Hollywood’s film and production industries were rife with speculation following a recent trip to Dubai by Paramount studio executives. Now, it seems, sources have confirmed the studio’s interest in filming scenes for Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible IV here, and it looks as though they have been successful in securing permission. It wouldn’t have been easy.
The first issue is censorship. Several movie projects seeking approval to film in the UAE have had their requests denied, most notably Sex and the City 2, which failed to meet with the approval of Abu Dhabi’s censors, and was forced to take production to Morocco. While this no doubt resulted in a visual interpretation of Abu Dhabi that none of us would recognise, the idea that a film charting the many relationships of four unmarried women would get permission to film in the UAE is, at the very least, fanciful. But talks to film parts of Body of Lies and The A Team also proved fruitless.
Other films have made it through the net. Movies such as The Kingdom and Syriana were both allowed to film in the UAE, despite being relatively politically charged. But apart from backdrops such as the Burj Al Arab and the Burj Khalifa, which remain unexploited by Hollywood, there is nothing in the way of facilities to keep studios filming here unless they are already shooting in a nearby country.
It doesn’t help that Dubai’s studio facilities are still fairly fledgling. ‘Studio City and Media City, are at the moment, real estate ventures,’ explains Guy Sinclair, managing executive producer at Dubai-based Phoenix Films, who has more than 20 years’ experience in the Middle Eastern industry, primarily in advertising films. ‘They’re not Paramount, they’re not Universal. At least in Abu Dhabi they’ve actually built some sound stages. Here, nothing.’
Tim Smythe, CEO and executive producer at Filmworks Dubai, and producer of the award-winning City of Life, (which was set and filmed in Dubai) adds: ‘From a film perspective, it really comes down to locations that specifically work for the script,’ he says. ‘We can, and have, doubled for a number of countries.’ This was the case with Syriana (set across the Gulf) and The Kingdom (set in Saudi Arabia), which Filmworks was involved with at the time. But he points out that other locations, such as South Africa, can also double for Dubai.
Both experts seem to be making the same point: why would you drop a fortune and fly the entire crew, cast and production unit halfway across the world when there are no fully equipped studios in which to complete or add to the film?
They both believe the solution to growing the industry lies in investment and incentives, the latter tending to be tax-breaks in other countries. ‘It’s got to be government-funded, as all studios in the world are,’ says Sinclair. ‘Look at Valencia in Spain; Jennifer Lopez is building a studio complex in Puerto Rico… It needs an investor to go in and invest.’
‘It’s a matter of attracting work,’ adds Smythe. ‘Every country or city in the world has a system in place to attract people to film in their city.’ At the moment, there are seemingly few incentives to lure filmmakers to Dubai or, indeed, to promote local productions – and only a strong line in both will grow the UAE’s movie industry.
So why hasn’t this happened already? Many films wanting to shoot here gross hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, generating publicity that spot advertising, as Sinclair points out, can’t even begin to compete with. ‘When Dubai looked at the number of other things it was doing – in terms of airlines, hotels, shopping malls, tourism destinations, new business, tax-free business, real estate – and then looked at the financial return in the short-term for the film business, people just thought it was too far down the list to invest,’ Sinclair explains. ‘If you take some other countries, which don’t have as many things on their list to sell, such as Spain, they reach the film option quicker,’ he concludes.
If Dubai is to become a movie force to be reckoned with (and perhaps, by association, to grow tourism even further), more incentives are needed. Though he believes this kind of growth is necessary, Smythe doesn’t see it happening overnight. ‘The industry has been naturally growing over the past couple of years; sometimes there have been hiccups, and sometimes positive things. Yes, there are ways to help accelerate the process, which would be welcomed by the local industry, but it’s still organic as things develop’ he explains. ‘We’re 20 per cent of where we could be.’