Michael Garin says there was a ‘watershed event’ for Image Nation in its strategy to build a sustainable TV and film industry in Abu Dhabi. It was in 2011 when the CEO and his chairman, Mohammed Al Mubarak, joined the firm and immediately shifted its focus back home.
With a $200m investment from the Abu Dhabi government, the media company “turned the strategy 180-degrees around to become an Abu Dubai-centric strategy”.
“It was really an evolutionary strategy because it started as building the foundations of a film industry, but when you think about filmmaking and our capacity to make just a few films a year, making a film here is like throwing a giant rock into a pond — it makes a big splash, the ripples spread out and five minutes later the water is calm again,” Garin says.
While investments in US films continued, Garin’s decades of experience in the industry made it clear to him that Image Nation had to be in television.
“It’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and if we wanted to create a self-sustaining industry, it had to be much more television-centric than films,” he says.
The watershed moment, he explains, came after a discussion he had with Al Mubarak and Mohammed Al Mubarak Al Mazrui, head of the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Court, shortly after his and Al Mubarak’s appointments.
“They were talking about a concern that they’re raising a generation of spoilt children here,” Garin says. “We came up with an idea of bringing six very different but very privileged Emiratis to the Philippines — where their maids came from and their luxury goods that they had were made and grown.
“We introduced them to real life; no phones or amenities of living here. They worked on farms and in factories. It was a life-changing experience that to this day has made them very different people.”
TV cameras followed the six teenagers and the footage was produced into a critically acclaimed 13-part television show, Beyond Borders.
“It really amazed people by its quality because the expectations of what this region was capable of producing at that point were so low,” Garin says.
The show also underlined the vision that the emirate’s leaders had for Image Nation — the raison d’être, as Garin says — to create an opportunity for young Emiratis to build a career in the film and television industry in the UAE.
“The world doesn’t need another movie company — most of the international films that we make would have been made whether or not Image Nation participated in them,” he says.
“The reason that we’re here is to participate in the building of civil society, the economic development of the region, and to provide meaningful opportunities for young, talented Emiratis to pursue their futures here and help build that society.”
Part of creating the opportunity is to give training through Image Nation’s Arab Film Studio, a film school that now has four components: narrative filmmaking, documentaries, script writing, and a summer programme for high school students.
Garin says some participants have gone on to build professional careers, while others pursue the courses simply out of interest.
Some of the graduates will have worked on Image Nation’s upcoming courtroom drama TV series, Justice. Garin describes the 20-episode series as “LA Law meets Dallas in Abu Dhabi”, and a “unique opportunity to see how everyday Arabs live their lives [and] how the court system works”.
Set in Abu Dhabi and shot in Arabic, the show has brought in an Emmy award-winning writer and Academy award-winning producer to help create what will be one of the region’s most expensive TV dramas ever produced.
Garin declines to reveal the budget, but confirms it is high.
“A lot; more than [how much] has been ever spent here before,” says Garin. “Nobody but us would have done this. Because of the quality, we may actually get our money back, but when we started we had no expectation of fully recouping our investment.”
Garin says the goal is to run the TV show outside of Ramadan. The Holy Month is “where the vast majority of programme expenses are spent today”, he says.
“There are eleven other months in the year and without broadcasters investing in original programming for those periods, we’re never going to have a sustainable industry,” he says. “We created this series to demonstrate to broadcasters that there’s an audience available to them outside of Ramadan that will attract ratings and advertising revenue.”
The series is still “a few weeks away” from being ready to air but there are plans to also showcase it at international film festivals and around the world, “wherever dubbed programming runs”.
“We think we will create global revenues, not just local revenues, for the series,” Garin says.
“This series will hopefully be the first of many that will be produced by many companies to fill up the other 11 months of the year.”
Image Nation made the transition from production to broadcasting last December with the launch of its pan-Arabic TV channel Quest Arabiya.
Fulfilling the ambition to have a station that broadcasts 24/7, Garin says it is the first that broadcasts free-to-air in 22 countries, to a population of 343 million Arabs.
The station was launched in partnership with Discovery Channel, which he says gives Image Nation the quality of programming needed to launch the channel.
“Our ambition is to have 20 to 40 percent of the content originally produced locally,” he says. “It has been a critical success, measured by audience. We’re already the 17th highest rated channel out of 500.”
Garin admits that establishing the station and maintaining its content has been expensive, and expects it to lose money for the first five years.
“Our goal is to break even and be sustainable during the second five-year period. That’s mainly because there’s a very immature television advertising marketplace,” he says.
“I’m sceptical that any network in this region is profitable today, because of the advertising market,” Garin adds.
But, he says, the GCC’s television advertising market is similar to all the other emerging television markets that he has worked in.
“One of the unique realities of our business here is that virtually everything that we do in this region still loses money, because we have an immature advertising television market and we have a very small population in the UAE,” Garin says.
“It’s a problem we had in Central and Eastern Europe; this is not new to me. It was true in Western Europe in the ‘70s and ‘80s when you had one or two companies controlling the advertising market.”
Garin says launching Quest Arabiya is intended to support the goal of building a strong television industry in the UAE.
“We’re participating in the growth of the civil society. This was an area of content that the leadership felt was a vacuum and wanted to provide programming for people’s entertainment.
“In these areas, they thought that we were doing unique things in these genres that other people around the world would find informative and entertaining, and [would] change perceptions of the way we live our lives here.”
Image Nation has been able to finance its numerous projects through the international investments it makes with two US partners, Parkes/Macdonald Productions (which has produced films worth $6.5bn box office gross — including Men in Black, Gladiator, I-Robot, American Beauty, Flight) and Hyde Park Entertainment, run by Indian-American film producer Ashok Amritaj.
“They are very experienced companies that make films at both ends of the film-making spectrum. Walter [Parkes] makes big budget studio films and Ashok makes and sells films of all budget ranges, from $100m down, but it’s all independent production,” Garin says.
Image Nation co-produced the Hollywood blockbuster ‘Men in Black 3’, which took in $624m in the box office after its 2012 release, making it the highest grossing film in the series.
Starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, the film garnered mixed reviews from critics, but that was of little concern to Garin.
“As long as it’s not Islamophobic, and not offending people, the only thing I care about is making money,” Garin says. “The purpose of our international activities is to subsidise our local activities, so I couldn’t care less whether this is critical acclaim, or an award-winner; if it’s profitable we want those profits because that’s what allows us to do what we do here.”
The international investments, which he describes as being “very profitable”, are made based on strict financial discipline.
“Before we commit to films they have to meet a number of criteria. We have what we call a ‘risk mitigation strategy’. The criteria varies with the budgets of the films,” he says.
Films with a budget of $75m or higher require a major US studio to contribute 50 percent of the budget as an equity investment alongside Image Nation, on equal terms, and include a distribution commitment, Garin says.
Movies with a budget between $5m-$75m, need to have 65 percent of the budget covered either by pre-sales or production incentives for Image Nation to commit.
Image Nation is more willing to take a risk with films with a budget below $5m.
“We’re willing to take pure risk, but even there the risk is minimal because these are genre movies made with partners who have [previously] made films, like Paranormal Activity [which grossed $100m],” Garin says.
Image Nation also has been successful with its home-grown productions, with four films featured in this year’s London Film Festival: A to B, Zinzana, He Named Me Malala, and The Idol.
Zinzana (Rattle The Cage) was the first genre movie of its kind ever produced in the UAE, and despite earning positive reviews, it was “a big disappointment at the box office”.
“This heads up one of our biggest challenges,” Garin concedes. “Not only do we have to educate film makers, but we have to educate audiences. This is a part of the world with the highest per capita movie consumption rates in the world. Every weekend people decide to go a movie — rarely a specific one unless it’s the next James Bond or Star Wars. When they see the Hollywood films, and an Emirati film or a Gulf film, unfortunately the prejudice that these people grew up with means it’s not worth seeing and they are always going to choose the Hollywood film.”
Despite relatively poor returns in the region, he says Zinzana (Rattle The Cage) will do reasonably well financially.
“It’s the first Arabic film acquired by Netflix; we did very well with that. We’ll make decent television sales. We’re over the moon about the film because our commercial expectations were very low in the beginning.”
Image Nation’s five-year plan includes building an industry that will be “approaching sustainability”, and to create movies able to stand on their own financially. He says he would like to increase the amount of local television production, which is currently dominated in the region by Egyptian, Lebanese and Turkish companies.
The Abu Dhabi media firm also plans to play a significant role in helping Saudi Arabia develop its own TV and film industry. The announcement of a General Authority for Entertainment as part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan has triggered an expectation that the kingdom will eventually launch cinemas and entertainment hubs — facilities currently banned.
“[Saudi officials] are now just realising as part of their own 2030 plan the need to engage young people and build this [film] industry,” Garin says.
“What I have told them, and they totally agree and accept, is that we’ve spent six-and-a-half years and over $200m to get to where we are today. In our business, in this part of the world, time and money are not substitutes for one another. While Saudi can afford $200m, they can’t afford six-and-a-half years.”
Garin says Image Nation has spoken with officials who are “in the inner circle” and while nothing concrete is in place, there’s a broad agreement — based on the recently-signed UAE-Saudi Cooperation deal — about what needs to be done to develop a TV and film industry in the kingdom.
“We’re hoping to do basically everything in Saudi that we’re doing here — training, production and development — and helping to build an industry that will ultimately be populated by Khaleejis [Gulf nationals] — that it won’t be a Saudi industry, because we don’t have enough people here. Our aspiration is to build a regional industry,” Garin says.
While officially Saudi Arabia still bans movie theatres, Garin suggests new malls being built currently are designed to include them. “They’re just not open, [but] it appears that they will,” he says.
Image Nation also is in “advanced discussions” with “one or two” US television companies to use Abu Dhabi as a “laboratory” for filmmaking.
He expects “one big deal” to be announced towards the end of September or early October.
“[Image Nation will be] a magnet for Western companies to bring their resources, experience and money to create cutting edge content with us,” Garin says. “We’re getting access to things we could never afford and don’t have the experience, expertise or resources to do.”
Image Nation announced last year that it would invest more than $100m in the TV and film industry over a five-year period. One year on, Garin says the goal is on track but may have to be altered, given recent agreements. “One of the things I’m hoping will happen with the Saudi partnership is that we can accelerate that and expand it because it makes no sense to make Saudi films or Emirati films. We ought to be making Arabic films using Saudis and Emiratis because the human resources of our region are too small, even if the population is larger, to try and create national industries,” he says.
“I’ve been a very strong advocate of saying we shouldn’t even have a Dubai industry or Abu Dhabi industry; we need to have a UAE industry because we don’t have an indigenous market in 10 million people.”
He says Image Nation has a significant role to play in helping build the industry, which includes encouraging other companies to grow in the region.
“As I say to people all the time, I’m not here to build Image Nation; I’m here to build the nation. Everything that we do, including this series [Justice], is with a pure private sector company.
“The governments in this region have a terrible tendency to crowd out entrepreneurship, instead of allowing it. We can’t have an industry with a monolithic company; we need hundreds of companies. In fact, the most successful description of Image Nation ten years from now is an industry that doesn’t need us. Then we’ve really fulfilled our mission.”