Film does work

Tim Smythe, managing director of Filmworks in Dubai believes so strongly in the potential of the Middle East that he’s investing in an equipment stash second to none. In his first interview on the subject, Smythe explains why.

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By  Will Strauss Published  September 3, 2000

Introduction|~||~||~|Have you heard the one about the Dubai based media company that claimed to be investing in the future of the industry in the UAE? If not, you can probably guess the punch line. They did it for the money after all.

Boasting that what you're doing here in the Middle East is for the good of the industry is usually a bit of a joke. So many promise so much and yet so few actually deliver. On the odd occasion that someone has good intentions, they get lost amongst the desire to make a quick buck. Which is not very funny at all.

South African Tim Smythe, managing director Filmworks is probably the exception to this rule. To him, aiding the developing industry is no laughing matter. Of course, if he happens to make some money out of it at the same time, that's definitely a bonus.

In September the company will realise a dream by expanding its equipment facility to a level matched only by facilities in Europe and America.

By joining hands with two South African kit companies, Logical Designs and The Movie Camera Company, Filmworks will have over a million dollars worth of gear available for not only their own productions but also for rent by other producers in the region.

In a region that suffers from a severe drought of decent equipment available for hire this can only be seen as an aid to developing the film and television industry in this part of the world.

State-of-the-art cameras, grips and lighting plus sound gear, booms and stands will make up the majority of the stash, all of which will make Filmworks better prepared and offer other companies an easier way into better quality production.

||**||Investment in Equipment|~||~||~|Speaking to digital studio, in his first interview after making this revelation, Smythe was very honest about his plans for not only this new equipment facility but also the new look Filmworks and the industry in general.

“The lack of equipment hire available here in Dubai is changing,” declared Smythe.

“I will have a million dollars worth of state-of-the-art equipment available soon. I have linked up with two South African companies - Movie Camera Company and Logical Designs and they will place equipment here. It's important to offer this facility to the industry.

“Once all the proper equipment is here in Dubai and the crews are here in Dubai we will be up and running. From an agency's and client's point of view they won't need to go to Europe because we can do so much more production here. All the basics will be available - updated equipment including new stuff. There will also be technical support and a multitude of staff available here. And everything that is not here is just a phone call away.”

Smythe also has grand plans to increase the number of staff employed by Filmworks and build up his freelance contacts, something that will help to make the company stand out from the crowd.

“We should have lots more people by January - that's my goal. It might be earlier. There are a lot of people interested. We are training a lot of people locally. We want to have people that have a lot of international experience that have worked with big directors.

"Worked with big film producers. Worked on big features with big film crews. That's the experience we want. The producer needs to know his technicians are up to his level.”

||**||"People are Crucial"|~||~||~|People are still the most crucial piece in the Filmworks jigsaw. Having the right equipment is a big step but if you can't use it properly then it's of little or no use. Smythe is very keen to educate as well as bring in top quality staff.

One member of the Filmworks crew worked on The Ghost and the Darkness, a motion picture set in Southern Africa, starring Kirk Douglas and Val Kilmer, that featured fantastic panoramic plains and very, very scary lions.

This is the kind of staff that Filmworks is looking to employ. It just shows the ambition of the man and his company.

“For me the most important thing is people. I don't care if you get the best edit suit, the best this, the best that. It’s still down to the people,” agrees Smythe.

“At Filmworks we have an international mix of people, quite a few that are well sourced in the market. You have to try and develop local talent as well. I brought in one of my producers from Canada, an Arabic guy and he's had the correct exposure there.”

The company has grown from its tiny acorn-like state to the oak that it is now on the back of income from advertising production. And this will remain the staple diet for Filmworks even though other, different types of projects could be in the pipeline.

“We've done ads for Coca Cola, Pepsi, Audi, General Motors, Kit Kat and Quality Street to name a few. They're all big companies and international brands. We've not had many local companies though,” outlines Smythe with a slight sense of disappointment.

“We had the National Bank of Dubai but that was because they were willing to spend. We do not go for the smaller market. Admittedly I am seen to be more expensive. But for a reason. The competition is very hot.

"I am more expensive but I try to maintain a consistency of quality. This is something relatively new to the Middle East so let's see what happens over the next six months. If you are consistent with quality then the agency will come back to you. The agencies in the Middle East do like the overseas trip so a lot of them try to get out of the country.”

||**||The Future for Filmworks|~||~||~|And what about other types of production? Can Filmworks branch out into documentaries for example?

“Documentaries don't pay. Documentaries can be fun but corporates really are not. I've done a lot of documentaries and the nicest ones have been political and historical ones. But you can't do political ones here. Wildlife ones? They’re more difficult.

"For features I believe that there is enough untapped locations but again its expensive to make a feature here. You've got to be big, really big. I would say there is a potential for a film industry here. But you need labs before you can have a film industry.

"My market is filmmaking and I want to go right up to feature films. But that's a few months off in the future.”

The UAE is one of those places, without much history to stop it, that can begin and develop new industries at the drop of a hat. A multi-media society is beginning to pop up at Internet City, while Media City is well on its way to becoming a reality. Perhaps there is also room for a film industry as well.

You never know. For now, the likes of Filmworks will have to stick to helping to develop the general production “industry”, such as it is. And, as so many have mentioned before him, Smythe realises that changes need to be made before anything can be improved.

||**||Stabilise the Industry|~||~||~|“The biggest thing that the Middle East needs to do is to stabilise the industry,” detailed Smythe, with a distinct sense of purpose.

“At the moment the Arab world is working on separate systems to different standards. We should work like Europe works where crews are paid set rates.

"All the actors should get paid the same rate for the same work. The model agencies should charge the same commissions. The production should charge the same mark ups. The crew are hired at the same rates. No more negotiation. But pack up the word negotiation in the Middle East and it all collapses.”

But can this seriously happen here in the Middle East?

“I believe that with two serious players in this part of the world, it can be done. [Filmworks plus Rahbani/Sinclair] Because then, if any other serious player comes in, this is how they are going to work.

"I know how much a production will cost in Sydney, London or Rome. The equipment and crew will be relatively the same cost wherever you are. This regulation will develop itself. The industry is too much of a baby. It still needs to grow and mature.”

“The important thing for me is to get to a level where we can attract outsiders. We've got fantastic locations but where we scare the big boys is that they've had bad experiences. Clients from all over the world, who need palaces or deserts, want to go to Morocco because the industry can deliver the quality. I hate it when people do that.

"We need to be able to have enough turnover of work that we can attract grips and gaffers. Its getting to the stage where there's enough work to sustain freelancers.”

The timing is right to sustain the dreams of Tim Smythe. His ideas are not ones that cannot come true. A regulated industry is possible, an improved reputation for the Middle East is likely and a film industry, well who knows?

There has never been a better time to be a film producer in this part of the world, as Smythe agrees:

“I've been in Dubai for two years and I am very happy with the market. We've done a lot of the big international brands. So the market is now open, and with Saudi still there to be taken the prospects are very good. I can definitely see through the next year at least one or two production companies opening up in Dubai.

“We've come in at the right time. The market is budding. I know a lot of people who I talk to, like other producers here, who say the market is terrible. I think that is wrong. I'd say that it's growing and it is our responsibility to ensure it grows in the right direction.”

||**||Company Info|~||~||~|Filmworks opened for business two years ago with a staff of four executives and the aim of producing advertising, feature films and television programmes.

Today that number of permanent staff has trebled and the company now employs fourteen full time staff, supported by international visiting crews as well as Dubai based freelancers.

Filmworks has recently completed the setting up of a second online editing suite, featuring a softimage/ds as installed by Omnix International, which will compliment nicely the Avid Media Composer that is already there.

Along with a new corporate image, Filmworks also has a new website, which was launched this month. For more information on Filmworks, please log onto||**||

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