Industry Report: Focus: Asia & Oceania
Location, location is Abu Dhabi's new mantra
by Keith J Fernandez, Emirates Business
14/04/2010 - "Most people know Abu Dhabi is in the Middle East and there are fantastic deserts here, but the emirate has a lot more to offer filmmakers with a wide variety of locations," David Shepheard, Director, Abu Dhabi Film Commission, tells Emirates Business. The ADFC is an initiative by Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH).
"Film production companies spend a lot of money during the production process, and it's my job as part of the ADFC to get as much of that here as possible, so the economy benefits," he says down the phone from London, his comments an illustration of just how much the industry has changed from the days producers would go on reconnaissance trips in search of the ideal new location – nowadays, the locations come looking for producers.
Shepheard is part of an Abu Dhabi contingent travelling to the annual AFCI Locations Trade Show in Santa Monica, California, this weekend. The exhibition, run by the Association of Film Commissioners International, attracts destinations as far afield as France and Fiji, all hoping the next big-budget Hollywood project will bring in tourists and do for their economy what the Lord of the Rings trilogy did for New Zealand.?There, 10 per cent of the four million tourists visiting the antipodean nation in 2003, the year the third film in the series was released, said Peter Jackson's pictures were a factor contributing to their decision.
Besides information on locations that have never before been seen onscreen – from the heart of downtown Abu Dhabi to the varied coastline, golden beaches, desert islands, historic buildings, and breathtaking dunes and oases of the Western Region, ADFC will also demonstrate its online locations database and other services at the show.
The AFCI show is only one of several events that the ADFC is taking part in this year. "Our mandate is to establish Abu Dhabi as a hub for filmmaking, whether in terms of finance, talent, or as a location," Shepheard says.
Arguably the most important event on his calendar is next month's Cannes Film Festival, where the ADFC leads a delegation of government officials and industry stakeholders from organisations such as the Middle Eastern International Film Festival, the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority and ADACH.
"This year we will be taking four emirati filmmakers with us, so they can promote their projects to the international film trade," Shepheard says, adding that the final names had yet to be decided.
But despite successes such as The Kingdom, Abu Dhabi is a new player on the film circuit, and its geographical position a few hours' flight away from more established filmmaking hubs such as Cairo and Mumbai puts it at a disadvantage in terms of cost and easy access to infrastructure.
Other Middle Eastern countries exhibiting at the AFCI event are Jordan and Morocco.
Shepheard is pragmatic enough to agree. "The Abu Dhabi film industry is less than five years old and while it cannot compare with venues that have been established for tens of years, our production fund and our film commission mean we've made a start," he says. "And while we are now potentially more expensive than other venues, we will try to work out cost-benefit deals with hotels, airlines and other partners to bring costs down.
"Having said that, economies of scale will come into play as more films shoot in Abu Dhabi and costs decline. Our job is to help bring these costs down for everyone, whether local or international filmmakers."
One key initiative in the works now is the establishment of a production incentive programme, Shepheard says, comparable with tax rebates and similar deals offered in other filmmaking locales worldwide. "At the moment we're looking at structures around the world to determine a programme that is sustainable, makes economic sense and has the benefit of bringing more productions into Abu Dhabi," he says. He expects such a programme to be rolled out over the next 12 to 18 months.
What then of cultural sensitivities? The new Sex and The City 2 movie, for example, has been set in Abu Dhabi, but leading lady Sarah Jessica Parker and her Prada-toting cronies filmed in Morocco after the National Media Council, the UAE's media regulatory body, denied the SATC team permission to shoot in the UAE.
"That's a question we're asked all the time – both by media and filmmakers,"?Shepheard says.
"One of our key jobs is to explain the cultural sensitivities of the UAE to producers and we ask for scripts as early in the process to be able to give feedback on what would work and what might face some issues. We also work with the National Media Council to try and give assessments on specific issues.
"But the UAE does have those cultural sensitivities and we must respect them. If a story is not appropriate for us, we will help filmmakers find other avenues if necessary."