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Economics & Finance

Movie-making In Abu Dhabi

Jane Williams, Editor, Knowledge Arabia |

How does a devout Muslim country with a tiny local audience, minimal film-making experience and a strict moral code break into the cut-throat film-industry? Why does it want to? And who can do it?

At a time when movies carry multi-million-dollar price tags regardless of box office success, the Abu Dhabi government’s Image Nation has managed to parlay a US$1 billion fund into some blockbuster movies recently, including: Contagion, Oscar winner The Help, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and Bollywood box office sensation, My Name is Khan. 

Image Nation partnered with foreign companies to co-produce those films. But the company’s greatest success, according to CEO Michael Garin, has been the release of Sea Shadow, a small coming-of-age film, locally-made and accepted with approval but minimal fuss on the international film festival circuit. 

The film, Garin told INSEAD Knowledge in an interview in his office in Abu Dhabi, is Abu Dhabi’s first step towards creating its own film industry. Released in October 2011 at a cost of US$1-million and filmed in the smaller, neighbouring emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, the film has barely made enough to cover its advertising budget. But what it has done, says Garin, is prove movies made in the Arabian Gulf with a typical Gulf flavour can be accessible across the globe. The film has been released in theatres across the Gulf region and screened at 17 film festivals in five continents.

Movies with a Gulf flavour

“Here’s a very local film, shot completely in Arabic, with subtitles, about the coming of age of young teenagers and the challenges that they face here in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.),” says Garin. “Yet when it’s seen in Europe or the United States or Latin America it’s very gratifying to see audiences laugh in the right places ...and walk out of the theatre saying ‘I can’t believe that was made in an Arab country!’.”

Darryl Macdonald, festival director for the Palm Springs (California) International Film Festival said Sea Shadow was very positively received and an audience favourite in its 2012 special Arab segment.

“I think international audiences are more interested now than they may ever have been in Arab pictures,” Macdonald notes. “There is the attraction to the exoticism that this part of the world represents, not least because we know so little about it. A new pantheon of talented, indigenous Arab film-makers is emerging, presenting voices and visions that we’ve never had access to before.”

Starting from scratch

Courtesy of Image Nation

Developing a competitive film industry is a lofty ambition for any country, particularly one like the U.A.E: rich in oil and with a long history of oral story-telling but very limited film experience. “We’re never going to be the Hollywood or Bollywood for the Arab world, we just don’t have the critical mass of population to be able to do that,” Garin says, noting “There are fewer than five people in the country today with the experience to make a movie. We are starting from a very low, almost non-existent base.”

Nevertheless, Image Nation’s aim is to create a self-sustaining industry that creates movies appreciated not only at home but across the globe.

And just where do these dreams find their foothold in reality?

To produce its own films, Image Nation needs to train not just directors, but cameramen, script writers, cinematographers and the myriad of other professionals which make up a film crew. Setting up training programmes is not cheap, getting experience for the young Emiratis is not easy and then there is the small matter of marketing a local production to compete with international movies from around the world.

But Garin believes Image Nation has found the answer.

US$1 billion fund

Launched in 2008 as a subsidiary of the Abu Dhabi Media Company, Image Nation was given a large fund – estimated at more than US$1 billion - to spend over five years. Garin won’t confirm the figure. The company’s original CEO, former Disney International executive Ed Borgerding, secured production and financing joint ventures worth hundreds of millions of dollars each with top production companies. Early returns failed to meet expectations and in Feburary 2011 Borgerding was let go.

Unique business

The Image Nation business model today still relies on international partnerships and revolving development funds, with large production companies like Hyde Park Entertainment, Parkes/MacDonald and Participant Media. But contracts signed under Borgerding have been renegotiated to give Abu Dhabi more creative input, and a greater focus is being placed on developing the local industry. Garin’s reluctant to say how much money the company has made over the past 12 months but admits it’s been lucky - noting the same partners who made the afore-mentioned hit movies were responsible for some far less successful films in preceding years.

The profits are being used to subsidise productions and training programmes run through its Image Nation Abu Dhabi division. The two divisions are run separately: Image Nation International as a purely profit-driven vehicle; the local division has a mandate to promote economic and cultural development.

“Happily at this stage the profits exceed the investment in local terms, so we’re very successful financially and in both in our training and development.  But this is a unique business in the sense that it’s very hard for independent companies to create a sustaining presence, therefore we’re trying to use the profits we’re earning now to finance the growth of our industry locally so it can operate in the long term -  if not on a very profitable basis, at least self-financing.”

Building an audience

But it’s a long road from a first movie to a successful film industry and the journey will bring the U.A.E. into competition with countries like Egypt, Lebanon and Iran which have been making movies for close to a century.

“Making movies is a different thing to creating a film industry,” David Hancock, senior principal analyst for film and cinema at the international business information services company, HIS, told INSEAD Knowledge.

“Producing Abu Dhabi movies probably needs a bit more practice. It will take a long time, building up the experience, the networks and the knowledge, it can’t be done overnight. Building an audience who will seek out an Emirati film is also a slow process.

“The smart way to build up a decent industry, and the approach they seem to be taking, seems far more targeted at attracting people to produce in Abu Dhabi than producing Abu Dhabi films.”

Hancock who has assisted governments with the development of film industries in Australia, Brazil and the United Kingdom, says if Abu Dhabi wants its movies to be seen globally it should look at making co-productions to fit Western sensibilities, but if it wants to make local films for its home market then it has to have the expectation they won’t travel much.  “Audiences are notoriously slow about accepting subtitles.”

None of this is news to Garin who has taken pains to convince the leaders of a country which wants to be the biggest and the best fast, that they will need patience. And dollars.

Titles and Topics

With more influence over the creative decision-making process, Image Nation now has the opportunity to help shape how the Middle East region is portrayed in movies, says Garin. “Many film makers use stereotypes, and typically people from our region tend to be the villains rather than heroes. There’s a certain line when, if a project crosses it, we’ve had to say, this is not for us.”

Despite this power of veto, he insists the devout Arab Muslim nation will not let its attitudes about sex influence the commercial decision making process.

“Abu Dhabi is strategically placed, both geographically and with the cultural sensibilities, to act as a creative hub for film makers all over the region and the world,” explains Garin, noting the emirate has a vested interest in welcoming film makers with all points of view.

There do, however, appear to be limits. In 2009 Abu Dhabi refused permission for the makers of a sequel to the popular Sex and the City movie, about the exploits of four  liberated women visiting Abu Dhabi, to film in the emirate after it had been banned from shooting in neighbouring Dubai. No reasons were given, although speculation at the time suggested the decision was as much political as it was censorial. The film kept its U.A.E. dramatic setting but was eventually shot in the less affluent but more accommodating Muslim state of Morocco.

“Since I am not familiar with the specifics,” says Garin who did not join the company until two years later. “I can’t speak on the decision.”

More recently the company has been questioned over its participation in the film, Promised Land (to be released in December). The movie, written by Oscar winner Matt Damon and The Office’s John Krasinski, about the U.S. energy industry, takes a strong anti-fracking stance. As Middle East exporters of hydrocarbons, including Abu Dhabi, stand to profit from the failure of the fracking industry, which uses the controversial method of injecting highly pressurised fluids into the ground to extract gas, on-line publications raised conspiracy theories about the investment.

“Promised Land was never viewed by Image Nation as a controversial movie, then or now,” says Garin. “Simply because a few individuals made inaccurate assumptions about our role in the project does not change the fact that Image Nation is proud of the film and the opportunity to work with the caliber of talent brought together for the project."

Talent Call

It’s opportunities like this, says, Garin which enable the transfer of technology and knowledge from some of the world’s most respected industry professionals to young Emiratis. “For each of these films we’re able to send film makers to shadow directors, cinematographers and others.”

The company is now looking to broaden its partnerships to include more Indian projects and ventures in Europe, the United Kingdom, China and Korea, creating networks through which young Emirati film makers can gain both on-set experience and contacts. Back home it has set up the Arab Film Studio, training young local film-makers under the guidance of industry mentors.

“We’re developing people before we can develop movies,” notes Garin.

“There’s a very strong production presence already here developing short art house pictures and corporate videos. What we need to do is develop the creative talent of our local people to use that production capability and translate it into full-length feature films.”

“We’re still at the very early stages of what we hope to accomplish. Films like Sea Shadow and Djinn, (the company’s second movie, a horror flick directed by Helmer Tobe Hooper of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) now in the final stages of post-production, may not be making money today but we believe they can and will eventually.

“If we don’t offer opportunities we will lose some of the most talented and creative people the U.A.E. has. They will go to New Zealand, or London or New York and they won’t come back. We have a very small population here, we can’t afford to lose these people and their ability to contribute to the growth of society, the politics, the economics and the vitality of life.”

The New Zealand Example

Countries with huge populations such as India, China and Mexico have large home-grown audiences; Nigerian pictures appeal to the greater African region, and countries like Singapore and South Korea are finding a niche - specialising in areas such as 3D and special effects. New Zealand, thanks to the popularity of director Peter Jackson and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, has successfully set itself up with production skills to become a sought-after film location for international productions, seriously challenging Hollywood’s stranglehold on the industry’s distribution channels. The country’s film and television sector now contributes US$2.78 billion or 1.4 percent of the country’s total GDP – witness to the role creative industries like film have in a country’s economic growth and cultural development.

And it’s to this that Abu Dhabi aspires. “It was Peter Jackson who created a critical mass of talent in New Zealand and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do so that we can have a viable industry here,” says Garin.

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