you have to do is go online to the Dubai Film and Television Commission website, log in, find a location as we always update the website with our most popular locations through location scouters... it is done by proessional people, who upload these images.
“Then we basically take that application - that is one step. If you are a licensed company in the UAE then you just have to put in your licence number and apply for locations to film, submit your script, submit your information... it takes three working days at the maximum, sometimes there is no script attached, such as a reality show, then it is a maximum of 48 hours.
Once you submit these documents, you get your permission, you are out there filming. We are aiming to reduce this time to one day soon. If you are an outside company, not licensed in the UAE, all you have to do is go through our database of companies in Dubai and find a company that fits your business, be it television, advertising, television series or fimmaking - they will apply on your behalf.”
Calling young filmmakers
So, after post production facilities, what are the prospects for pre-production options such as script development, cameramen, and film financing?
Jamal clarified: “The media development and media landscape is very entrepreneurial still in the UAE, growing organically.
“The local talent is limited, we just got into this business in the past 15-20 years, although the TV industry in the UAE goes back, I would say probably late 1960s. However, we are pushing ourselves, very slowly and organically to develop that industry through different workshops and activities around town to develop the skills of Emirati talent, talent of UAE residents... and we are hoping that slowly we will pick up. In a few years we will see strong storytellers and scriptwriters in this region.
“When it comes to film financing, film funding... it requires not just the government but the private sector involvement, the banking sector involvement, which is not there yet. The topic of tourism, real estate, retail is something we know of but when it comes to the topic of film financing it’s a grey area in so many organisations. So, let’s not compare today what we have here to Hollywood or Bollywood - they’re mature, they’re 100 years old.
But, we can learn a lot from them. We can focus on small films, small productions, raising small funds and not necessarily millions because that is not the case - the case is the story, a budget that supports the story and a good promoter to promote that content very strongly to make that money. I am hoping that in the years coming up we should have a structure that supports young talented filmmakers on their productions ... we are open to anything that fits into the criteria of our culture... a story is a story.
“We are very open to working with studios, independent filmmakers or online content makers. We have workered with YouTubers because we have YouTube space here. We have worked with large studios such as Paramount, Dreamworks and so on ... our doors are open, as long as it fits what the UAE wants - please come and be creative here.”
Bollywood in Dubai
It doesn’t just stop at production facilities, locations, weather and even the attitudes of the people make a difference.
“When Tom Cruise was filming Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol here, the producer was worried that the crowd was just going to block him. We were in Satwa... a good number of people but well behaved. People knew that was Tom Cruise, people understand that there is a barrier, there is an area for this artiste. That tells you the people we have in the crowd - it was very smooth.
“When they [Indian fimstar Shah Rukh Khan] were filming Happy New Year in Atlantis at midday - middle of the lobby, full of tourists, everybody was walking by as if they’re part of the scene. It shows you the culture of accepting filmmaking and you do not find that in many countries or cities. People here love to see stars and celebrities filming in their town, so they welcome them.”
Jamal said that growth has been at a steady rate, especially with the growing presence of Hollywood and Bollywood fimmakers.
“Bollywood is the nearest interest... I had some video clips of one of the oldest movies shot in Dubai. We didn’t know the exact date, with Dubai Police cars chasing some bad guys and they end up being in one of the oldest hotels in Dubai. That is about 1979-80. That tells you that Bollywood interest in this part of the world is very high. They’ve been here and we support them. We believe that there is similarity in culture, ease of doing business, trading, three to four hours away, and when it comes to cost, the dirham is pegged to the dollar, so very stable.
There are no challenges on issues such as work permits and visas. For crews, we issue it within 48 hours, so you find big number of crews coming here with filmmakers. The last time I worked with [Indian director] Farah Khan (left)... big appetite of shooting everywhere in Dubai, and we gave her that support, and that’s the type of relationship we need.
What Hollywood wants
And next, of course, with Hollywood, another big industry, they find Dubai, UAE and Abu Dhabi a good strong platform for them because they want infrastructure, they want safety, security, ease of doing business. We are way ahead of the other regions in terms of infrastructure, productivity, airports, airlines, ease of doing business, transparency... that is very important. Paramount has been here three to four times, Warner Brothers has been here three to four times and in Abu Dhabi multiple times.
“When it comes to telling a story in this part of the world ... they always look for that Arabian look and feel, the desert lifestyle or the glamorous city, both are needed by Bollywood and Hollywood, especially when it comes to outdoor filming. They have found that Dubai and Abu Dhabi... UAE in general to be number one in safety and security, ease of doing business and if we tell them that the sky is blue, it is blue. There is no rainy day. It is very important to them - for a director and producer. It is all about money at the end of the day. Each day they put that camera on the floor it costs them money.
“And statements made by certain directors in Bollywood... that my cast when they come to Dubai they behave and we film on time, this production Dubai will take 20 days but in India probably would take over a month. Here they are on a schedule plus connectivity.
“Then it comes to infrastructure ...we provide production companies that are specialised in different sectors. Star Trek shot here two or three years ago, one of the equipment they used here was a camera that was not available around the world. When they searched, the only available one was ordered from a US company and shipped to Dubai for a local production company. Therefore the infrastructure allows you to be in a comfort zone. So they used Dubai for that purpose.
Then you have the airports, daily flights to India, daily flights to the Europe, daily flights to multiple destinations in the US also play a big role. because many of these filmmakers when they come here they fly in crews from all over the world. That’s very easy from South Africa, India, Australia, USA, Canada. Then there’s ease of transporting goods - Star Trek transported heavy amount of sets fromn Canada to Dubai, so all that was crossed through Dubai airport and cutoms - easy fast track.”
Why the world wants to film in Dubai
And these factors have, indeed, played a key role in increasing demand.
“For example in 2017 we crossed over 1,080 applications, and in 2016 it was 900 applications, so there was a 20 per cent increase. These number of applications actually are a collective of different type of media productions ranging from advertising to documentary to film and television production... Dubai is becoming a hub for content makers not just film - they find their location here, from beautiful beaches to desert to nice buildings skyscrapers, nice hotel lobbies, lifestyle and everything.
“People shoot in multiple locations along Dubai, Shaikh Zayed Road is one of the most famous places, Downtown Dubai, Burj Khalifa, Citywalk ...actually Dubai Parks and Resorts was the highest last year among most of the fimmakers, so that it gives you a good indication these locations are important.
“Bollywood for sure wants to be outdoor, most of the songs scenes is outdoor.They love hotels they really take adavantage of the major fivestar hotels of Dubai from Jumeirah Zaabeel Saray to Burj Al Arab, the new hotels in Citywalk. The boutique hotels, Address Hotel is used a lot ... also Armani Hotel in Burj Khalifa for sure.
These luxurious hotels are part of many scenes of European films and Bollywood films. Hollywood uses our studios because they wish to finish everything here... they do not want to take it back to studios there and our studios costs less than studios per day in the US, so they take advantage of these facilities.
“There are many initiatives out there and we’ll continue adding them to our portfolio of filmmaking and content making in Dubai. The whole landscape is changing so fast you need to adapt ... at the end of the day, it has to be about business and filmmaking is good business,” concluded Jamal Al Sharif.