arabic mandrin

Dubai’s persistence starts to bear fruit

Dubai’s persistence starts to bear fruit

September 11, 2012 - Unlike other filming destinations in the Middle East that are confident of their resources, Dubai has taken a different approach when promoting itself as a filming location.


In 2008, officials from Dubai Studio City, the Middle East’s first dedicated film production cluster, used the American Film Market to encourage Hollywood decision makers to use the Emirate as a location for making movies.

In his “Location Expo: National Perspectives” panel, the executive director of Dubai Studio City at that time, Jamal Al Sharif, highlighted the production incentives to film commissioners and representatives from around the world.

It worked; someone was actually listening! By the end of the year, Dubai Studio City’s Location Approval Services (LAS) department, which issues permits for filming and photography activities in Dubai, saw a 126 per cent increase in applications, with 1,600 being approved.

“The incentive that offers the most ‘bang for the buck’ is efficiency. Producers have reported that shoots in Dubai saved them money because they were able to get what they needed in a shorter shooting schedule than they would have in comparable locations,” claims Al Sharif, managing director of Dubai Studio City and Dubai Media City.

Spread over an area of 22m sq ft, Dubai Studio City has 14 fully equipped sound stages, a 3.5m sq ft back lot for outdoor shooting, commercial offices, pre-built studios, a business centre, and post-production studios.

“Visiting producers and location scouts have referred to Dubai as the ‘largest open air studio in the world’ because of the huge variety of locations available,” added Al Sharif. “We often see producers arrive for a location scout with plans to shoot 2-3 scenes here, only to realise that they can shoot a much larger portion of their film with us because of the variety of locations available.”

Dubai offers a variety of scenery, ranging from vast desert landscapes to mountains and sandy beaches, all within a couple of hours driving distance of each other. It also offers a modern city dominated by skyscrapers and iconic landmarks like Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, Burj Al Arab, the world’s only 7 star hotel, and Palm Jumeirah, the world’s largest man-made island among others.

Moreover, with over 190 nationalities in the city, producers can also find pockets of different communities that stand-in for Asians, Europeans, or any other nationalities. In addition, the city’s local talent is increasingly making it a preferred destination for pre- and post-production activities. With all this to offer, Dubai succeeded in attracting one of the biggest blockbusters of 2011, “Mission Impossible: The Ghost Protocol”, which had its world premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival.

“Dubai has immense visual potential that hasn’t been exploited cinematically. ‘Ghost Protocol’ only tapped the tip of the iceberg with its Burj Khalifa scene,” said 22-year-old filmmaker Mohammed Mamdouh, who shot his debut film “Moments of Fiction” in Dubai. “The essence of a city shouldn’t just be displayed through its skyscrapers. Dubai is made up of a diverse array of cultures from which filmmakers can draw inspiration. There is so much that hasn’t been photographed here.”

Dubai Studio City is currently working on an online locations database that will include the various locations described as ‘hidden gems’, which producers can discover whilst shooting in the Emirate.

What they will also discover as well, is how expensive shooting can be in Dubai, which is ranked as the most expensive city in the Gulf for expatriates. Shooting a film in the city, however, can cost as little as USD 2000 to as high as USD 200,000 per feature film,

According to John Whyte, the locations manager for Dubai-based Magnet Productions, getting the Location Approval Service (LAS) from Dubai Studio City costs around USD 750 to USD 1000 for filming in public places; the cost of private locations is negotiated separately. Getting the shooting permits usually takes 7-15 working days.

For Dubai, attracting big movies is not only prestigious though; transforming the city and the country, from a petroleum-dependent economy to a knowledge-based economy is on everybody’s mind. As part of its strategic plan for 2015, attracting screen production and building an indigenous film industry, would have a positive impact on Dubai, both socially and economically it is felt.

According to Al Sharif, local film productions, including the shooting of parts of “Mission Impossible 4”, boosted Dubai's economy by Dh200 million (USD 54.45m) in 2011.

“This money trickles through the economy, not just to the production community but also to retail, hospitality and entertainment. If we consider film induced tourism, there is an even greater impact,” he explained.

On a social level, the production industry offers a vital pool of creative talent who tend to transfer their skills to local staff. “Building the creative talent pool is a critical building block towards establishing a true knowledge economy, and encouraging innovation, which are both key thrusts of Dubai’s Strategic Plan,” Al Sharif added.

‘Talent’ is a tricky word in the world of filmmaking. While new Emirati directors are making waves regionally and internationally, other filmmaking professions are almost non-existent. There are many directors, but not enough producers, photographers, technicians, scriptwriters, make-up artists... etc.

“Local talent: you can find them, but they’re in a limited number,” noted Nayla Al Khaja, the UAE's first female director and producer. “But sometimes you don’t find the exact profession and we don’t have the needed variety as well.” Al Khaja admits that she is looking to bring talent in from different countries to help shoot her first feature film, which discusses exorcism in Islam, highlighting a true story that took place in Sharjah 14 years ago.

Al Sharif admits that the talent pool is still a challenge, but things are changing quickly. He notes that when “Syriana” was shot in Dubai in 2007, only 20% of the crew were Dubai-based. Four years later, when “Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol” was shot in the city, 50% of the crew was based in Dubai.

“This growth is encouraging, however, our goal is for 90% of the crew to be Dubai-based within the next three to five years,” added Al Sharif.

It seems that DSC’s efforts are already beginning to pay off, with an increasing number of filmmakers from well-developed and emerging film and entertainment markets, such as Egypt, India, the US and the UK, choosing Dubai as a location for pre- as well as post-production activities.

But while the UAE and Dubai will continue to compete with other established locations such as Morocco and Tunisia, “the emergence of the UAE as a media and film stronghold will not benefit the county itself, but contribute to advancing the overall regional film industry in the long term,” Al Sharif concludes.