Are UAE film fans growing up?

For as long as we can remember, direct-to-DVD action movies have outperformed Oscar winners in Dubai’s cinemas. Laura Chubb finds this may be about to change

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Where in the world could a direct-to-DVD threequel storm into the box-office charts at number two, as low-budget fight movie Undisputed III did this June? It’s the same place in which a movie called Boogeyman 3 debuted at number four. The mystery location, of course, is the UAE, where the mass cinemagoers’ predilection for action and horror movies – whatever the quality – can frustrate the few with even a passing interest in films that have plots.

But the times are a-changing. The Picturehouse at Reel Cinemas Dubai Mall, a screen dedicated entirely to world and art cinema, is the most recent innovation in a city that has started to satisfy its own more culture-oriented appetites. The Scene Club – founded by Emirati filmmaker Nayla al Khaja and under the patronage of Dubai International Film Festival – shows world cinema for free once a month, and is unfailingly packed with more than 500 film fans each time. Then there are the popular themed film seasons at galleries such as thejamjar and community art space The Shelter, screening flicks you won’t find in Dubai’s multiplexes. Yet these are all non-commercial ventures, showing films for little money or for free. It seems even Reel finds little commercial value in such ventures. ‘The objective [of The Picturehouse] is not to garner huge sales, but to provide the opportunity to showcase art films on the big screen,’ says a spokesman. He did not tell us how much money The Picturehouse makes.

That direct-to-DVD titles should make big bucks at the multiplex while 2010 Oscar nominees such as Crazy Heart and The Last Station fail to get a look-in (neither was released here) can probably be attributed to the UAE industry’s youth. The country has only just produced its first feature film. Tastes are still developing, and the relatively few cinemas we have are vying for attention, therefore they screen what will make the most money, preferring not to take risks. As The Scene Club’s Al Khaja puts it: ‘It’s showbusiness, not show art.’

But in many ways, the industry is already growing up. That Avatar was the highest-grossing film of last year and Alice in Wonderland is 2010’s third-highest grossing so far shows a progress of sorts. The general manager of a big regional distributor, who asked not to be named, explains to Time Out: ‘In the past a stupid action movie – any movie with Jackie Chan or The Rock in it – would be huge. Now they’re not doing so well. After Avatar, people have the 3D fever. A movie like Alice used to make 50,000 admissions. People enjoyed seeing it in 3D and we reached 210,000 admissions.’ Sci-fi and fantasy have never been big in Dubai – now, owing to 3D, they are among the most popular. So at least the mass audience’s tastes are expanding.

As much as Avatar is not exactly the stuff of art (aside from the CGI), it is undoubtedly a game-changer. Faced with plummeting ticket sales – blamed on the increasing ease of illegal downloads – Hollywood had to come up with something to get bums back on seats. A cinematic experience you cannot achieve at home is the answer, and the rise of 3D is a large part of that solution. ‘When Avatar was released worldwide in December, it changed the way customers viewed movies,’ says Andy Fordham, project manager at Gulf Film. ‘It did 10 weeks of trade [in the UAE], whereas any good-performing movie is usually off the screen within four to five weeks.’

Avatar and Alice are both spectacle films, and if the ‘cinematic experience’ is how Hollywood is going to keep making money, we can expect more of the same. But this doesn’t mean we’re in for lowbrow movies. This summer’s Inception is a spectacle extraordinaire, yet doesn’t sacrifice plot. It made 90,000 admissions in its first week here – almost half of what Alice made during its entire run – and certainly does not conform to the standard brainless actioner. So, the spectacle film has the UAE mass market’s attention: now all we need are some more spectacles worth watching.

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