Jordan has recently made international headlines with big names from the media industry turning to the Kingdom. John Parnell takes a look at some of the country's recent successes and where its production industry is heading.
There was a time when Jordan was just an exotic location in the eyes of Western filmmakers and the only support on offer locally was good hospitality.
A lot has happened since Lawrence of Arabia was shot in the kingdom back in 1962 and Jordan has now proved itself capable on several fronts across the production industry from full-length features to 3D animation.
Recently, the market has been able to take an increased role in the films coming to shoot there and has also developed some of its own domestic successes which have gone on to receive acclaim at some of the world's most prestigious film festivals.
This new success in the film market is built on Jordan's more established TV production industry. Jordan punches above its weight on this front with several production houses and animators enjoying the limelight in recent years.
Media company Rubicon was propelled into the international spotlight in 2007 after a landmark deal with MGM. Rubicon's licensing and merchandising division is tied with both MGM and the Japanese licensing entity Sun R&P.
"These alliances have allowed us to move closer to realising our dream of going international in the animation, licensing and merchandising business," says Randa Ayoubi, founder and CEO of Rubicon. "Location based entertainment has been a major market segment for Rubicon, which - in partnership with MGM studios - is developing entertainment concepts from design, to implementation for mixed-use destinations around the MENA region.
Rubicon's role in this deal is to use its knowledge of the regional entertainment and media sectors, and the local culture to harness MGM brands the most effectively. The MGM tie-up also sees the company produce Pink Panther & Pals for global distribution, as well as managing rights and merchandising in the Middle East.
"We want to be a Jordanian ambassador and show that Jordanian talent can create world-class content. We are attracting global attention and opening the door for other opportunities that will help take Jordan forward," says Ayoubi.
Production house Jordan Pioneers, is also looking to exploit close ties with a more established operation. The Sesame Workshop is an educational production house responsible for the long running children's programme Sesame Street. Jordan Pioneers have so far made two seasons of Hikayat Simsim, Sesame Street for Arab audiences.
"The relationship with the Sesame Workshop offers the local staff guidance, training and support in content development, educational research methods and production, following the Sesame Model," says Khaled Haddad, general manager of Jordan Pioneers.
"This process acts as a catalyst and creates several 'ripple effects' such as network building, improving our technical capabilities and expanding our research capacity."
Jordan Pioneers is currently working on the third season of Hikayat Simsim as well as Jordan's first animated film, Yalla Fanous, (Follow the Lantern).
The adoption of a media strategy is not as recent a development as it may seem. Jordan Media City (JMC) opened its doors in 2001. The facility acts as the playout and uplink centre for ART, with the pay TV operator the largest tenant at the privately owned media hub. Although smaller than the other media freezones in the region, JMC has helped to establish a healthy TV production industry in the kingdom acting as a consolidator of both equipment and staff.
Amman-based Arab Telemedia Productions (ATP) claims to be the largest production house in the region. Over the past 25 years, it has created more than 5000 hours of TV programming. ATP offers its inventory of equipment for rent and supplies crew from pre- to post-production.
"Right now we have six projects in production simultaneously with over 1,200 crew and cast on location. We have around 300 full time staff, with about a quarter of those being creative.
Our rental inquiries vary from someone needing a camera crew for a small shoot, to post only services, dubbing, all the way through to co-production requests," says Talal Awamleh, owner and CEO of ATP. "These come from anywhere in the world, the region, and also from within the local Jordanian market."
Nadine Toukan, who was a producer on Captain Abu Raed, is director of strategy and business development at ATP.
"On the production end, the fact that it has been growing organically and through private investments without government subsidies is probably one of the healthiest indicators," says Toukan.
"It's been a tough journey, but those who have stuck it out now have a solid foundation and understand the industry, which in turn is encouraging for new investments. You have to keep in mind that very little of what gets made in Jordan is for the local market. We typically produce for the region."
The country's producers are under no illusion about competition in the region from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Dubai. "We have to sell Jordan by being competitive in talent, quality, attitude and reliability," says Awamleh. "Regional and global competition will always be there.
Our objective in Jordan should be to build an industry that has a real edge, can deliver outstanding quality and offer a pleasurable work experience. Carving a competitive niche in Jordan takes very hard work and long term commitment however."
Now, via several initiatives, Jordan is looking to emulate its success in TV for the film market.
"When it comes to the television industry, they are fully supported with equipment, after sales and maintenance, says Haddad. "When it comes to the film industry, it still lacks several fundamental facilities. We really need to see film labs and production equipment as well as the services and support that they require."
Haddad says the currently, Jordanian companies tend to purchase their production equipment from overseas and then service it through local companies that are not related to the manufacturer. Alternatively they must send the equipment abroad for maintenance.
The benefits of having an adequate stock of production equipment domestically are two fold. Firstly, purchasing from Jordanian distributors or manufacturers' offices in Jordan helps to keep the money in the local economy and creates jobs.
Secondly, once purchased the after-sales support and maintenance improves, keeping the equipment in use for longer, and helping the production houses and rental companies to get a return on their investment. This can only happen, however, if there is enough production occurring in Jordan to keep the cameras rolling.
This is where the work of the Jordan's Royal Film Commission becomes important. The commission offers incentives and assistance to productions, to encourage filming in Jordan.
It would appear that it has been successful in recent years with a number of big-budget productions and directors choosing Jordan. Brian De Palma's Redacted, Kathryn Bigelow's Hurt Locker and Nick Broomfield's Battle for Haditha, were all shot in Jordan in 2007.
Local productions have also thrived with Captain Abu Raed, the obvious notable example. The film has been shown at film festivals across the globe and won the audience award at the Sundance festival.
Equipment, however, is not all that is needed to develop a functioning, creative, economically-viable film industry. Staffing is also a major concern. Although Haddad is proud to state that his entire workforce is Jordanian, he does concede that he would not hesitate to hire a foreigner if he had the right skills. He also acknowledges the need to improve the level of education and training available locally.
"Jordanian youth are becoming more interested in this field. You could say that we are still to reach the point of having expertise in the field. But what we do have is fresh, new talent that can be moulded into professional experts in the near future," says Haddad.
Achieving this will require the introduction of formal training which will soon be available locally thanks to the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts (RSICA). The school will offer degree courses covering directing and writing through to business and producing skills. The courses will be available internationally, not exclusively to the Jordanian community.
With the RSICA not open until September and places initially limited to 20 per year, there are calls for those already active in the industry to impart their knowledge.
"I would like to see the few established experts that are here to share their knowledge with the coming generations. As for the Royal Film Commission, I would like them to encourage overseas-based professionals to create workshops for the local industry," says Haddad.
Although Awamleh and Toukan acknowledge that it is important to have a higher education facility in the market, they feel that creating outstanding talent in many roles in the production process such as location managers, lighting technicians and production accountants, takes rigorous vocational training rather than only through a MA programme.
"Formal education is not enough, hands-on experience is essential. We need a more skilled and specialised work force across the hundred-plus types of jobs that it takes to produce competitive audiovisual work. We need interns and trainees to work hard at developing their specialisations."
The next step for Jordan is to emerge as a leading location for film, not because just for the varied and beautiful backdrops it offers, but for the extensive and professional support that the country can offer. In time, these services could well be supporting a flourishing native film industry. "There's a lot of work ahead if we are to turn production into an industry that contributes to fuelling our economy.
There is also a two-way relationship between things like transportation, tourism, hospitality, the arts and the production industry. Given the challenges in Jordan of the youth bulge and unemployment - production is a good industry to look towards," says Toukan.
The Shooting of Thomas Hurndal
Director: Rowan Joffe
Director: Mahmoud Al-Massad
Director: Hammad Ahmed Ali Zo'by
The Hurt Locker
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Captain Abu Raed
Director: Amin Matalqa
Director: Fredrik Boklund
Director: Brian De Palma
Battle For Haditha
Director: Nick Broomfield
A Lost Man
Director: Danielle Arbid
Director: Roland May
Source: The Royal Film Commission, Jordan