Dubai Studio City (DSC) is looking to emulate the success of its sister project, Dubai Media City, by becoming the biggest film and television production precinct in the Middle East.
DSC director Jamal Al Sharif spoke to Digital Broadcast about his ambition for the production hub and its potential impact on the region's broadcast industry as a whole.
One mantra popular with DSC is the concept of a "one-stop-shop for the local production industry". This could perhaps be selling the project short.
To date, several international companies from India and the Far East as well as Europe and the US have either signed up or moved in to their DSC premises, with the promise of more to come.
"In the past few weeks we have registered several international companies like Endemol, Frame 25 and Blink Studios. These companies boast extensive support infrastructure and some have already begun collaborating with and providing services for other companies coming into Studio City.
These are services that the local industry would usually have had to look for internationally," says Al Sharif.
"These companies are taking advantage of Dubai as a destination, as a bridge between the East, West, North and South.
"Dubai has always been a trading post between the East and West. India has been trading here extensively for forty years, that makes communicating easier and we have been negotiating with several Indian companies such as post production house Prime Focus and film processor Adlabs.
"One of the biggest animation houses in India is also considering establishing operations in DSC. We are really looking forward to growing the production sector in the Indian market as well as the Western market.
Al Sharif expects DSC to capitalise on the demand for production services from key territories such as the US and Europe, which are grappling with rising costs domestically. He does concede that other emerging markets will also be looking for a slice of this pie.
"People say India is cheaper than Dubai but that is a little misleading," says Al Sharif. "You have to take into account the fact that Dubai has better infrastructure, and there are few if any logistical issues to contend with, such as language barriers or visa restrictions.
Despite the fact that 60 percent of all commissioned production work arriving at DSC is from international clients, the free zone is keen to ensure that as much of the workforce on any given project are hired locally.
"Traditionally we have faced a major challenge in sourcing local talent, but the situation is improving slowly," claims Al Sharif. "When Warner Brothers shot Syriana in the UAE in 2005, 80 percent of the crew were flown in from the US.
However, just two years later when The Kingdom was shot in Abu Dhabi, 50 percent of the crew were employed locally. Our goal is to ensure foreign producers have the option of sourcing crew entirely from the local market.
"We are eager to organise a local industry, with the Manhattan Film Academy and a local film talent pool. Our goal is to provide a forum for aspiring filmmakers, producers and technicians to communicate and collaborate.
In terms of television channel distribution services, Al Sharif says Studio City provides an ideal base for pan-Arab broadcasters looking to establish regional operations based in Dubai.
"The broadcast clients we are dealing with do not simply cater to the UAE market," says Al Sharif. "Most transmit services via Arabsat, Nilesat or Hotbird and are looking at international markets, including those in Europe and South Asia.
The sudden availability of additional space and facilities within the free zone has also encouraged many to invest in new infrastructure. Technology companies dealing with many of the fledgling broadcast technologies are also looking to explore the Middle East market via the new free zone.
"One of our key clients is a major IPTV infrastructure provider which plans to develop interactive content for mobile devices from its DSC office," says Al Sharif. "While this sector of the industry is obviously in its early stages of development, we see great potential for it in the region.
Late last year TECOM Investments, the parent company of Dubai Internet City, DMC and DSC, which also has a 20% stake in telco du, carried out a mobile TV trial using the DVB-H standard.
"The trial was very successful and it got a great reception from the public. We are hoping to launch commercial DVB-H services this year. I was very impressed with the trials," says Al Sharif."
DVB-H represents the next generation of broadcasting and its presence in the UAE will encourage companies working with this technology to come to Dubai."
Al Sharif is keen to stress that producing content for advanced platforms, particularly mobile TV, is something that all in the industry should be considering regardless of the size of their operation.
"DVB-H is not just for the MBCs of the region. If a broadcaster has the right content, then why shouldn't they go for it? It's an extra opportunity to create revenue, so why not?"
Al Sharif is also optimistic about the commercial potential of high definition television (HDTV) services in the region.
"Several broadcast clients at DSC plan to transmit at least one of their channels in HD," he claims.
"It might take a few years but I believe that DSC is perfectly placed to become the primary hub for HD production in the Middle East.
Al Sharif believes that broadcasters must embrace new technology to expand their revenue streams. He also suggests that the increased bandwidth required by HD services could prove an antidote to the continued proliferation of FTA channels in the region.
"I think the FTA channel boom will probably peak within the next year and then begin to fall away, as smaller channels cease operating," he suggests. "The more established broadcasters will look to consolidate their positions which will have a significant impact on the smaller start-ups.
The broadcasters that thrive will be the ones that understand the dynamics of the market and the commercial benefits new technologies can offer."
A recent report published by Booz Allen Hamilton found that the level of Arabic-language film and TV production in Dubai remained "insignificant" compared to established rivals including Egypt and Jordan.
In 2007, 65 percent of Arabic TV serials were produced in Egypt with Syria accounting for 17 percent and Jordan 16 percent. Kuwaiti productions, catering to the Gulf market, accounted for the remaining two percent.
The report attributes Egypt's continued dominance to the consistent high-quality of it output. But as the regional ad market steers closer to the Gulf, and rivals including Dubai Studio City emerge, there is a real chance Egypt could lose its majority share.
Syria has eaten into its North African rival's lead previously thanks to a combination of government subsidies and improving production standards.
Dubai should take heed of this strategy by encouraging writers to pitch their scripts to UAE producers.
The programme of initiatives for driving Dubai's emergence as a production hub has paid dividends with the creation of the free zones at DMC and DSC. The final incentive will only come once, like Egypt, there is a showreel of popular, profitable productions in the can.
If DSC is successful in overturning these figures, broadcasters stand to benefit with an increased level of control over local productions that they can tailor to suit the tastes of local audiences.