Calling Hollywood

Jamal Al Sharif, manager of Dubai Studio City, is trying to create a world class movie, TV and music production hub in Dubai. He hopes to kickstart his plan by bringing a blockbuster movie shoot to the city.

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By  Published  August 31, 2006

|~||~||~|It’s early 2008 and Brad Pitt has just booked himself in for an extended stay at the Burj Al Arab. The world’s biggest movie star is set to spend the next three months in Dubai, making a film that is already being touted as next summer’s big budget Hollywood blockbuster. Ridley Scott or James Cameron (local newspapers aren’t sure who yet) is due in town soon to direct the project, and hundreds of technical and support personnel are already beginning to fill the city’s three and four star hotels. It’s expected that the local economy could profit from the shoot to the tune of $50 million, but the benefit to Dubai’s image and the boost it will give to the local television and film production industry could be immeasurable. This scenario could become a reality if Jamal Al Sharif, manager of Dubai Studio City, has his way. He is currently in talks with a major Hollywood Studio (the rumour mill suggests Universal or Warner Bros.) to base a major film shoot in Dubai. This won’t be simply making a few outdoor scenes, as with Syriana, but will mean that the vast bulk of the film will be shot right here in Dubai. “We’re negotiating with several big budget movies to come here,” Al Sharif, a movie buff who holds a masters in business administration and international marketing, tells Digital Studio. “We’ve been talking with them for some time. A director came to Dubai himself and looked around, and was amazed by what Dubai could offer and the locations he could use.” However, whilst a big Hollywood shoot will attract headlines, Al Sharif’s real aim as head of Dubai Studio City is to create something much more long term. His goal is to turn another empty patch of land near Sheikh Zayed Road into a thriving hub of creativity, where film, TV and music producers have everything they need to do their jobs. “Dubai Studio City will provide the entire infrastructure for broadcasting and production,” explains Al Sharif. “What do they need? A company that will do a location scout for them; someone that will rent equipment to them; a post-production facility; a telecine and a casting agency. All these people will be next to each other in one hub. That’s why companies are coming.” At the heart of Dubai Studio City and its vision to host Hollywood, Bollywood and Arabic language shoots is an ambitious plan to build state of the art studios, including a gigantic sound stage. “Currently, we’re designing what I would call the largest sound stage in the Middle East,” hints Al Sharif. He won’t give specifics, in case he tips off potential competition, but insiders say we could be looking at a sound stage of up to 70,000 ft² in size, equipped with high ceilings, district cooling and control rooms. Al Sharif does confirm, however, that the stage is being built by Los Angeles-based Bastien and Associates Inc, a company responsible for major sound stages around the world, including the US $88 million Ciudad de la Luz 12-stage facility in Alicante, Spain. “We are hiring one of the best designers in the world, one well known for building sound stages,” says Al Sharif. “The reason we have selected this company is that we want these sound stages to be done to an international standard.” Dubai Studio City is well aware, however, that making great movies and TV programmes is about more than providing state of the art infrastructure. Access to talent and incentives are also key parts of the equation, whether a Hollywood blockbuster, Bollywood musical or an independent, local production. Al Sharif says that Dubai Media City, where most of the city’s media and production firms are currently located, has had an informal programme of assistance and incentives in place for some time. The time has now come to make this more formal, with the creation of a department called Location Approval Services. “They provide all the services and support to an international and local producer,” says the Studio City chief. Amongst those services are all the things movie and drama makers would expect in other parts of the world, including permits to shoot in public areas, help in accessing private locations, talent databases and reduced fees on things such as airline seats and hotel rooms. For example, Dubai Studio City will have four hotels of a three or four star standard, perhaps not good enough for A-list stars, but suitable for putting up the support personnel that a major production requires. One hotel management deal has already been signed and the operator has agreed to give Dubai Studio City 25% discounts on the rooms that it books. Airlines have been spoken to and are reportedly interested in providing assistance. Numerous producers have apparently already benefitted from the help of Location Approval Services. Emaar Properties, Dubai International Airport and Mall of the Emirates have all been persuaded to waive location fees of several thousand Dirhams per day in a number of cases. “There was an international shoot coming to Dubai that wanted to film in the airport; they charge AED 70,000, but we waived it,” says Al Sharif. “The Asian version of a reality TV show came here and we cut about 60% off their costs. They budgeted $80,000 and we waived almost $50,000. They only had to pay about $33,000.” The rates that Dubai Studio City will charge its tenants will, according to its manager, be “competitive compared to Dubai and what we will provide you. It’s going to be within the reach of any producer and production company. We’re keen to deliver the right product with the right rate.” Competitive rates, assistance and incentives will be essential if Dubai is to win the major film and TV shoots from international competitors such as the UK and Canada. These locations offer tax rebates and subsidies that can sometimes help a producer cut up to 30% off the cost of a project. Al Sharif seems well aware of what competitors are offering and says he is working on additional programmes that will make Dubai a more attractive location for producers. “We’re hoping now to come up with a programme and structure for the future that will support the film industry, such as incentives and funds,” he says. “I cannot go into detail on that, but it’s something we’re working on.” He also hopes that local banks will become receptive to the idea of funding media projects, but admits that it will take at least two years before they even begin to warm to the idea of ‘media loans.’ On another crucial question, talent, Dubai Media City has already sucked in a sizeable number of TV production personnel from other Arab countries. Dubai Studio City aims to build on that base by establishing an academy that will teach all aspects of production and filmmaking, from non-technical elements such as writing and casting to how to operate lights and cameras. “We have several international names that we’re looking at and will hopefully announce something by the end of the year,” says Al Sharif. “We don’t want just a commercial school, sitting there collecting money, we want to add value to the community.” Dubai Studio City will also hope that its very presence and the shooting of international films in the city will inspire a new generation of filmmakers. “Eventually, the talent pool has to be built and we know that will take us some time,” says Al Sharif. Dubai Studio City’s tenants will ultimately comprise a large number of companies that are relocating there from Media City. However, a number of new firms are reported to have signed up, attracted by the idea of everything they need in one place. According to Al Sharif, new TV channels and production companies from India, Pakistan, Germany and even Korea have signed up. UK production companies will also be targeted, with the emphasis on Dubai’s lifestyle and its tax free status. With any project like Dubai Studio City, offices have to be filled, but its manager says that ultimate success will come down to the quality of the work being done there. Hopefully, a successful Hollywood blockbuster will be one of those pieces of work. “Our message is that we’re a one stop shop for a film producer, film director and production company,” concludes Al Sharif. “Dubai Studio City will provide all the services they need under one roof.”||**||

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