In an exclusive interview with Vijaya Cherian, Abu Dhabi’s film commissioner David Shepheard talks about some of the initiatives that ADFC will undertake to boost filmmaking in the region
What are some of the initiatives undertaken by ADFC to promote filmmaking?
We held the third edition of the Circle Conference (my first here) in October, which was very successful as we had more than double the participation compared to last year. More than 350 delegates from 30 countries attended the conference this year. Several senior TV executives and broadcasters came to Abu Dhabi to share their experiences with regional filmmakers.
The Circle provided the perfect platform to network and meet these international players. It also helped promote regional businesses in the international arena as a big part of our job is to also promote the whole of the film and TV sector here in Abu Dhabi.
However, The Circle Conference is only one project that the film commission is delivering. Outside of the conference, we have a number of other initiatives year round that are aimed at developing the filmmakers and their talent. As part of that, we will be financing a series of productions including different TV documentaries, short films and feature film project across different genres.
Have you launched any funding schemes yet besides the Shasha Grant?
We plan to launch a number of separate funding initiatives over the next six to 12 months to help regional companies and filmmakers. We have already announced a short film scheme called Aflam Quaseera Production Fund last month to promote emerging writers, directors and UAE-based production companies that are looking to create short films for international screenings and eventual broadcast.
Twenty proposals will be selected for development, of which ten will eventually be chosen for production. We also have plans to select six half-hour documentaries that will be financed by us.
Do you have any projects at hand and specific budgets planned for them?
We have a couple of low-budget features that were financed through last year’s efforts at the Circle. Budgets will be smaller or bigger based on the requirement of each project. We will assess each project individually for their commercial viability and try and allocate resources to them based on the need. But there is no round figure.
How is ADFC different from Imagenation Abu Dhabi?
Imagenation is involved in high-end production funding while we seek to work with emerging filmmakers. The hardest money for filmmakers to find is the money to develop their first films — the films that help them develop their craft and trade as a filmmaker. That’s the area we are looking at; the semi-professionals and talented young filmmakers who are looking to develop their professional skills.
Have you had any success stories to date?
Actually, we have. Hicham Ayouchis, a Moroccan filmmaker, won our $100,000 script writing prize [Shasha grant] last year.
Fox Productions has signed on to produce Ayouchis’ project, Samba, which will go into production early next year. So from an initial $100,000 fund, that project is now being developed up to a point where a major Hollywood studio is taking it on and will finance it into production.
That is a great success story and it’s being shot partly in the region and partly in Brazil because that’s where the story is set. Once Samba goes into production, there will be a lot more PR within the industry about the first Arabic language film that Fox did. So for them, it’s breaking new ground. It’s also a sign that more international players are now looking to forge new relationships with the Middle East. Obviously, with a huge Arab speaking population here, it’s great for them because they can then develop products for this market.
More international studios are looking to find out about this region and how they can partner with players here. They are looking at filmmakers and potential stories that they can take into development.
This is why we have got great hopes for Haifaa Mansour, who won the grant this year. We have provided the seed money and there has been great interest in it from industry people who want to talk to her and form a relationship. Imagenation has also signed a first-look deal with her.
We’ve already worked with her in the past because we previously funded one of her short films, and that’s the importance of our role. When we spot a good filmmaker with talent, we invest in their short film and that then becomes like a calling card.
With Hicham, we only provided development finance for the project. But with Haifaa, we might take on more of an executive producer’s role to help her find the right script editors and script consultant to lead the story on. Once the project has reached a certain developed stage, someone might offer to give it production finance.
We are working closely with her as a mentor would. This is what we are doing with a number of our production schemes. We are using our expertise and contacts to help the filmmakers develop their film.
How will you do that? Do you have a team of experts with you full time?
Yes, I have professional producers and production executives as part of my team. If they can’t help, we will contract specialists if we need support with a specific genre. We will even look at offering one-on-one help to our filmmakers if there is a need. We have a team of twelve now but that’s quickly growing. That includes a production and training department as well as a locations and support team.
Will you support production requirements only within Abu Dhabi?
No, certainly not. We will offer locations that match a particular story and help secure permits to work in various locations in the UAE, not just Abu Dhabi. The UAE has a diverse range of locations from mountains and deserts to urban landscapes across the different emirates so we will be working closely with other government organisations in the other emirates as well to ensure we can keep the production here.
Are you offering any incentives for producers to shoot here?
It’s a very competitive market out there. Producers are always trying to find where the production incentives are, or what we call “soft money”.
In most places, schemes are based on income tax and obviously, we don’t have that here.
It’s a difficult one but there are different models for production incentives and I’m actually working on some proposals now to establish an incentive fund that makes sense for us and is also economically viable for the region.
What are some of the challenges of being a film commissioner in the UAE?
The challenges here are mostly positive because the industry is so young. We are able to look at some of the best models around the world and learn from some of the best practices to establish this kind of industry. That is the attractive part.
Starting from scratch to build a film industry is a challenge but we have big ambitions and the government is willing to provide the resources to make those ambitious happen. What we are doing here is part of the country’s 2030 plan, which sees the media industry as becoming a major contributor to the UAE’s economy in the coming years. And the Abu Dhabi government has lent its complete support to try and make the film and TV sector here strong and vibrant.