Could Abu Dhabi be the new Hollywood?

We take a trip inside the Abu Dhabi film studio, Image Nation

Michael Garin, CEO of film studio Image Nation, leans back in his big leather chair and smiles. “I have to say,” he grins, “that I have undoubtedly the best job in the entertainment business.” He’s probably not wrong.

Where his equivalent studio chiefs across the world would run a daily gamut of unmissable release dates, demanding shareholders, enormous egos and even bigger pay cheques and hair, when Garin pulls up at the office, his daily goal is always the same. His job, put simply, is not to ape the antics of Hollywood. It’s to build a new one. Right here in the UAE.

“The best way to describe Image Nation is that it’s an organisation with a mission,” Garin says. “The mission is to build the foundations of a film and television industry here in the UAE. Everything we do still loses money. But because we’re investing in building an industry, it’s okay if everything we do is great. If everything we do loses money and is just okay, then why bother?”

Unlike the standard movie studio pattern established in California and copied worldwide, Image Nation’s business isn’t built around seasonal tent-pole movies, the summer megahits that may power the bottom line but increasingly fall short of expectation. “Our focus is on production, not distribution,” says Garin. “Distribution businesses are generally volume-driven. We’re quality-driven. We don’t need tent poles. We don’t need anything, except films that people like and are critically acclaimed. In Hollywood, if you need a summer movie, you know that if you don’t start shooting by a certain date you’ll never hit that summer release date, so often pictures are started before they’re quite ready. The ethos is, ‘We’ll kind of make it [the creative deficit] up along the way.’ Here, because we don’t need a movie at a specific date, we only start one at the point that it’s the very best we can possibly make it.”

If all that sounds a little too good to be true, really it isn’t. Tasked by the government to build a local film industry from the ground up, Garin has the benefit of two things many of his peers would sell an A-lister’s elbow for: support and time. This isn’t a desperate scramble for a massive opening weekend, but a steady build to a sustainable future.

Some of the UAE’s increasing interest in the movie business has been a lot more visible than others. Six years ago, it was Tom Cruise clowning about on the top of the Burj Khalifa for a stunt in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol that the A-lister confided to us at the time was, “genuinely one of the most exhilarating and terrifying points of my life. You do all the math on paper, but when you get up there and feel the wind, it’s a whole new ball game.” Last year, with Jeff Goldblum sardonically deadpanning “They always go for the landmarks,” the tallest building in the world was then blown upside-down and hurled into London by the evil aliens in Independence Day: Resurgence, with Goldblum, co-star Liam Hemsworth and director Roland Emmerich later flying back into Dubai for a promotional meet-and-greet.

In between, the two biggest sci-fi rivals ever, have both spent time on UAE soil, with Star Trek Beyond shooting in Dubai (Fact alert: Time Out’s Music & Nightlife editor found herself dodging imaginary spaceships as an extra) and J. J. Abrams choosing Abu Dhabi as the location for much of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the biggest franchise relaunch in movie history.

“And the benefit of all of that is that it elevates the technical capabilities of the region,” says Garin. “We provide crew and location. There’s a financial remuneration, too, but really it’s subsidised because that subsidy is earned back several times over in the hiring of local people, the meals, taxis, hotel rooms and so on.”

That international aspect works both ways, too. Image Nation’s business model is essentially split into two co-existing halves: its international and local arms. Internationally, the company finances a number of big US productions, with the profits from them then funding its local productions. This year, for instance, the company’s investments extend to The Circle, a big-budget cyber-thriller starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson that will be released in April, and The Barbie Movie, rumoured to be starring comedian Amy Schumer as Mattel’s most iconic toy, who is thrown out of Barbieland for, as the synopsis has it, “not being perfect enough”, and sets off for an adventure in the real world. Marry the ever-popular Schumer with a satirical skewering of the body-shaming mentality found in much of modern society, and big bucks surely abound.

“Internationally, it’s purely a financial decision for us,” says Garin of all of their global projects. “We couldn’t care less if we won every Academy Award if we lost money on the project. There, we are in business to make money. Locally, we couldn’t care less if the film made money, but had any creative opprobrium. We would like to make money, but if [those local films] aren’t critically acclaimed and appreciated by the audience, then we have failed.”

From that local point of view, Image Nation is enjoying something of a boom period. The Worthy, by writer-director Ali Mostafa (City of Life, From A to B), was released last week. A chilling, post-apocalyptic dystopian fable, it’s epic in scope and excellent in execution, and has courted a storm of attention on the festival circuit everywhere from Dubai to London. It’s also the first Arabic film ever to screen in 4DX, a reflection of the scale of showing the finished product demands.

In particular, the company’s non-fiction output has been extraordinary, with documentaries such as 2014’s Every Last Child – which looked into the tumultuous political situation surrounding the polio vaccine in Pakistan – to 2015’s He Named Me Malala – about the build-up to and aftermath of the Taliban’s attack on Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai – being respected and consumed around the globe.

“We need to make content that’s relevant to the region or relevant to this audience, but we also have a remit to try and create a larger impact in terms of types of characters and stories you see on the international scene,” says Omar Butti, Image Nation’s Manager, Documentary. “Arabs and Muslims struggle a bit when it comes to their depictions in news and international media. In the documentary sphere we had a big international co-production on He Named Me Malala. We wanted a film that presented a positive female Muslim figure, an activist. We also wanted to tell a good story. We want to show people from the region, like with The Worthy too, which shows positive and negative characters of Arab descent.”

But perhaps the film that hit the most of Image Nation’s key metrics simultaneously was last year’s Lights of Rome. A documentary about the first (and so far only) time the UAE ever qualified for the World Cup, it was the perfect distillation of what the company is about. This unlikely story happened in 1989, when the UAE was just 19 (at the point the tournament kicked off) years old, which was, coincidentally, also the average age of the players on the team.

“Because both the players and the country were the same age, we were able to use this amazing sporting story to paint a portrait of the country at the time,” says Butti. “For many people it [Italia ’90] was the first time they’d heard the name of the country, so it became a really big deal. We wanted to make something that was specifically Emirati but then when we did some early test screenings in London, we were very pleased to discover that the film really translated. You know, would countries who regularly qualify [for the World Cup] – and there are many of them – identify with this story? But they did.”

That aspect of translation, of understanding, is something that everyone we speak to at Image Nation is very open about. “We’re still trying to figure out what the audience wants, and also what constitutes an ‘Emirati film’. The whole industry is trying to figure that out,” says Butti. “You know, American films have many genres but certain tropes – an individual having a massive impact on the world, for instance. Similarly, French cinema has its throughlines. Korean cinema looks a lot at society, how your community views you. With Emirati cinema, we don’t have that yet, because it’s so new. So a lot of what we’re doing is experimentation, trying stuff out. Seeing what sticks.”

Michael Garin has an analogy that he thinks best sums up the state of the local film industry at the point Image Nation started to try and give it some focus. It involves him and skiing and tennis. For the latter, Garin took lessons early on and learned to play properly, so that his muscle memory, even when he plays today, means he can still whack a ball pretty well. The first time he went skiing, though, was when he was a senior in high school, and he went with a bunch of guys who had started skiing a few years earlier, and therefore knew what they were doing. Garin, being Garin, wasn’t about to let them leave him snow-ploughing around on the baby slopes. So he went with his buddies up to the top of the mountain.

“Because I was young and athletic,” he says, “I was able to get down, but my way. But by the time I did get down it turned out I’d picked up so many bad habits that I could never overcome them. That’s what I said to people when I arrived: ‘I’m a very good tennis player, but a terrible skier.’ That’s the position we found the film industry in when we first arrived – lots of very talented people with very bad habits.”

And so began the process of both bringing in a younger generation of filmmakers and working with the existing ones. “We want this industry to be financially self-sustaining, because you can’t keep subsidising it indefinitely. Second, we want it locally run. And third, we want Image Nation to be just one of many companies. We’re not trying to just build local talent, we’re trying to build local companies,” he says. “Unlike the jobs that I had before [Garin has worked for more than 40 years for everyone from Time Inc. to Central European Media Enterprises, and helped co-found what would eventually become Lorimar-Telepictures], where I saw everybody as a competitive threat, here, I’m trying to take everyone who would have been seen in the West as a competitive threat and make them successful. Creatively-driven industries need tons of small companies that can prosper on their own. That’s what I aspire to.”

And that’s also where Gehad Darwish and Alma Al Mubarak come in. In his role in Corporate Marketing, Darwish’s day job is of course to make Image Nation sound good. But the reality is that he actually has some interesting stuff to talk about. Al Mubarak, meanwhile, works on the marketing side of Quest Arabiya, a recently launched TV channel that’s pushing the envelope in terms of user-generated content. Both their roles segue when it comes to drawing in new talent.

When it comes to finding talent, Quest has made a concerted push to more user-generated content and a continued focus on telling “inspiring, beautiful, untold stories” about local people. “And also to upscale regional talent,” says Al Mubarak, “to provide opportunities for young people who are striving to be in the film and TV industry. When we launched [in 2015] we did a series of info-bites. We asked people to send in videos of themselves, then we selected the best and put them either in front of or behind the camera.” For Darwish, that will come via Image Nation’s continued drive to train people, via its four programmes – Narrative, Documentary, Script Writing and Young Filmmakers – that fall under its Arab Film Studio banner and have, after just five years, led to a series of resultant short movies that have screened at more than 70 film festivals across the world. “Usually people take these courses around 21 years old,” says Darwish, “but we also have people in their 40s and so on, too. While the Young Filmmakers Programme is targeted at high school students, what’s great about Arab Film Studio is that it’s not just for Arabs or Emiratis – it’s actually multi-national. And 50/50 male/female, too. Everyone comes together and learns from each other, learns to become a bigger part of the film community.” Each year a winner receives an internship at Image Nation, with past recipients getting to work on everything from He Named Me Malala to Star Wars: The Force Awakens to War Machine, starring Brad Pitt.

For Garin, though, this is all just logical. He has the international partnerships to win big at the US box office. He has the foundations of a mammoth new film industry to spend that profit on. And he also, frankly, has an inherent confidence and charm that means he could probably sell an Eskimo an ice cube.
He looks up from his laptop, from which he’s just shown us an impressive sizzle-reel of his new, 21-part TV show Justice, which he’s pitching as “LA Law meets Dallas in Abu Dhabi” and leans back in that big leather chair.

“Right now,” he says, “we’re coming close to recouping about half the cost of local productions, so I think in another five years we’re likely to be if not at sustainability, close to it. We’re disciplined and principled and we aren’t ego-driven. We have self-control.” Garin smiles. “And Hollywood is generally run by people who, when they become successful, lose their self-control.”
www.imagenationabudhabi.com.

Who’s who talking heads

Alma Al Mubarak

The Associate Marketing Manager of Quest Arabiya, a recently launched TV channel that’s pushing user-generated content.

Gehad Darwich

Darwish, a Corporate Marketing Manager for Image Nation, focuses on Training and Development for the film house.

Omar Butti

Image Nation’s Manager, Documentary, Butti has worked on films such as He Named Me Malala and Lights of Rome.

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